EP 78: Remote Team Success, with Ryan Malone

Aug 19, 2020

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EP 78: Remote Team Success, with Ryan Malone

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly talks with Ryan Malone of SmartBug Media about how remote teams at service-based firms can be successful. If your team is still struggling to make WFH work without the whiteboard to huddle around, listen or watch (and share!).

Feedback always welcome! Questions for Kelly and/or guests? Want to suggest a guest or show topic? Cool. Just email

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EP 78: Remote Team Success, with Ryan Malone

Duration: 17:45


Kelly: So welcome to this week’s episode of Thrive. I’ve got Ryan Malone here, CEO of SmartBug Media. Today, we’re going to be talking about remote team success and what that looks like in our current world and the future of it. So Ryan, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really excited about the conversation.

Ryan: I appreciate it. Thank you much for having me.

Kelly: So tell me a little bit about your agency and your entrance into it because I know that that looks a little different from how most CEOs started their companies.

Ryan: Yeah, we took a little bit different path. My background, I ran product marketing division of Seagate, and then did a couple early stage companies in executive marketing roles. And what we found was that when we hired agencies, the partners would typically sell the work and then we did a lot of marketing strategies. So people that weren’t really tuned to do marketing strategy did a lot of the work. And we felt that there was a different way. So I asked my friends that were also technology marketers if they had the same issue, and they did. So I decided to quit. And the big decision that we made was when I was 17, my father passed away. And so I knew that I didn’t want to be the CEO who didn’t see his kids because life matters. And at the same time, everybody’s been, they’ve worked for that leader where you come to work and they’ve never been to battle with their team. They have no camaraderie. They don’t have any scars on their back to show. And nobody wants to work for that person. So I didn’t want to be the CEO who was never there. And to us the only option at the time, and this was, gosh, 12 years ago, was to be remote. And so we felt like if we could create a company that offered a challenging work environment with people who you had this deep intellectual trust for, doesn’t mean you’re going to be best friends, but you should go to work knowing you have smart people that have your back. But at the same time, create room for memories, because the truth is you and I are not going to remember this phone call when we’re older. But you’re going to remember what you do this weekend with somebody you care about. We would have a winning formula to create great people and grow our business. And that’s what we set out to do.

Kelly: Yeah, great. So talking about remote teams, how do you think our experience with this pandemic has shown leaders of service based organizations how efficient remote work can actually be?

Ryan: Well, it’s interesting, right? Resiliency does interesting things to people. And when you’re put into a situation where you don’t have the things that make you a creature of habit, it forces you to adapt. And so if I’m in an office, the little things like nonverbal communication and the chitchat at the office, like in the coffee area, and things like that, those are kind of the glue that holds the company together, but they also for some people can be big distractions. Like when we interview people, we look for people that, let’s say things like, oh man, that period of time where I can just shut my door in the morning or when no one’s there, I’m really efficient. And so you start to figure out when you don’t have these comfort things that it can actually be much more efficient because you end up focusing on process and handoff, I always say like in a relay race, it’s not the speed of the runner, it’s the efficiency of the handoff. So when you don’t have an office, and you’re forced to literally give somebody everything that they need, the first time you start to get really efficient. Your communication has to be better, or else you fumble. And so those things illuminate all of these areas that you can make for a more effective company.

Kelly: Yeah, and illumination is a big key right now. Right? A lot of things are coming to light. I think that there’s been sort of something that you’ve said in the past that there are a lot of CEOs who feel like there’s this false sense of trust, when they can see like the tops of their employees heads over their cubicles, right? Talk a little bit about that for a second, because I do I like the idea of it being a false sense of trust. But I think that a lot of people might have some pushback against that, that might trigger something or that might hit them in a certain way. Because maybe they really believe that intrinsically there is a trust that’s created. If I can see you sitting in your desk and working, that must mean you’re working. And that must mean that we’re doing good things and that you’re productive. And my agency is going to be profitable. And like there’s the script that runs. So yeah, so talk a little bit about that, because I find that really interesting.

Ryan: Yeah, it’s funny, and I can tell you a story that illustrates it. So a number of years ago, I’m on this master’s group with some other agency owners. And a number of years ago, one of the agency owners was so excited because he was installing the software that would take a screenshot from a webcam every like two minutes or three minutes or something like that. And he was like, it’s so great because I can see that everybody’s working and this and that. And after I pulled myself off the chair, I was trying to articulate that you just spent two weeks, three weeks a month vetting this person. They’ve spent countless hours demonstrating their trustworthiness. You’ve had four or five people interview them. You’ve decided that you’re going to invest the capital of your company, and if you’re a business owner, like a piece of your potential future in this person, but you don’t trust them enough to let them sit at their desk and do their work. And so I think, there’s this kind of like, legacy, feeling of distrust, where if I see you across the room, I see the back of your head that somehow that means you’re productive. When you could very well be just be hanging out on Facebook, and it doesn’t matter and you get this like weird, kind of false sense of security. And so I try to tell people that if you trust first and know that 99% of the time the person that you’ve gone through all of this vetting with is going to be just as active and happy in a remote environment as they are in an office environment. In fact, they might be more productive. We often find that people that come here from an in house situation say that they have tighter relationships with people and feel more like they’re more supported. Like that shift in outlook of, hey, I did my homework, let’s give them a chance to be great, is usually really empowering for agencies. And you have no choice to do that. But in a remote environment, you just have simply no choice but to take that path. And I would encourage people just to take a deep breath and know that you did probably a pretty good job and let them have some runway to do great things.

Kelly: Yeah, and I want to kind of stay with this for a second if it’s okay, because I do think that from my work with agency leaders, from being an agency owner in the past, you’re an agency owner, there have been many of agency leaders on the show. I feel like the recurring theme over and over again as to why we default to really making sure that people are in seats. I think it all comes down to trust and distrust, right? And so there was an episode that I did. I don’t know way back called the trust-first mindset with Jay Tinkler, who’s also an agency coach. And I think this is really important. This is the reason why everyone sort of had this freak out at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s like, oh, my God, my team is not set up for this. How am I going to trust them? How am I going to know that they’re not just lounging around in their pajamas all day? And like, where does that come from? And how is there some piece of advice that you could give to try to change that mindset for leaders who are still kind of like, oh, I can’t wait to get back to the new normal where everybody’s in the office full time and like that’s what I really want because this is this is uncomfortable. This remote situation is uncomfortable. What do you say to those people?

Ryan: Well, I’ve done some of my best work in pajamas. So the first thing that I would say, but no, I think you have to focus on results. I mean, the simple truth in any professional service environment is that you will know because if somebody is not doing their job, whether it’s good or not, because either their colleague will tell you, or your customer will tell you, and they will tell you faster than you will ever know by micromanaging them. And so, I would say instead of trying to micromanage every little thing that they do, and try to grip onto it, just wait for that, like trust your team. Put some controls in place so that teams are working together and let them go do their thing and try it. If you’re really nervous about it, try it with one team. Just promise yourself, you’re not going to micromanage one person. Let them do their thing, have them set goals, measure them against their goals, and you’ll find that you hired good people. And if you just give them some rope, they will do well. It’s all about like exposure therapy, right? Everybody’s in this shock of doing something different. So if you can just let yourself deal with the discomfort for one piece of your team, they will prove to you that it’s just the same. And in fact that you will probably find out that they’re more efficient and effective than they were in the office when they had tons of distractions. So just kind of dip your toe into it a little bit, and it won’t be that bad.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s good advice. I mean, at this point in time, like I think the shock is definitely over or has waned significantly. But there is still like this culture question, right? So with regard to culture, what happens when we don’t have that whiteboard to sort of huddle around?

Ryan: So in an agency environment, and even in a larger team, oftentimes when you get to a certain size, people tend to aggregate around the team that they work with or the department. The finance people go out with the finance people. The owners of account x go out with the owners of account x. If it’s a big team in a remote environment, that stickiness is gone and what you find is that the stickiness is really common interests. So we do things like get to know you call. So when you start you do a 20-minute get to know you call with everybody at the company. And the only rule is you can’t talk about work. And it seems really hokey. But the whole purpose of that is to let people find their tribes, because once they find their tribes, there’s no more barriers. It’s now like, hey, I have a group of people that are coffee aficionados, or basketball lovers or whatever. And now I’ve got people that I have an instant connection with across departments. And that glue I found is a better replacement for this departmental account oriented glue that you see in house and I would argue that that one tactic is one of the things that you can do from a culture perspective to get people tighter because when they start at your company, they have instant camaraderie. They have an instant support network. They have a group of people that they feel comfortable asking questions of, and it’s just a great way to lay a solid foundation.

Kelly: And then from a collaboration in maintaining that perspective, you find that you have to kind of force it a little bit. So as a manager, you have to work really hard to just ask how people are doing because you might be having a terrible day, but you’ve got your game face on now. And then when this call is over, you’re terrible day may continue, but I know that’s not us. So I know that’s not what’s happening. But for a lot of people that is and so you can’t, if I’m in an office, I can easily walk by and see that somebody’s having a bad day. Grab them, go get a cup of coffee but in a remote environment, I can’t. And so you have to just be almost awkwardly deliberate and just talk to people every once in a while and say, how are you? How can we make our company better at SmartBug? We have this thing called healthy SmartBug, which is like as a parent, you want to make sure your kids are happy, healthy, safe, and resilient until they can do it on their own. And so we will call people regularly and just say how can we make SmartBug healthier and the feedback that you get from that, and the culture that you build from that is really powerful because you know that they’re heard. And you get the context behind it. And it really kind of pulls everything together.

Ryan: Yeah. And you’re also letting them know that their voice matters. And like, isn’t that kind of what we all want?

Kelly: Yeah.

Ryan: We just want to matter. We just want to be living fulfilled lives and doing good work. And yeah, I love that. I think that’s a great component or a great aspect. Do you think that that healthy SmartBug is the component that sort of really acts as like a glue for the fact that you are such a successful remote team? I think it contributes a lot, right? So if you look at the phases of kind of your time at an agency, there’s the on boarding phase that we talked about first. So how do you get somebody to the point where they’re comfortable? They have a crew, a tribe that they can run with, and they have a support mechanism as they learn the business. And then the second piece he says, how do you optimize that over time. And that’s where the healthy smartphone piece comes in. Because long after the 90 days, or 120 days, when people are getting acclimated, it’s like people want to know that they have a voice. To your point, they want to know that the company listens. I think people are sensible enough to know that not every idea ends up being done, but they want to know that they do have a voice in everything. And I think as a leader, as a manager, you have to be far more attuned to the way people are feeling. And you don’t have a lot of intangible ways to do that, that you typically do otherwise. And so that healthy SmartBug piece goes a long way in showing the human side of a manager. Because in an in-house environment, let’s assume that I run into you in the coffee room. We chat for 10 minutes. We’ve built up some political capital with each other such that at 4 o’clock when they go to your office, and I’m like, hey, you’re two weeks late on this thing. I really need this thing from you. If you’ve already, it’s a tradeoff. Right? You’ve built up some capital. They know you’re not the boogeyman in a remote environment. If I just send somebody a Zoom message, and I’m like, hey, where’s that thing that you mean? It gets interpreted wrong. And so things like healthy SmartBug and face to face feedback, and this deliberately asking people like how they’re doing replaces that political capital so that when you do have to do managerial things like tradeoff is there again.

Kelly: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. As we’re starting to kind of wind down, I think there’s a little bit of an elephant in the room that there is still a fair amount of uncertainty. I think it’s going to continue to be a lot of uncertainty, even as we move toward at the end of this year. How do we build a successful team around work life integration as a means for predictability?

Ryan: Yeah. So I think the one thing with all the uncertainty that’s around and well after all the health stuff is gone. But just people are going to be new models and some people are going to think it’s great and some companies are going to decide it’s good for them, but not all the employees are going to be comfortable with it. And so all the things, those like create your comfort things that you’re used to might be gone for a lot of people. But if you can say to somebody look, in a remote world, you have a flexible work schedule, there’s stuff that you really need to do during work hours. And there’s stuff that you really don’t need to do during work hours. And to the extent that you can say to somebody, look, if there’s something that’s going to create a great memory for you and create a good life experience for you and you want to do it at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, that’s fine, because you’re professional, and you’re going to decide. I’m going to do that on Tuesday at 2 PM and on Saturday morning. I’m going to have a cup of coffee and I’m going to catch up on some admin stuff. I think to the extent that you can integrate your life and your work now, work life integration becomes kind of an anchor while all of this uncertainty is swirling around you. You can kind of hold onto that, because it’s no longer the choice between work and social. It’s like this work life integration enables all of those things more on terms and you can just get that done in a much easier way in a remote environment.

Kelly: Yeah. And also, isn’t it about like the owner or the agency leader really subscribing to and advocating for that flexibility that you’re talking about?

Ryan: Yeah, we tell people to pick the two or three things at the beginning of the week. When you plan your week, pick the two or three things that are going to create a great life memory for you, put those in your calendar first and then work stuff around it, because you’re gonna have to get your stuff done. It’s just the way it is. There’s going to be fires that pop up. It’s just agency life. But if you know that no matter what happens during that week, those three things that you can write a journal entry on or have a great memory about. It totally changes the mindset of the employee to the point where now the company is enabling them to have a great life and you’re getting the work done at the same time. Everybody wins.

Kelly: I love the fact that you specifically said, take those things that are going to create that great life memory and put them in your calendar. First, I really want to underscore that because that tells me a lot about who you are as a leader, and how much you actually care about your team. And your team knows that too.

Ryan: I appreciate that.

Kelly: Yeah. Awesome. Ryan, thank you so much. This was a great conversation and really, really grateful that we had it.

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