State goals, not tasks, and a smart team should be able to fill in the blanks. Assuming you’re hiring employees who are right for the role, and you’re communicating the reason why you’re setting a goal, your teammates surely know more than you about the details of how to carry out the tasks required. As a recent example, we were trying to figure out why only a few users who saw one of our websites actually signed up to try the product. As a manager, I could have asked someone to try very specific changes, but it was more effective to state the goal and let our teammates work their magic. They are better at their job than you, so don’t try to do it for them. Of course, this is often easier said than done.
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 Pablo Diaz-Gutierrez.
Pablo Diaz-Gutierrez is the co-founder of Appfluence Inc, a company focused on helping busy people work on what matters most. Their main product is Priority Matrix, a task and project management suite for Microsoft Office 365. Before founding his company, Pablo got his Ph.D. in Computer Science from UC Irvine, and worked for IBM and Intel, among. Born and raised in Spain, he lives with his wife and children in Berkeley, California.
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?
Igrew up in Granada, Spain, and came to California to get my Ph.D. in Computer Science. Like every other grad student, I was fascinated by academia, scientific research and the pursuit of truth. Over time, however, I understood that I could have a larger impact by joining the industry sector. So after I graduated, I joined Intel to help their top notch scientists work on their bleeding edge microchip fabrication technology. That sounds much more exciting than what the day-to-day actually entails, and after a while I felt that I wasn’t really happy being a cog in a giant machine.
Luckily, living in Silicon Valley exposed me to lots of people doing plenty of interesting things in small companies. Whenever you spent time at a local coffee shop, it was common to see people pitching their business, discussing early ideas or just working on a prototype. It was so exciting that I had to be a part of it. So after some deliberation, a couple of friends and I started working on an app for the iPhone, which had recently opened its app store to developers, and was the talk of the town. The idea was to implement a common business technique that was normally done on paper, only using a touch-first device.
As we were getting ready to launch, Steve Jobs announced the iPad, and we realized it was going to be the perfect platform for our tool, so we rewrote the entire thing in a few days, and launched our app the same day as the iPad came to the market. We had no idea if the app would work on an actual device, since nobody outside Apple had seen one yet, so we lined up at 5am on the big day outside the Apple store in Palo Alto, waiting to get our hands on the device, load the app and finally feel relieved that everything worked as we had hoped. We were in business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I wouldn’t say that one particular moment is more special than any other, but one thing that keeps coming to mind is when you encounter your product in the wild, so to speak. Early in the life of our company, it wasn’t too strange to run into people using our app at coffee-shops, or giving us a shout-out online. It’s quite the rush when a famous TV host, a celebrity chef or the leader of a cult-like self-improvement movement mentions your app as one of the keystones of their workday. It’s like seeing your kid out in the world, helping people and doing great things, and watching from a distance thinking that all the effort you poured into it has paid off.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Probably not the answer you’re looking for, but I’ve always thought that Nike’s brilliant “Just Do It” slogan encapsulates the essence of early entrepreneurship at its best. It captures the difference between an armchair entrepreneur and someone who actually goes out into the world and puts together a team with a mission to create something that didn’t exist before. When my co-founders and I started, we left cushy jobs and academic careers. I was working quite literally for a “blue chip” company, and financially it would have made more sense to stay the course, climb the ladder, and slowly get ahead with contributions to the organization. Instead, I chose the more unpredictable path of starting a company focused on helping people do their best work. I wasn’t prepared for what was to come, and I knew it, but if I had waited until I was ready, I would have never gotten started.
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?
Without hesitation, I wouldn’t be here without the ongoing support an understanding of my wife Sherry. During the highs and the lows of Appfluence, she’s always been my number one supported and my anchor, in more ways than one. Growing a startup is so uncertain that it really helps to have a partner on whom to confide. I can’t overstate how lucky I feel to have her by my side.
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?
The debate over in-person vs remote work is an old one. Big companies have gone back and forth, sometimes running large scale empirical studies, about the optimal setup for an organization. Several companies even rolled back their generous remote working policy, and I’m not going to judge them for making the decision that works for them.
However, for a small, agile company like ours, we do have some relevant opinions about remote work, and while I don’t want to suggest that in-person work is inherently superior, it surely has some advantages. For example, it’s easier to brainstorm and bounce ideas off of each other’s heads. The energy and excitement in a room full of people working toward a common goal, helping out as needed and sharing their enthusiasm is hard to replicate when you’re not together. In short, it is easier to have implicit alignment among team members.
On the other hand, there are important benefits to be reaped by an organization that fosters permanent remote working. For starters, it’s easier to find great employees because the pool of candidates is not limited to the geographic vicinity of your office. If employees don’t need to go to your office every day, they will be able to choose where they live, without the pressing constraint of finding a manageable commute. This alone can substantially improve the quality of life for most people. Nobody likes wasting hours in traffic every week.
But perhaps most importantly, some jobs are better done when working alone, without unwanted distractions and interruptions. For example, programming is an activity that requires concentration. You can’t stop doing what you want to say hello to someone and resume one minute later without paying a penalty. This is the reason why noise cancelling headphones are so popular in certain office environments. As long as an employee has a reasonable, dedicated space to focus and deliver, it doesn’t matter where they are located. This is a case in which the so-called watercooler talk can be detrimental.
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?
Of course, while we are strong supporters of remote work, we can’t be blind to the fact that some things are harder if you cannot sit face to face with someone. For example, it’s easy for a team which is not very intentional about stating their goals and priorities to find itself with diverging priorities and focus. It’s harder to see the big picture if someone doesn’t put in the extra effort to think through and communicate them to the team. But make no mistake: this is not unique to remote organizations. The same is true for heavily “presential“ companies as they scale. If your company is large enough that it doesn’t fit in one room, you need to articulate a grand vision and a plan to get there. The only difference is that when you are remote, that moment comes a bit earlier.
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.)
- Asynchronous communications can lead to better thinking. If you have time to prepare a message, and know the response won’t arrive for a while, sometimes a few hours or even days, you should put in the effort to convey your thinking in a logical and clear way. With some luck, sometimes you will answer your own question in the process, and hopefully the rest of times your message will be more effective. This is something that requires dedicated practice, though, and it can sometimes be frustrating. Nobody likes a long, rambling email. If you get one, do the sender a favor and gently ask them to summarize for you. I found the book “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser to be of great help. If you don’t have time to read it, my advice is to take out any words that don’t change the meaning of your sentence. That alone will help you write more to the point. The last thing you want is to train your audience to ignore you.
- You have to find your cadence for communicating. Software teams often start their day with what’s known as a “stand-up meeting”. Traditionally, team members would take turns in a circle to physically stand up, describe their focus for the day in just a minute. We recommend to run a form of this on remote teams, as it is an opportunity for everyone to learn what their team is focused on, and get the lay of the land in terms of team priorities and current challenges. Depending on the team’s focus, it might make sense to do this only once or twice per week, instead of daily. We do it on Mondays and Thursdays, to mark the start of the week, and the beginning of the “wind down” period to give everyone a last nudge to finish their work before the weekend.
- Keep a centralized source of truth. When the company’s vernacular is not carried on implicitly through teammate interactions, it’s more important than ever to make it explicit. This can take the form of a simple shared document, a company wiki, or even a Priority Matrix, if I may plug our product. No matter how you do it, make sure that employees know where to find the information they need as they join a new project, without having to ask someone senior for the details.
- State goals, not tasks, and a smart team should be able to fill in the blanks. Assuming you’re hiring employees who are right for the role, and you’re communicating the reason why you’re setting a goal, your teammates surely know more than you about the details of how to carry out the tasks required. As a recent example, we were trying to figure out why only a few users who saw one of our websites actually signed up to try the product. As a manager, I could have asked someone to try very specific changes, but it was more effective to state the goal and let our teammates work their magic. They are better at their job than you, so don’t try to do it for them. Of course, this is often easier said than done.
- Finally, the reason why your teammate is not available is often not your business. If you’re really trying to embrace the benefits of being a remote-first organization, it’s your responsibility to let your teammates enjoy those benefits. Maybe they are not available because needed to take their kid to the ER, or a plumber arrived early. Perhaps they’re just not feeling productive and decided to go for a walk around the block. As long as they’re delivering the results you need, and the team remains functional, let people be people. Everyone will be better off for that.
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?
As a company that has been mostly remote, or at least remote-friendly, since inception, we can’t say that we have experienced significant challenges during the pandemic. Perhaps we have noticed that as some employees moved to stay closer to their families and left their regular home office setup, internet connectivity was poorer at times, but that was relatively easy to work around. It has been surprisingly smooth, to be honest.
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?
I love this question, as it is the perfect segue-way to pitch our product, Priority Matrix. We designed it to serve our own needs as a distributed team. While there are tons of task and project management solutions out there, where PM shines is in its underlying methodology, which makes it easy to capture everything that needs to be done, while highlighting the small subset of tasks that are actually, really important. Also, we really depend on Microsoft Teams for our immediate communications. Microsoft has built quite the platform with this one, and it’s possible to perform a lot of the typical office work all inside Teams. For us, anything that needs immediate attention goes on Teams, but ongoing work conversation stays in Priority Matrix.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I don’t think this is what I would call a perfect communication system. I have been thinking about a somewhat random idea: Having a dedicated room at each location with a permanent video feed multi-casting each location on the same screen. Anyone who wants to feel more like a team, or who just feels lonely at the moment can show up without prior announcement, then work together for a while. Maybe use it for informal standups, for easy sharing of quick ideas, and to provide the “feel” of group work. This is definitely not for everyone, and not all the time, but maybe one hour a day. Just sign in, state your current focus, get to work, and recap in the end.
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, definitely, and the trend is self-evident if you pay some attention. The impressive surge of Zoom as the default go-to video-conference tool, the rise of Teams as the “operating system for the office”, and even the trend toward impromptu voice calls like Clubhouse and imitations. All those are manifestations of the human need for connection, replacing what was once taken for granted and then taken away without warning.
I don’t think that a single, unified system will win, but the emergence of a few big competing platforms is inevitable, in my opinion. Currently I see Microsoft Teams / Office 365 on one side, and Slack / Salesforce on the other. Zoom remains independent but I don’t know if they can keep that momentum. It’s always interesting to see what Google will come up with. And of course, email will never die as the default, reliable workforce that it’s been for decades.
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 may be getting old, but so far I haven’t seen any VR/AR technology that I feel will take ground in a typical office setting. I remember when Second Life was the hot new thing, and companies explored using it for virtual meetings. It always felt gimmicky and contrived, but I’d love to be proven wrong.
On the other hand, I do find that the role of AI in enhancing the typical office worker, turning competent employees into superhumans, so to speak, is really something that’s happening before our eyes without anyone paying much attention. There are chat bots running formulaic interviews to business leaders for online publications, at the rate of hundreds per week. We see how individual customer support agents can serve millions of users in a way that previously would have required a team of dozens. We are on the verge of seeing GPT-3 being exploited to generate an endless supply of relevant content for the local press, reporting on your little league games with quality approaching that of professional sports. The possibilities are endless, and the only bound is our imagination.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Of course, there are positive and negative uses of every new technology. At the moment, I’m very worried about the use of “deep fakes” to produce seemingly real video footage, for nefarious purposes. We have unfortunately seen what happens when people lose trust in our institutions when a few ill-intentioned agents set about to sabotage the core tenets of liberal democracy. If you cannot believe what your eyes are telling you, or worse, if your eyes are showing you something that is not true, but you have no way to tell it apart from a lie, who can you really trust? We will need new ways to verify the authenticity of our information, and we will need a public that wants to get the truth, in the first place.
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?
Fortunately for us, as an online-first company that also happens to be running remotely, we have noticed no change at all. Our customers communicate with us via email and some phone calls, and that remains as it was before the pandemic hit. I know people in the retail industry who were already moving their high-end sales online, and I bet they are reaping the benefits of being early to that game. It’s really fascinating how differently people have been affected by this massive and sudden event.
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?
One thing I have noticed is that often, when difficult conversations spiral out of control, you can trace the inflection point back to an unnecessary adjective, or a passing judgement that was taken the wrong way. I strive to stick to the verifiable facts, without editorializing, as much as possible. It’s easier for everyone to see that we’re on the same boat if we don’t add verbal fireworks to a hairy situation. Keep in mind that remote communications, particularly written ones, have a way to be misinterpreted.
Perhaps the most important idea is to always focus on the improvement aspect of the conversation. When you’re giving someone criticism on their work, it better be constructive. Offer a path forward instead of just being the bearer of bad news, and work with your counterpart to reach a conclusion that is agreeable to them, because it hopefully comes from their realization of your assessment.
Finally, don’t be a clown, but use humor if it fits the situation. There are few situations that cannot be made at least a bit better with a smile.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Small things like sharing life events, or just cat pictures, really do make a difference. Turn on your camera (if possible) during team calls, and let your team see your facial expression. Use part of meeting time to recognize achievements and give kudos in public, recognizing hard work and giving credit where credit is due. And maybe start a small recognition program where employees can spontaneously give each other “kudos” for whatever reason.
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. 🙂
Living in California, and particularly in the San Francisco Bay area, I am saddened and worried about our housing affordability problem, and its associated homelessness crisis. The solution is simple: We need to build much, much more housing in order to absorb the demand from growing families and young professionals who end up competing for an insufficient supply and sending house prices through the roof. Unfortunately, there’s an entrenched network of interests that favors the landed gentry at the expense of renters and future residents. Those who can’t afford the rent end up living far from where they work, wasting away their lives on hyper-commutes. This problem compounds everything that is wrong with the bay area: Rampant inequality, poor air quality, road safety, slipping education… We could be talking about it for hours, but it all comes down to the need to build housing where people want and need to live. Hopefully we’ll get to it before it’s too late.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We post frequently on our website at https://appfluence.com, and on Twitter at @appfluence.
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.