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Podcast: Enabling remote management is 2021's biggest challenge


Podcast: Enabling remote management is 2021's biggest challenge

Jonathan Davies


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42 mins read

Thu, Feb 18, '21  

Some of 2020's challenges are sneaking into 2021 and gaining momentum. When will this all end?

It won't of course, the world has changed and some things just won't be the same. Luckily, we have Intactic's CEO Preston Lewis here to help us combat the biggest obstacle: managing workforce remotely.

You can listen or watch the podcast, or scroll down to read the full transcript. Choose fast, because the new episode's waiting for you!

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Jonathan Davies: Alright. Welcome back. We're here at it again for the second episode of what is going to be a beautiful, beautiful year in 2021! Today I've got an awesome guest here, Preston Lewis, who I was introduced to by a mutual friend who was also on our podcast before. Preston and I got to talking about a couple of really, really relevant issues right now and we believe Internal Comms can play a specific role in that is going to hugely impact organizational efficiency. But before we dive into that Preston, please introduce yourself to our wonderful audience. 

Preston Lewis: Thank you for the introduction. My name is Preston Lewis, CEO of Intactic. We are a modern communication consultancy, been in business for over two decades now, working with over a hundred companies all over the world we positioned ourselves as a hybrid strategy, consultancy and full service creative agency.

Jonathan Davies: Awesome. Well, two decades of experience talking to you, right here. That's gonna be amazing, Preston, one of the first things, when we started talking that really jumped out to me and that you're quite known for is your philosophy on leading as a human. I'm really curious, maybe as an opener, we can start talking about what does that actually mean?

How do you put that into practice? What have you seen? 

How to create a human-centric workplace?

Preston Lewis: I think it's a really great place to start, to set a good foundation, not just for the conversation that we're having, but just our work as professional communicators. It's an interesting thing, even this morning I saw another ad for another leader. 

In this case, he was at a tech company that was going to speak about creating a more human-centric workplace. As buzzwordy as it can sound today, I think what's really important to remember is this is not a new concept by any means. Communicators in particular, and we talk about creating more human-centered workplaces or communicating in a more human-centric way.

It's another way of maintaining our focus and being audience-centric. We are communicating with people at work just like many communicators do. Whether you're selling a product or a service, our arc focus is on communicating and engaging people at work. When we say being more human, it's important to remember that we, as human beings, intrinsically care about a handful of things, but really two things bubble to the top that I think are most relevant.

The first is that we don't like to look stupid or not look good. It's an uncomfortable feeling that brings anxiety. It's actually mostly unconscious to most people, not just at work, but for human beings. Number two, we need to feel loved.

When we think about love and the context of this particular workplace communication, what we can boil that down to is just like in any good relationship outside of work or inside of work, feeling loved means feeling heard or listened to. When we talk about engaging people or creating more empathetic workplaces, or what defines our listening strategy, our focus is ensuring that people continuously feel heard. Then the work is of course, ‘how do we do that?’ I just answered the ‘why’. But the ‘how’ is much more difficult. It's about creating more human centric workplaces. If we can remember our focus and remember those two things, we're heading in the right direction.

Jonathan Davies: That's awesome. You're actually reminding me of two very wise lessons an uncle of mine once taught me, that I applied to Internal Communication whenever I can. The first is if you want somebody to hear you, you need to listen to them first – you already touched upon listening, which I think is a very, very strong point.Then the second is that when people listen to you, they only hear what they want to hear.

Psychologically, we're programmed to just filter information that's interesting to us by our mental frame model and all of those things. Does that touch upon what it means to really communicate to humans, but also as a human?

Preston Lewis: Absolutely. Let's get into it. I think that when folks are listening to this podcast, what can they leave with, but what is it that we can remember to do really well, or whether what can we be reminded of? We think about how we go about our work. What a smart uncle, I'm sure he unlocked the level that you have. There's lots of different ways to think about that. About those points: Sure, we need to listen first. The other day I was thinking about my daughter who loved Hamilton, the play and that famous line that said, ‘talk less, smile more’.

On so many levels, that's such a valuable piece of advice. To me smiling means listening. It creates time and space for that. But back to the point, when we think about another way of saying that, that making that same point that your uncle made is that we, as human beings, our ears aren't open.

We're not interested in hearing anything other, specifically in the context of work, ‘What is our organization doing to address my concern?’ When we think about concerns, we define concerns as something that if the concern can be addressed, that's very valuable to me.

We look in the context of change communications and change management. We always talk about looks as we're crafting our messaging or the narrative, if we're not directly responding to what it is that keeps people up at night. What is your concern or what keeps you up at night? In the context of work, if we're not responding to that initial often unconscious, sometimes conscious concern for people, then they're never going to listen to anything we have to say. 

Jonathan Davies: Basically adopting this philosophy to the first step is listen, because you need to figure out what it is that does keep them up at night. Start communicating to them. I think that this is also a big shift that I've been seeing in the way that Internal Communicators operate, before it was send, send, send. That idea is disappearing, but even though obviously a large part of our jobs will always be sent information and there's nothing wrong with that.

But I think that we can do that a lot better than how we did it before. I hope that this is what you were touching upon as well. When you send communications out, don't generalize it. Don’t take that one-size-fits-all approach because then you're not touching upon the things that are keeping people awake at night.

Am I right? Have you seen this a lot?

Preston Lewis: It's interesting. Because we talk a lot about what it is that we could do to make the biggest impact, that's why we often find ourselves doing that one-size-fits-all approach. What I suggest or recommend is: there is what we need to communicate to everyone. There's also, what are the pervasive or most common concern sets that exist within the organization for our audience? Of course we need to look at the messaging in terms of what we're communicating. Often the concerns of our leaders are often the cases that we need to make sure are being communicated.  

It's another way of saying that we are constantly revisiting our role or identity as communicators. The priority for us is to be much more of a facilitator than a communicator. Inherently, when you position the role that way, it becomes two-ways. As a facilitator of information, and listening to those leaders and the messages and the important strategic priorities or direction or information, really ultimately to sift through that and say, ‘Okay, of that, what is directly responding to what we heard from the concerns of our audiences?’

That's where the magic happens. It's when we can identify what it is that leaders need to communicate or do we need to communicate as an organization and what is it that people care about. Then we can respond to those concerns and then we can move forward in the right direction and have much more thoughtful conversation about the things that matter to everyone.

I know that's a long answer, but what's important about that is that we need to pay attention to the other side and that's ultimately of course two-way communication leading to level the participation, engagement, awareness, all of those things that typically revolve in and around the definition of more engaged people at work.

Jonathan Davies: Having spoken to a lot of Internal Communicators since we started doing this podcast, I'm pretty convinced that Internal Communicators have come to grips with communicating and when it comes to sending messages. When it comes to that, they've really tried to adopt that human way. In general, the disciplines become a lot better with it.

But how about the other side of it, which is you need to also go to that leader who wants you to communicate something? Let's say it's Q1 strategic objectives. How do you convince a leader also that this is the right approach to take? How do you work?

The listening strategy

Preston Lewis: That's bringing us right back to what we often call ‘The listening strategy’. To just say that we're listening is one thing, but we need to be very strategic about that. We need to ensure that we're balancing very time-based listening tactics, so beginning and an end. We have one pulse question that's open for the day on Wednesday. So very specific kinds of targeted listening exercises or tactics along with what I call the ground cover – the constant listening. Especially these days, we're going to have the ability to have open-house conversations with our leader or a leader on the team. It's often best practice now that really shakes things up rather than one specific leader. On the third Thursday of every month for an hour, that's that expectation that needs to be there. Two very good examples of making sure that there's awareness for the time and place to be heard. That's one of the ways. 

When we think about making sure that our leaders can trust that we are constantly listening and that they trust the information that we're sharing. When we say these other concerns that are very much connected to measuring the success for communicators, and one of the matters that we don't often see: making sure that the work we're doing is building confidence in our leadership and helping shape our identity as a communicator that we have and can maintain the pulse of the organization. If we can be as the communicator, the person or the group, or the team that our leadership is coming through and saying, ‘What is it that people care about today? What are you hearing about what we're saying that's landing or working or not working?’ That requires trust between the communications team or function, or leadership team.

In order to build that trust, they need to see that we're being very thoughtful about our listening strategy. On one hand, it's proactively saying, ‘Here's the strategy, here are the tactics that we've embedded, here are the things that are foundational. They will be in play and powered by technology in many cases.’

Then secondly, ‘Here's what we need from your leadership team, here's the time and place that we need you, here's some counsel in terms of how you may be able to facilitate the right dialogue during that hour, once a month.’ That's a true strategy, at least a part of it. And it will build that confidence.

They can come to us and say, ‘What is it that we need to say? Are we communicating our strategy in the right way? Are we addressing those concerns that we've been talking about so that people are moving beyond where they are today?’ That's what keeps them up at night to actually listen and be much more forward-thinking and accountable for what we're asking them to do today, which I know leads into a good segue into, what's the role of managers, but let me know if that's where you want to go back. 

Jonathan Davies: Oh my Gosh. Ladies and gentlemen, Preston is also going to be co-hosting next time. No, you're absolutely right! First off, there's some really, really powerful advice in what you just said. To any Internal Communicator listening right now, still feeling like maybe they're being pigeonholed or stuck in what the old paradigm of Internal Comms is right: listen to Preston and take that advice to heart, please, because it's a great way to shift your job from being just that ‘send, send, send’ to really being the facilitator of Internal Communications, ultimately allowing the industry to progress towards becoming a true business partner. 

Now, when it comes to the segue that, so this was the juicy bit, right, Preston? We discussed a couple of cool things and now we talked about higher level leadership and Internal Comms’ position there. But we also know that there's a big issue in companies everywhere right now, and that's management.

Management is starting to feel the pressure of working remotely, of having a team to manage, of needing to listen to their leaders and commute cascading information. In fact, we ran a survey recently and we concluded that while 14% of employees say that they are likely to leave within the next six months, which is kind of a normal number, that seems relatively healthy. 43% of managers said that they want to leave within the next six months – that's alarmingly high! I'm really curious to hear if you have an idea of why that is? Of course I've seen the research, I've got a couple of insights, but I'm really curious.

Why are managers under such pressure that they actually feel like maybe it's time to look elsewhere and see if the grass is greener on the other side? 

Preston Lewis: I love that data point so much. This is a very specific example of what we're seeing in terms of the impact that new ways of working are having in the global workforce.

Let's not dive into new ways of working and the behaviors that drive that, but let's really keep this actually quite simple. Let's remember the fundamentals of our work, of creating better experiences through more effective communication at the workplace. We talk about all the different definitions of engagement or employee engagement, or we look at engagement as an outcome or as a measure of something. 

What I love about that data point is that it's reminding us that fundamentally people aren't leaving organizations, they're leaving managers. Your day, keep it even more simple, beyond being able to say and be proud of the company that you work for, it's enabling us to get through the days and empowering us to do our best work. That’s the relationship that we have with our entire team.

A very big part of that is our manager, right? We have the best team in the world, but if we have a manager that isn't effective, it just doesn't feel good. It decreases morale, decreases performance for the broader team. What's nice about this data point is that it reminds us that we need to hone in on again, what's the one area of focus that we can have to make the biggest impact.

Back to creating a human-centered workplace, that’s ensuring that our managers are in a position where they feel like they look good, and not stupid. Tactically speaking, of course the question is what do we do to empower and enable our managers, so that they're more effective at their work and in their role? Because if we feel better about our role in the work that we're doing, and if we feel good about our team as a manager, then people aren't going to leave. You can connect the dots very easily. Let's work backwards from the outcome of people leaving and saying, ‘What are we doing today in our new world?’

To be very clear, I know of course that we work with many organizations that the ‘New way of working’ isn't new. There's been a lot of virtual teams for many, many years. For many years, we've learned how to be effective there. What's different today is there's just more of us. Before it was optional, now it's not. It's not optional to choose to work virtually. Sitting within that context, what can we do to empower managers to do their work more effectively, to feel better about their role? Because as we talk about people, they don't leave companies, they leave managers. Well, managers leave leaders, managers leave companies. If the leadership team and/or the company is not making me look good or if my company is not providing me with the information and answers I need to answer the questions for my team, it's going to make me feel stupid and not look good. 

What do people managers need?

That's where the rubber meets the road for people managers. Then it falls back on us as communicators and as leaders to say, ‘What are we doing to address that specific need that our people’s managers need at any level? People that manage teams or, from one to many, however many are your team, it doesn't matter. We can revisit the foundation of communicating effectively with that manager. The foundation has three main systems and processes. Firstly, I need the skills and the support that are more effective to comms: people, managers; Secondly, skills and capabilities – are we providing the learning and in some cases training or just the information people need to revisit their skills as a manager, as a communicator, same thing for that concern. Then thirdly, as an organization, as terms of our communications infrastructure internally, are we tactically putting in place the right things to sustain a new level of effective comms? When we build more effective people managers communication strategies, we need to balance it with those three things.

It can't just be training. It can't just be more effective technology or intranet or a micro-communication technology, like Slack or Teams. It needs to be all of those things, very carefully balanced. That's the high-level answer, but that is the one area of focus that will hopefully move the needle in the right direction on that important data point.

Jonathan Davies: I think that there are two subjects that I'd like to explore here. One is the relationship between a higher-level leader and a manager, because you're absolutely right. People don't leave companies, they leave leaders or they leave managers and managers also have managers. That's a very good point.

First off, what can an Internal Communicator do to grease that cog in the wheel a little bit better than how it's going now? 

Preston Lewis: Back to what we said a few minutes ago: do the people managers feel heard? If they continuously are hearing feedback and comments from their team, about ‘When are we going to get information about a timeline of returning to our traditional offices? How has the pandemic impacted our business? What do we know now that we didn't know three months ago?

What can we do now as an organization to support our people? Because we've been doing this for a year now. It's been six months since anything's been communicated to us’. That really illustrates that our leadership team understands what's different today. I can keep going. That's great news that our numbers actually still look good. We thought that they would take a hit, but we're overworked. Ensuring that people managers are seeing from their leadership team, that those comments that they're sharing are being heard, that's the way to ensure that you are briefing the cog a bit more. 

Fundamentally, we're all human. I don't care what level of the organization you're in. We need to do more to show that not only we're listening and hearing people managers that were already doing something about it. 

Jonathan Davies: I think those are beautiful points and again, really valuable advice there. If we look at an organizational hierarchy, very roughly, you'll have your top level leadership, you'll have your middle management and then you'll have the bottom line boots on the ground. We just discussed how the middle management, the meat in the sandwich basically, is feeling the pressure from that top bunk. But there's also pressure coming down from below because managers are communicators. It is part of their job. They weren't all communicators when they became managers, they got promoted because they're really good at what they do. Nowaday stand for an entirely new challenge, which is ‘I have to communicate with my team primarily through digital means’, and that's not normal for a lot of people. Even now a lot of people, organizations struggle with it.

To your point, and I know that we spoke of this before, but how can you lead and communicate like a human, if you're doing it through a machine, how can we help managers get a little bit better at that?

Preston Lewis: This is where I may have permission to be really blunt for a second. I think everybody would appreciate that. We often talk about, up and down communication at all levels in an organization. One of the ways that we frame whether information or messaging could or could not be cascaded, throughout all levels, is we refer to that middle level as the frozen middle.

I love this metaphor. You can't plant seeds in the frozen soil and expect them to grow. The question is what are we doing to defrost the frozen middle? There's no auto-defrost button for the frozen middle. What I mean by that is, that's one button. There's no one thing that's going to suggest that that information is flowing or that we're nurturing that soil so the seeds can grow. What we need to constantly go back to is to remember that human beings are different. That's what it truly means to be human-centric. Not every people manager is the same.

To answer your question, what is the one thing we can do to both illustrate that we get and understand the world of somebody who manages people? To really pay attention to the fact that everyone's different. We need to support people managers with helping to understand what type of manager, leader, communicator, all the same, what type of person are they? What are their communication preferences? Giving somebody that manages people the permission and opportunity to say, ‘Look I am not the most outgoing person in the world.’ I manage engineers and I can go with that excuse that says, ‘I'm an engineer. Therefore I don't need to communicate well.’ That's what I mean, by being blunt. 

We need to acknowledge that. Sure, that might be the case, but that's not an excuse to be a good manager of people, to just fall back on the fact that I'm an engineer, so I don't communicate well. We, as the employer need to help people understand, how is it that you, as an individual manager need to communicate in a way that works for you and then ultimately will then work for your people? 

Technology's role in remote management

It's not that difficult. Let's be clear. When you look at the people managers let's identify the three different personas. Somebody that might be a much more outgoing and much more proactive, a much more communicative, probably verbally and maybe good on camera.

That's the person that needs to do 15 minute check-ins over camera with their team. Once a week individually, we need to give those folks the three to five questions that they need to leave with. We need to make sure that person understands when they get interesting insights from those answers to those questions, that they're having dialogue with somebody on their team, they know where to put those comments. Because we need those comments as a leadership team, as a communicator to understand what is the pulse there? Secondly, you may have a persona of somebody who manages people that isn't as outgoing, doesn't like to be on camera, and is much better with the written word than verbally.

What are we giving that person to do a virtual check-in? It might be one or two questions if someone wants to write out long emails talking about how you're feeling. But there may be one or two questions that we can give them to ask somebody. It ultimately comes down to how we give permission to people managers to manage in a way that works for them and feels good, and is effective rather than feeling like it's gonna work for everyone but it's not going to work.

Jonathan Davies: I'm curious to hear if I got this right. Let's say somebody listened to this podcast episode and realized that specifically within their company, management is a larger flight risk than other employee groups. In other words, Internal Comms needed to do something about this yesterday, so we have to start approaching this. One of the things that maybe I would do, if I look at this very practically taking a tactical strategic approach, I would start to look at all of the communication channels that we have available right now.

That would be the meeting – for example, we're on a screen call right now. That's the channel. You have Slack – that's a channel; Email – that's a channel, etc. Write those down and create some best practices for making the most out of those channels. Then look at which managers fit into the personas that you just identified and approach them with a selection and say, ‘Hey, listen, I think you're this type of person. How's it going with your communications? Here are our recommendations, and this will probably help you be a better communicator, which means you'll be a better people manager, which means you won’t feel like you're being stupid. You'll feel like you're doing great things, right?’ 

Preston Lewis: I know the communicators and others will really appreciate that. This gets even a little bit more specific. If you needed to go and do something today, what might that be to address the specific thing we're talking about? That's the value of creating a trusted single source of truth. Technology helps. This is not going to be Teams or a Slack expert. This is the power of an intranet, right? An intranet inherently helps us create a place that ultimately sets an expectation, a source of truth that a people manager can say, ‘I know I can go somewhere.’ 

Quick little side note: this is an interesting conversation for another time, but I would suggest that, although it may be a people manager portal, with resources that are actually available to everyone in the organization, as communicators, as part of our digital workplace and as part of the infrastructure for communicating and supporting people, managers can go to a place to get information. 

Whether it's getting answers to the talking points or what is it that we know people are talking about? There are lots of different examples of content for let's call it a manager portal or manager central. The power of technology also suggests that managers can self-identify. 

What kind of manager are you? Are you this or that? What happens very quickly is that we get data that says, ‘That's interesting’. Actually a majority of our managers self-associate with this type of people managers, that means we need to double down on resources to support those kinds of people managers. I can keep going, but when we can structure the manager portal streams that way, look at the data in terms of the information that people are seeking and actually use clicking on or downloading PDFs and talking points, that they're referring to in these conversations that they need to have more often with their teams to ensure that people feel heard and people are more engaged or that we're addressing their concerns. That is a very tactical example of something that we need to do now, that we may not have revisited since we made sure that the COVID data is there on both the workplace or working from home. It's not just about working well, it's how do we manage virtual teams effectively? And based on the kind of manager that I can self associate with, here are some very practical, tactical suggestions on how I can have a better conversation or a more effective touch point (if that's not necessarily a conversation with somebody.) 

Jonathan Davies: It's really awesome to see that when you say ‘lead like a human and communicate like one’, you've embedded this philosophy in every way that you're approaching it. This is really nice to see because it makes for a really compelling business case as to why people need to embrace this way of thinking to the point that I would not be nervous to approach leadership and tell them that this is what we need to do, because it seems like it's logic.

Have we gotten washed up in all of the numbers and data that's now available to us, that we lost track of this, or is it maybe that you feel people are sometimes a little bit afraid of doing this?  

Preston Lewis: By the way we talked about listening strategy, let’s ont forget there are digital channels that we're using that are not e-surveys. When we talk about listening, we need to look at what is all the information that we have. We can run data. We can run reports that say people managers based on who they are as a person or an ID are accessing this information. That's actually really important to know. We should probably make sure that we're ensuring that that information is good and up-to-date. I feel like I'm being supportive to be more effective in my job, therefore doing a better job with my team and everyone's feeling good and I'm going to stick around and not leave.

We all know that's interesting on many levels, but there’s another interesting point around that data point of managers leaving more often today than traditionally. We know that when we look at just the obvious cost analysis of turnover, in terms of the HR metric, traditionally people managers are more expensive, which means they're more expensive to replace on many levels. The value equation focuses on engaging people managers. 

We decreased turnover and increased retention. We're talking about building a business case to invest in communications. I couldn't think of a more specific place to invest time and energy and resources, then making sure that our people manage are happy, ultimately supported with doing a better job managing the themes.

Jonathan Davies: I'm totally with you. I 100% agree with what you're saying. I think that now we've been evangelizing for a long time that retention and decrease in turnover as one of the key metrics that Internal Communications should be reporting on. I think that now with your advice, they'll be able to combat those things first. Second, they'll be able to direct it to a specific group of people.

To anyone listening to this podcast right now, ask yourself the question, how well do I know my managers and their concerns? If the answer is ‘Not very well’, listen to everything that Preston just told you, because there's some really great advice there. If the answer is ‘I know my people really, really well’, please share with us because I would love to learn what your organization's ecosystem is like in broad strokes, as far as you can share it. 

By the time that we post this podcast, it will be up on our LinkedIn page. Just drop a comment there and say, ‘Hey, here's what I'm doing to get to know my people and my managers at my level, the top-level leaders, etc.’ Awesome. Preston, thank you so much that there was so much information and such good advice packed into a beautiful, 30-ish + minutes by now. That was really great. I really appreciate you coming here. 

Preston Lewis: It's my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. 

Jonathan Davies: Awesome! Let's do this again sometime in the near future. And yeah, maybe talk to you then.