Juan Pablo Sarmiento of Iconshock.com: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Having a team in the same room has important benefits: The first one is the immediacy of communication. Communicating an idea or showing your computer screen to your colleague can take 5 seconds, while in remote spaces, a fast interaction between teammates is more difficult. Besides that, it’s easier to have unified resources in the same room. It’s also easier for everyone to have a well-equipped computer, internet access, printer, scanner, and so on. On the other hand, in a remote environment, the accessibility to these resources is easily lost. Another advantage is the possibility of doing quick and non-planned meetings, which are vital in emergencies and quick-reaction situations.

Weare living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Juan Pablo Sarmiento.

Juan Pablo is an entrepreneur and start-up advisor with more than 15 years of experience in the business. He has a master’s degree in system engineering from the National University of Colombia, which drove him to the world of design and development. Over time, and after five successful startups launched, Juan Pablo and his associates have been improving the way they collaborate and communicate with remote teams, and nowadays, he has achieved a highly optimized process of asynchronous-remote work with excellent results.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ve been creating pure online business since my first project: Iconshock.com, about 15 years ago when I was 20. A project which is still alive today! Even in those early stages, I remotely started using freelancers’ platforms like Rentacoder (now Elance) to get work from freelancers around the world. Since my early stages, I’ve worked in a fully-remote environment and all my start-up projects have been bootstrapped. Therefore, I’ve had to learn from the experience.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

After two years of starting my own company, and with a bit more than 20 years, I was selected by the Colombia Chamber of Commerce to go to the CEBIT fair in Hannover to exhibit our products. Just imagine, the team had well-known businessmen with multiple years of experience, and then, there was me. It was an amazing experience, and the most surprising thing was that we managed to be next to a company’s stand that was decorated with our designs. It was our client! All I can say is that it was an amazing trip and a marvelous experience.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Since I was a little kid, I was always involved in a technological environment on my own initiative, mainly because of curiosity. At the beginning of my career, I loved to spend sleepless nights while investigating and searching for new trends and technology innovations. I also started to take my first steps in design and programming; however, this situation cost me sleep problems eventually. Over time, I’ve been modifying these practices and now I value my sleep hours more than ever, and it’s been an incredible change. That, and my love for sports, have made me sleep better than before and there’s no better strategy to start a highly productive day than a well slept night.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was lucky to have a neighbor that had common interests to my first intellectual curiosities: Technology, electronics, design, and programming. I remember that one day we got together to have little experimentation with new household appliances and we managed to convert an acoustic guitar into an electroacoustic guitar with an amplifier and everything. We adapted a microphone with an old wristwatch, the speakers were from a tube tv, we use lots of cable and creativity, man! Imagine the joy and surprise that was converting junk into a rock concert scenario. Memorable!

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Having a team in the same room has important benefits: The first one is the immediacy of communication. Communicating an idea or showing your computer screen to your colleague can take 5 seconds, while in remote spaces, a fast interaction between teammates is more difficult. Besides that, it’s easier to have unified resources in the same room. It’s also easier for everyone to have a well-equipped computer, internet access, printer, scanner, and so on. On the other hand, in a remote environment, the accessibility to these resources is easily lost. Another advantage is the possibility of doing quick and non-planned meetings, which are vital in emergencies and quick-reaction situations.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

The main problem has to be with physical resources, as I mentioned before. It’s complex to assure the accessibility of devices to all the team, or even more if the team is located in different cities or countries. Being able to access technological devices and tools is normally a business thing. There’s also a synchronization problem that’s difficult to handle when your remote team is in different time zones, even if that time zone differs from your clients and suppliers.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The first thing you need to know is that the best way to work remotely is by doing it asynchronously. Working asynchronously means delivering specific tasks at a certain time and with a time limit, but the workgroup does not have to be present when the tasks are delivered, just accomplish the tasks within the time limit.

The second thing you need to know is that effective communication is crucial for the asynchronous workgroup to be productive. We’ve always worked with task manager Trello because workers understand what they have to do to finish group tasks. To do so, I’ve had to be explicit and provide a clear idea of the steps, objectives, and requirements for each workgroup task.

The third thing you need to know is that during remote work we’ve used Google Chat, Telegram, and WhatsApp to communicate with each other because it’s better to give each worker a task individually rather than interrupting the team’s workflow. That’s why I’ve always avoided scheduling daily meetings. As I always say, group meetings are only for emergencies.

The fourth thing you need to know is that, as a team leader, managing the tasks of the group asynchronously has allowed me to know each of the worker’s assignments and, by knowing this information, I’ve obtained truthful results about the time in which every worker finishes their tasks, the obstacles the workers face and the overall performance of the workgroup, mostly by using workflow visualization tool Kanban Board.

The fifth thing you need to know is that communication is truly effective, and productive as well when workers are focused on each specific task. So, it’s better to have an individual message chat rather than having a group message chat that can generate confusion and noise.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

Nowadays, we have tons of communication tools that can be accessed anywhere and at any time when there’s good network infrastructure. Due to this situation, we allow employees to use their cell phones to work, as long as there are good quality standards in the practice. Usually, communication challenges are easily overcome because we have direct conversations between us. In order to obtain feedback and results from workers, I often ask “Hey, how are you doing with the holiday illustrations?” or “How is the mother’s day template pack going?” rather than asking “How are you doing with your work?” It’s better to communicate a clear idea of what has to be done rather than giving open instructions, mostly because those instructions can be misinterpreted.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

We use Artify.co for designing purposes. We also use Google Hangouts, because it makes us write (As it doesn’t have audio messages), and writing is a fundamental practice that has to be developed in a remote environment. We use Kanban Board as well and we use Google Drive to share our documents and spreadsheets. Documents have even more benefits than using Canvas, as they allow uploading online content. For example: Uploading a photograph or a diagram underneath a written task is more difficult to do on Canvas rather than doing it on Notion or Google Docs.

We use screen recording tools like Screenity or Screencastify, and we schedule audio and video meetings on Google Meet. For personal messaging we use Whatsapp, but we use Telegram to send big files and non-compressed videos. We also use Tawk as a chat communication tool with our clients and we have a clear organization of our emails by using labels and filters. Each one of our team members has a to-do list, usually Google Tasks, but Trello and Google Keep are commonly used as well. Our server has restricted the IP to our computers only in order to avoid security breaches. Every time a team member uploads something to the server and their IP changes, we whitelist that specific IP.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

For internal communication, a chat system like Telegram would be ideal. The only change would be that it doesn’t require registration from a phone number, but from an email, because it would be more focused on business and not depend on personal phone numbers that may change over time. Slack’s communication system is great as well; however, it has too much noise. At last, the perfect communication system would allow scheduling video meetings with real-time chat, like Google Meet or Zoom.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

Yes, it has. Working remotely has exposed multiple flaws in the communication system of a company in comparison with on-site work. Due to the pandemic, we understand that the most important thing of instruction is how we say it, not what we say. And based on this idea, unified communications have offered an initial solution to access a set of products that provides a unified user experience through multiple devices. Now, the pandemic has changed the technology requirements to access unified communications and this period needs agile solutions to communication and network breaches.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

I’m a big fan of written communication: You can search for it, it can be easily stored, it can be filtered, it doesn’t occupy too much storage and it can be easily moved. Amazingly, there’s a technology that can interpret human communication professionally. For example, technologies like GPT-3 are awesome, because they allow people without strong written skills to be helped by Artificial Intelligence to improve their writing capacities.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Absolutely. Remember I talked about GPT-3? Well, think about it. Our company moves around a technological and design environment, and these technologies can generate multiple designs from one simple phrase, or even generate full scripts and algorithms from simple human instructions. So, there’s an important question. Will these technologies replace programmers? Or designers? Do we have to pay taxes to these AIs for all jobs we might lose? It’s a very interesting topic that we can debate.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

We’re lucky to have started as a company in a purely remote environment. Therefore, from the beginning, emails and communication tools were very common in our business. So, this whole change due to the pandemic hasn’t been drastic to us. What we can see is that, for several clients, this change was very strong. Because of it, we have had to teach clients about getting used to this type of asynchronous communication. It’s constant labor but at the same time interesting. It has been a big challenge for us.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

I’m glad that you asked. Not long ago, one of our team members mentioned, after a client’s response, that the client had been rude. However, when I looked up for the conversation, I noticed that the client had not been rude, but she was direct. This situation is difficult to interpret when you don’t have another look besides you. It’s important to schedule a meeting with the team to explain these communication details, and it’s always good to try humanizing instructions: Asking nicely, thanking, greeting, and even using emojis to express human interaction. Humans are passionate and it’s incredible how an expression can change: “Got it” vs “Got it! Thanks a bunch:)”

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

When members of a team love what they do, they commit to their work. Therefore, hiring wisely is the first step to provide a great work environment. Specifying goals and being clear with the steps to accomplish tasks is also important. I encourage team members to communicate disagreements to resolve uncomfortable situations for them. Disagreements are an everyday topic in the business; so, I encourage team members to debate and express their opinions without taking things personally. When everyone knows their roles and what it’s expected to do, the work environment will flow smoothly.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂}

I would love to create a designer’s movement. This profession has been undervalued in the industry for so long and its true value is more than a visual thing. I’ve been lucky enough to work with designers and develop a designing platform, but every day, I see designers from around the globe quit their dreams of becoming the best at what they do because there are not many people that understand the importance and difficulty of designing.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow our work in the links underneath:

Iconshock.com was my first project. It’s a professional icons library with more than 2 million icons. It features over 400 icon sets in more than 30 different styles that can be edited and customized for all needs.

Artify.co is an easy-to-use-web-based design editor. It has a huge library of quality design assets, including illustrations, mockups, and icons. It also features a massive gallery of professionally designed ready-to-use templates.

ByPeople.com is a curated network for developers and designers. ByPeople curates the best lifetime deals & freebies of development tools and snippets. ByPeople adds, edits, and deletes resources every single day according to our users’ recommendations, and every single resource is curated by experts.

You can also follow me on Twitter as @JuanPabloSarmi

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


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