Another one bites the dust! We had a fantastic evening speaking to Founder of Roar! Training Kirsty Hulse alongside our own Head of SEO, Sophie Brannon, and Finance Director, Daisy Taylor. This time, we took the opportunity to discuss how to be an effective leader in a remote working environment. And, having become a remote-first agency ourselves, there was no better time to speak about the ins and outs of maintaining the morale, motivation and productivity of your teams.
Throughout the 45 minutes Twitter Space, Sophie, Daisy and Kirsty discussed everything from how remote leadership is defined, working remotely as a digital marketing agency, the common challenges employees face when working from home, the importance of mental health initiatives and recruiting and onboarding when hiring for remote roles.
Sophie – So, the first question is how do you define remote leadership and how is this different to remote management?
Kirsty – Oh, I think this is really huge, actually. So from my perspective, and every business is different, but I think the key differentiator with working and leading remote teams is it requires way more trust, like huge amounts of trust. The benefit obviously of being a remote team is you get increased autonomy; you get a little bit more flexibility around schedules and more and more people now are allowing people to work all over the world. So actually I think remote management doesn’t really exist so much. It really is about remote leadership in terms of guiding your team to identify their needs, supporting them, making sure that they’re not lonely and they feel psychologically safe and supported. But I certainly think the days of really trying to manage the team in terms of their tasks is ebbing away. And it’s really more about building the team. And it’s the balance that you know that you can trust I think is the key distinction.
Sophie – Yeah, definitely. I mean, for me, I think management skills are very much focused on things like processes, procedures, budgets, like all of the really important stuff, like the work stuff, but leadership is really focused more on like people and that influence, vision the direction. And they’re both like really valuable skill sets. From what I’ve seen, not all great leaders are great management, but great managers and vice versa. But I think when it comes to being remote in particular, that leadership that connecting with the team and being able to focus on them more so than say a process. All of these other things that come with that is so much more vital to productivity and motivation and building that trust as well, like you said.
Kirsty – Yeah. Yeah, totally. And I think I would agree with that. I think I’m a good leader and an absolutely shocking manager. I’m not detail orientated at all. So, I think this is where it’s really nice when you think about the different people you have within a business. So, you know, when I was running Manyminds, I had like people beneath me because I was really good at like getting buy-in getting trust and people excited. But when it came to like managing processes and looking at the detail of the work, that’s just not my remit. I think sometimes we think that is what being a leader is, whereas it’s really not the case. And I think sometimes we tend to think all good leaders is like telling the team how great they’re doing, but actually that’s not it either. It’s really about helping people feel for themselves and work out in their own ways, the things that they’re doing well and finding out their own solutions. And it’s a different skill and it’s a real skill actually that you have to learn.
Sophie – Yeah, definitely. And like you say it’s not easy that leadership skill and it’s something you have to develop over time. And because I think everyone focuses on it as a management perspective of okay: I’ll just tell people what to do, and these are the tasks that you have to complete, and how long have you spent on this? That’s not leadership, like I’m saying it is that direction. And it is like investing in people more.
Sophie – So in terms of challenges, what are the most common challenges employees face when working remotely and how can these really be overcome?
Kirsty – Yeah. Depends on the individual. So I think some employees really survive working remotely. I think some employees really, really struggle working remotely. And so I think when we think about building remote cultures, we have to take this into account that actually there’s going to be huge amounts of difference in a lot of businesses. Maybe now we’re moving more into like hybrid models and things. It’s really by acknowledging that some people really do thrive like working remotely, working from home, having no distractions, no meetings. Other people actually really struggled with it. And there really isn’t a right or wrong. So it’s thinking about how the business can account for those differences, especially because pretty much everyone in my team at Manyminds had children, which was something I really prided myself on because when I founded Manyminds in 2015, that was really when remote working wasn’t seen as a viable option for serious businesses. And we were working with like big brands. A lot of our clients, I would have to like, not hide it from, but have to really like project that more structured traditional agency model, but it doesn’t necessarily work for parents, it doesn’t necessarily work for introverts. So I think to get back to your original question, I think more employees can struggle with but it depends on who you are. I think loneliness is a real thing, feeling that you have a lack of connection. Like culturally, that’s what employees can struggle with. And then there’s a lots and lots of like management manage management and like leadership struggles as well.
Sophie – Definitely. I mean, one of the biggest challenges, like you say, that I’ve seen from my team has been a sense of isolation. People feel at times it’s them in their screen all day. That’s why things like those employee focused social events, even if it’s on a zoom call, is so important just kind of regularly checking in having a genuine chit chat that you would normally have say over a water cooler or something like that. And maybe just picking up the phone really quick and you’re like hey, how are you? How was your weekend? And just having that kind of back and forth to get, not get rid of the loneliness, but really just helped to combat that.
Kirsty – Just acknowledging it. Just acknowledging that it can feel really isolating and lonely. So what we used to do was we get together once a month and the benefit of being remote is you don’t have an office and actually research on creativity shows that we’re more creative and we do a better job when we have lots of novel stimuli. So working in the same building in the same place at the same day, actually isn’t neurologically speaking growing great innovation and there’s lots of other really good benefits. So I think one of the brilliant benefits of being remote, I used to really enjoy like just as a leader, it was fun. I used to just hire different silly fun meeting rooms every month and we’d get together in a fun different new space. So that’s a really nice thing too, thinking about how you can take the fact that maybe some businesses, you don’t have a central premise, maybe you do, but you’re using it less and thinking about how you can increase novelty, because when you can increase novelty with the business you also increase creativity and that’s research-based. So I think that’s one of the real benefits of being remote is that actually you can mix things up. Yeah, I think, I think that is my answer.
Sophie – No, it is completely correct as well because I mean since Absolute became remote. I mean, we first went remote at the start, the first lockdown, it was only going to be for what we thought was going to be three weeks, and now we’re fully remote agency and it’s amazing, but all of the events and stuff that we do virtually is completely different. I think the other day we did an I’m a celebrity themed event where we got a cool box and we had to build like tents in our homes and all weird stuff like that we would never do when we were in the office before. And it was just so much fun cause it’s so different.
Kirsty – Yeah it does create a lot of space for that. And it’s also, again, and I think this is something that agencies are great at. Generally, agency teams tend to be because I don’t know, broadly speaking, the teams tend to be a little bit younger so I think what a lot of agency businesses are great at is bringing like fun and energy into businesses. But what they’re not so great at is creating and facilitating. And maybe, maybe it’s changing, but like creating and facilitating space for maybe the people who don’t want to party on Zoom and thinking about how you can build those cultures and create those cultures outside of like the go to things like that. Like, you know, like, I don’t know, you do fitness classes and things like that.
Sophie – Yeah, exactly. We’ve got fitness classes, wellness days now as well. So all of these different things. So along the same kind of lines, then how important are mental health initiatives for teams that work remotely?
Kirsty – Ah, this is such an interesting, interesting, interesting question, because I think it’s very important. I think it’s really, really important that companies are mindful of the impact that work can have on our stress and put in provisions to look after people and take care of their team. But I really do think it’s like a two way thing. I think also it serves individuals too. Facilitate that themselves, from the perspective of we have to, to want something bright and all different to really benefit us. So I think there’s like a tango that I think businesses really do need to make sure that they’re supporting their teams, they’re creating space. I think for me, this is subjectively speaking, the most important thing, when it comes to meaningfully facilitating people’s emotional wellness is allowing for a bit of flexibility. Allowing for people to be having an off day, allowing some inconsistency, allowing people to like, be really on it one day, not so much the other, because we are human. We’re not built to robotically perform in the same way at the same time. But I think also we have to acknowledge that employers and not solely, entirely responsible, they are a huge part, it really serves us as individuals. And I’m speaking subjectively from my own experience here when we kind of take that initiative at the same time.
So I think it’s like a partnership. It is a co-creation I think rather than I think businesses feeling as though they have to be accountable, you have to create and facilitate support, but acknowledge that it’s like a thing that you have to do to.
Sophie – Yeah, and I think the COVID lockdowns and everything we’ve experienced over the last 18 months has really highlighted the importance of mental health as well just generally, I think more time is being spent, not just on initiatives, but also on training for staff and getting people just talking about it and I think it’s important. Like it’s not just people who are working remotely, but people who are in the office as well. It’s just as important.
Kirsty – I was on a call with some management consultant leaders a couple of days ago, and one of the senior leaders and perhaps one of the biggest consultancy firms in the world said, well, and it was really well-meaning but said, okay, well it’s pretty much all done now, isn’t it, so I guess we’re all feeling a bit better. And I had this knee jerk reaction because my experience has been the opposite. And I don’t know if I’m alone in that but last year during lockdown, I was kind of in survival and we were adapting. I know that the team, Absolute, It was like this intense fast-paced time where you have to get together. And so for me, in 2020, it was really about survival. It was about like going, just getting stuck in. And for me, 2021 has been much harder, mentally speaking. My anxiety has been way worse and I think it’s as things have softened a little bit, as, you know, our economic stability feels slightly, slightly more stable than it did, I think I’ve experienced some psychological fallout now rather than last year. I wonder whether I’m alone in that. I can’t imagine I am, because I think a lot of this time it’s like, oh, we’ve just got to survive and get through. Then when you’re working out for a while and things start to normalize, that’s when I think sometimes the exhaustion, the burnout stress can hit and that’s certainly been my.
Sophie – Yeah, it was last year, the need to adapt. And there was not really a choice in the matter. It was like, okay, so this is how we work now. Fine. We’re all locked down. We can’t leave the house. That’s just what we’re going to do. No worries. Whereas now it’s that choice. It’s that we can go out again, like the way we’re working can differ again and everything has changed again.
Kirsty – We should be enjoying it. And it’s not collected anymore. Maybe I’m just thinking aloud. Maybe that’s what it is. When you know the first kind of lockdowns there was this sense of like being to the collective. It was like, we were all in the same boat with Jack Black making his sourdough, like, I don’t know why that was, but you had like celebrities and people all over the world, like sharing and all collectively going through a process. Whereas now I think it feels much more isolating because I was actually doing a session today in front of a big business about going hybrid and it was so split down the middle. Some people like yes, let me back, others were like, I can’t think of anything worse so I think we’ve lost this sense of like collective trauma and now we’re just like isolated in our feelings a little bit more, I think.
Sophie – Yeah, it’s that argument of in-office or remote, but we’re not going to get into that today because that could take us for another two hours. Next question then. Are there any tips on maximising productivity of remote teams and is that any different to what you would do in the office?
Kirsty – Yes. Yes. Yes. Okay, so I think it’s so important that we know how humans are motivated. And there’s lots of like science and research around how we are motivated as humans. We just don’t kind of get taught. So basically as humans, we have two neurological states. We have what’s known as an away state, which is where we are all trying to avoid a potential backup. This is typically how people in businesses, especially agencies, motivate themselves. Just like there is this bad thing here, this difficult thing here, and I need to avoid it: I need to avoid missing this deadline, I need to avoid letting the team down – huge one in remote, as people think I need to avoid lazy and people not trusting me. So we’re always moving away from this negative. It works. It’s super valid. But the problem with that way of motivation is it can lead to panic stress, burnout, overwhelm. It’s also really inconsistent. So if anyone listening has spiky, motivation, like sometimes really on and then other days you’re tired, that will be because you’re motivating yourself through an away state. In other words, we worked for ourselves through fear. It works. We get shit done. But the problem, like I said, is it’s not sustainable. So then we have towards state motivation and towards that motivation is when you’re going towards something cool and exciting. I want to believe that as managers and leaders, we really need to learn, and it’s a scale, but we really need to learn how to motivate our teams exclusively through towards state rather than away state motivation when working remotely and especially now, because our whole lives have been away state motivation. So it’s kind of the difference between thinking like you don’t want to miss this deadline too It’ll feel really good when I hit this deadline, it’s a kind of semantic. There’s a book all about this and how leaders can motivate teams towards a positive rather than away from a negative. And I think you do that, then you increase productivity, but in a meaningful and sustainable way, rather than someone panic working to hit.
Sophie – And how much of that is teams almost motivating themselves with the goals that they want to achieve as well? Is it more about that rather than leaders and managers turning around saying, okay, we want you to hit x percentage of retention rate every month, or we want you to upsell this amount. What is it about when employees set their own goals and their own objectives that really helps to motivate them?
Kirsty – And that’s fine. And it’s kind of like, you know, it’s really valid for us to have those like numerical based targets. We need them, but it has to be something inspiring and motivating above that. So watching the talk itself, the percentage just becomes the message of the overall goal and the overarching goal has to be genuinely actually emotionally inspiring for the individual. And I think that’s where businesses fall down. And it’s actually a really easy opportunity because if you can tap into what people actually want, emotionally speaking, we only have to do stuff to feel some feelings, you know, we’re not all working, we just work because we want to feel something. We want to feel valid. We want to feel successful. We want to feel like accomplish. So, if you can create goals, genuinely meaningfully tap into someone’s emotions and you can get people to keep referring back to that, then it increases motivation because you’re motivating people by what they really want. And it’s different for everybody. There are no rules on how people are motivated. It is really, really different for everyone. Some people are really financially driven. I am, some people are more intrinsically driven and I think it’s for leaders working out how your team are motivated, because I think the mistake businesses make is they assume that people are motivated in the same way, because when it comes to like, Businesses working out, how are they going to reward and motivate their teams? What tends to happen is like people at the top will go, right? This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to do this for the team and this for the team and we’ll filter down. But maybe, maybe there’s someone who’s actually super, super motivated by money. Right. So maybe you’ve got someone on my team who is like really motivated. So motivate them through bonuses, schemes, maybe there is someone on the team who’s really motivated by a sense of feeling as though they have status. So that kind of person you’re like, right, we’re going to be speaking at conferences. We’re going to put you out into the world. So it’s different for everyone. And I think that’s the biggest way a business can understand the team as individuals and play to that. Individual’s motivation from an emotional perspective, it’s all emotion.
Sophie – Yeah, definitely. I completely agree with that. So, we’ve spoken a little bit about productivity, about motivation, all those kind of things, but what about recruitment? So is there kind of a rule of thumb when it comes to recruiting and onboarding for remote roles? Is it harder to recruit the right candidate?
Kirsty – Yeah, I think it really is. I think, I think it depends. I think you have to become so crystal clear on your culture, like really, really crystal clear. And that’s very hard as well because especially a lot of businesses that have gone remote, like, so what is a remote culture? How do you facilitate a remote culture? It’s a very separate challenge. So I think the things that can make that process easier is becoming really crystal clear in your culture. And then what we want to be doing, we want to be hiring people who would align with those volumes, but there’s a bit of a risk only hiring for cultural fit, because then we can create homogenous teams. But what we want to do is hire people who kind of create cultural art. And so there’s those two things. So I think you have to really know. I think people focus on specialisms when they’re recruiting, whereas really you should be focusing on motivators and drivers. And if you can say, if you aren’t performance-based business and you can build a team of people who will find out to be motivated, it will fit. And so there can be like divergence within that but if that underlying motivator kind of goes through if you’re a business that focuses more on like lifestyle and then you recruit within that, then I think that’s when it gets easier. And I think this is the hard thing for businesses to really get so clear on culture and not just hire for specialisms. And I think this is a difficult thing for us to do remotely
Sophie – Yeah and I think to be honest, it’s the same, whether it’s in person or remotely, because explaining your culture and things like that. And interview is just one stage of it. If I’m completely honest, I don’t like interviews. I don’t like set questions of interviews and things like that, and there necessary because you need to understand a person’s skill set and things like that. But what I love more than anything is just finding out who a person is just by generally having a conversation. And I think that’s so much more important to really gain that understanding of what motivates them, how can we really improve their productivity? Like how do we fit together rather than just, oh, okay you’ve got experiences as a senior SEO or as a PR manager or whatever the job role is looking for. It’s that who are you and how do you fit with us and how can we fit with you?
Kirsty – I think that’s ultimately why Manyminds ended in the end because I was really struggling to find the right team, really struggling, because I was struggling to get creative working remotely. I really struggled with that.
Sophie – Yeah. So that’s really interesting cause I know there’s been a lot of conversations, especially on Twitter and just generally online at the moment about how to stay creative. And again, it’s that motivation side of things when working remotely but then at the same time people say that actually sitting in group meetings, it’s really hard to be creative and actually people just need their own space so sometimes that remote atmosphere and being able to just like stick do not disturb. It’s just you and your brain I guess coming up with all these ideas especially from a PR perspective as well. So, there are benefits to it.
And it’s so interesting because I think, and what you’ve said, like research has shown that we have better ideas individually because we can’t generate, communicate, look at like nonverbal cues. We’ve all been in that brainstorm where we have that great idea of why this is such a good idea. And then somebody else is talking. So we wait to them to finish, but then somebody else says something in the conversation it moves on. And suddenly the idea doesn’t seem valid. So, I think there’s so much value in working individually when it comes to ideation. I always struggled with the end to end process of going from creative idea to execution remotely. I would love to speak to some businesses that have nailed that because I think it’s so easy for ideas to become diluted from idea to the living thing. It’s this process of dilution I found hard cause we’d have these great ideas and then the developer would brief the designer and then there was this like chain and that just really, we always, moved away from the original idea because I’d only ever worked like in office environments that didn’t happen so much because you’re there and you’re talking. So I think I’d be so interested to talk to people who really nailed remote, going from idea to execution without losing the purity and the essence of the original idea and the process. I think it’s so tough. So if anyone has nailed that, I’d love to hear.
Sophie – That sounds almost like one of the key challenges really for remote leaders is that communication. It’s going from where you are to where you need it to be and not losing that value as you’re going through.
So, would you say that’s possibly the most challenging part about remote leadership?
Kirsty – I think so it ends up a bit like Chinese whispers. Challenging processes were never my forte. I’ve got to run my business because I really believe in giving people professional autonomy. Like I really believe in that quite passionately. We do our best work when we feel in control of our lives. We are adults, we are adults and we like to be treated like adults, but I think it’s so, so difficult to not lose that when we’re in the same room with doing it, I think, but I think what’s happened now is I think we’ve recalibrated.
I think we’ve all got really used to it collectively. I think we’ve all adjusted to what it feels like and looks like to work remote.
Sophie – Yeah, I think personally working remotely, you lose that capacity for where you get that face-to-face communication. So you miss the social emotional undertone. So you’ve got all those nonverbal cues, like gestures, body position, and paralinguistic cues, like tone pitch, all of these different things that you would pick up on if you were talking to someone face to face and it wasn’t just over an email and a message, but there’s so many other ways that you can communicate when working remotely. It’s just finding that balance.
Kirsty – Yeah. One of the things that I think is really important, this is a bit of a tangent, but it’s been on my mind lately. I think, so this comes up a lot because obviously I’ve worked in the confidence space a lot and it comes up loads and people are always a bit embarrassed and sheepish about it. The way we dress has an impact on how we fail. It just does. It just does. Like I feel more confident when I’m wearing, and we feel a bit embarrassed, like it shouldn’t, and I think we’re losing that a bit. I think we’re losing that like, you know, when you kind of have that day and you like put your outfit on and you put your nice clothes on, and then you go and get a coffee and you’re like strutting through, you know, that like that joy of having a career, and I wonder if people who are joining and have just worked remotely so far, they don’t know what that feels like, how good it can feel to like wake up in the morning, put on an outfit that makes you feel really fierce, go and get a coffee. I think it’s so important for people’s confidence. And that will obviously come with like, you know, that will come with like going to meetings and things. But I think that would be a sad thing to lose. Carrie Bradshaw energy. It’s ridiculous. Get dressed up and feel fancy sometimes. Cause it builds my confidence.
Sophie – Yeah. And you know what, this is really funny that you should say this now because I’ve had a week, a little bit like this. So I mean, working from home, doing it for ages, like love my tracksuit bottoms. Can I fit into my jeans anymore? Who knows? But I would sit in like the most comfortable clothes because I feel comfortable. I’m still being super productive. No worries. But I had a really tough meeting this week and I was like, you know, I need to dress up. I wasn’t on camera or anything. I was like, I need to feel like the ‘boss bitch’, that I want to be for this meeting. So I was like, right, let me get this blouse on and let me do my hair, let me get this makeup on and all this kind of stuff, because I think that really, it really matters whether you’re on camera or not, because it is how you feel about it.
Kirsty – Yeah. And I’m wondering whether there’s a difference too. It’s interesting. But I feel as though. Comfort and power are very different emotions. So I don’t think it’s possible for us to feel comfortable and really power. I mean, we can feel comfortable and powerful at the same time, of course we have, but I definitely think there is something like you did in the act of being like, you know, oh, I am like, because the way we really feel like we’re good at our jobs, we have an idea in our heads of what like really good people do. We have to embody that and often the way we stand, the way we present, the way we show up. I was coaching a leader of a really, really big successful agency the other day. I said to them every time I see you, you’re in like a jumper and tracksuit bottoms, go shopping. Buy yourself some really nice clothes and they were like okay. I think we undervalue how important it is to feel that feeling of like, feeling powerful.
Sophie – Yeah that’s the thing. Ultimately, whether you’re working remotely or in an office, the fundamentals, all things like human behaviour, the principles of leadership, the roles of leaders, the expectations of our output, all of these things haven’t changed. You’re just doing it all for zoom now instead. So just getting shit done and getting it done well is the same, no matter whether you’re on like teams and you’re doing it all remotely or whether you’re face-to-face with someone and it’s how you kind of capture that. I think.
Kirsty – Yeah, I totally agree.
Sophie – Amazing. So, one of our last questions, do businesses need to restructure to run successfully remotely?
Kirsty – No, I think, I think the main consideration if you want to run a remote team is you have to prioritize autonomy is the central core of the business because that has become the central core of the business that people are autonomous in the sense that you don’t necessarily have that visibility or control over what someone is doing at some time and so I think we can really lean into that. We can lean into this, like allowing and allowing to only come when we build the teams that we really trust. But I think, I don’t think people do need to restructure, but I think people need to shift their mindset because I remember when we first, everyone first went into lockdown and I was talking to quite a lot of people on this because I think who reached out to me and were like, how do we do this? How do we do it? And I was like, I basically gave up after a few years. I’m not as close, but I do have experience. I mean, it works for a bit, totally for a bit, and it could have been working, but I got tired. And so people reaching out. How do I do it? And I was like the first rule of remote businesses is it’s not just doing your job from a desk at home. It is fundamentally radically different. And I think it really is about leaning into this autonomy. And I also think what I really hope people can enjoy a bit more of now is people would say to me like, oh, working from home was awful Kirsty, I don’t know how you’ve done it for so many years. And I was like, no, for so long, we weren’t working from home. We were working in isolation, in a pandemic, that is way different. So I’ll implore everyone now who maybe is working from home to go and work in that coffee shop, to go for walks, to go for runs to really exercise that new freedom that you’ve got to do a bit of yoga at 2:00 PM if that feels right. Because that’s where the value is. That’s really where that value is. And for a long time, we couldn’t do that. And so I think now hopefully remote teams will really start to flourish again, because we’ve not, we haven’t been working remotely this whole time. We’ve been working in isolation this whole time in a pandemic. And only now, really we don’t need to truly work remotely where maybe you can travel. Maybe you can go swimming on your lunch break. Maybe you can do all of these things we just couldn’t do before. So I really invite anyone to think of what you’ve experienced of remote working in the past 18 months isn’t a true reflection of what remote working is and can be.
Sophie – Amazing, absolutely amazing. I was going to ask you for any other top tips, but I think you’re covered them there.
Kirsty – Awesome, that’s fantastic.
Sophie – So Kirsty, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been amazing, obviously discussing everything, remote leadership and being an effective leader. Thank you so much.
Kirsty – Thank you so much for having me. We should definitely do it again!
Sophie – Thanks so much everyone for joining and keep an eye on all of the Absolute socials and on my social for our next Twitter spaces event coming up soon. Thanks so much. Speak soon.
Thanks For Joining Us!
A big thank you to everybody who joined us on Wednesday and special thanks to your hosts Sophie and Daisy and guest speaker Kirsty. We will be back next month with our next Twitter Space. Let us know who you’d like to hear from, or a particular topic of interest and we’ll do our best to deliver!
For more information, get in touch with a member of Absolute Digital Media’s team on 0800 088 6000 today.