As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Hernandez.
Allison’s expertise in business operations, human resources, and change management is a driving force behind the success of lotus823. She established the award-winning integrated marketing agency in 2010 with her husband, David, and brought more than 20 years of experience to the business that supported its swift and steady growth. As a leading force at lotus823 and with a mantra rooted in strong and passionate leadership, Allison has brought to life her vision of creating a company culture that attracts the best people and fosters growth.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
Prior to lotus823, I spearheaded change management initiatives (including Six Sigma and ISO 9000 programs) at companies such as Toshiba and Office Depot that resulted in significant, sustainable business improvement and increased profitability. Like many entrepreneurial companies, lotus823 had humble beginnings… namely, the dining room table. It was here where my husband David and I developed the idea of an integrated approach to marketing communications. The new concept was born, in 2010, out of a realization that in order for brands to gain a competitive advantage and increase market share, we needed to help them address a major shift in consumer behavior. Brands were no longer discovered in traditional media only; instead, increasingly, consumers were discovering and embracing brands through cross-channel experiences in traditional media and searching online.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Starting lotus823 with my husband has been the biggest challenge and best experience of my career. It has given me strength I did not know I had. In the early days, there were many ups and downs, terrifying at times, wondering whether we would make it. Despite difficulties, we always persevered. I’ve learned that failures are truly great learning experiences and the more you fail, the more you learn. Each failure makes you stronger and teaches you how much you can endure. Giving up has never been an option. With COVID-19, there was a big bump in the road, but again we persevered and honestly came out stronger as a company, giving us more opportunity to learn and grow.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not so sure this is funny, as much as it is embarrassing. In our first few months of business, we were successful with securing quite a few media opportunities for a new client, one of them was with “Oprah Magazine.” The magazine agreed to review our client’s product and include them as an editor’s recommended buy. This was a huge win for our brand-new agency.
It was our procedure to send a handwritten thank you note to each media contact. We would typically send the samples directly, but in this case, the client was sending the samples. Our brand-new account rep, with us for just a week, overnighted the thank you notes to our client to include with the shipments. When the client received the thank you notes, they noticed all of them were written on the backside of the thank you note cards and written upside down. Needless to say, the client was very upset about our sloppy work. We learned to ensure better training and review for any new employee for every procedure.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
At lotus823, our people are our greatest asset. We always put our people first, both employee and client. In order to improve any situation, you need to listen and show your employees that you truly value them, their work, and their efforts in order to see any type of improvement.
Over the past year, or throughout the pandemic, we moved to a fully-remote work environment and implemented quite a few changes, like a flex work schedule. We had many conversations with our employees and leadership team and made these changes based on those specific conversations. The flex-work schedule provides our employees with opportunities to take breaks, refresh, but also take care of themselves, and their families.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?
Throughout my career, I have managed teams, both in-office and remote varying in size and industries. At lotus823, we have had a few remote employees over the years. In addition, for a few years, our team worked remotely on Fridays in the summer. We moved to a fully-remote work environment just over a year ago, necessitated by COVID.
Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?
Managing a remote team does have some obvious challenges, like not being in-person. With that said, communication is key. Effective and clear communication is vital when managing a team, no matter the size. It’s imperative that all communication, from new employee training to smaller tasks, are communicated just as effectively if it were in-person. Since moving to a remote environment, we have adjusted our ways of communication, like scheduling more video-meetings, and weekly check-in’s to ensure that all members of the team are on the same page.
Along with communication, it’s important that processes are in place, specifically new employee onboarding. The team has onboarded a few new employees. These new processes, along with effective and clear communication, ensure that new employees and client teams can work together successfully.
At lotus, we have strong core values, which serve as our cultural cornerstones. When starting lotus823, we wanted to ensure that we stayed true to our team’s values and produced a company culture where employees felt valued, respected, and empowered to grow. In a remote-work environment, company culture can take a shift with not being in person. It was extremely important for us as a team to remain as connected as we were in the office. Prior to COVID-19, we implemented an employee engagement software called 15five, which I am grateful was launched months prior. 15five encourages team engagement and facilitates conversations between employees, managers and peers. One of the tools to encourage high performing employees is that we can give ‘high fives’ to show support and call out victories, like achieving great results for a client or learning a new skill. Each team member has access to this, where we can see each other’s wins and show our gratitude for one another.
Balance is a core value at lotus and we make sure to balance work and fun! It’s a priority for us to stay connected with one another and to do so, we schedule virtual happy-hours where we play games and enjoy each other’s company. With restrictions on outdoor gatherings being lifted, we have scheduled in-person get togethers at parks and other outdoor facilities this summer.
Productivity can be a challenge when working from home in the sense that you want employees to produce their best work, but also not burn out. To tackle both of these challenges, we’ve implemented a few new strategies to ensure our employees are not burned out, but also produce their best work. We offer a flex-work schedule where employees have flexibility to work the hours that work best for them. Taking breaks and going for walks are encouraged.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Having been in HR for quite a few years, it comes down to communication. At lotus, the secret to our continued success is a direct result of our 8 core values that drive us as individuals and as a team. One of our core values is continuous improvement. We value our employees’ opinions, encourage conversations to gain insights and take those learnings to create next steps and action items to develop new processes or implement new strategies.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing 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 employee?
One of the things we love about 15five is that it provides employees the opportunity to express how they like to receive feedback, whether it’s on a video-call or email. The platform really helps have those tougher conversations, but in a way that is comfortable for both the manager and the employee. It also allows employees to connect with their managers privately, so any specific feedback, or problem areas are only visible to their managers, creating a safe place to have those conversations.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
My first instinct is to say that constructive feedback is better given face to face, via video chat or in person. If it must be sent in an email, it’s important to start the email off on the right foot by providing positive feedback upfront. Regarding where improvement is needed, be specific about where you’d like to see improvement. Something like: “You did a great job gathering all of this research. I’d like to see the feedback more consolidated and listed as 5 or 6 key takeaways.” This will put the employee in a better head space rather than starting off negatively and they will understand what you are suggesting. Be clear on how they can improve, making it a learning experience.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
This is where processes are so important, especially since moving to a remote work environment. Back to communication, video meetings are crucial. Since you’re not able to see each other in person, a video meeting is the next best thing. Definitely allow time for video meetings to run through agenda items, just as you would in office.
What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
We encourage our team members to volunteer to take a leadership position or join other team members in creating Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). These are initiatives created from new ideas for business growth and the OKRs have impact on positive long-term effects for both company and individuals. The teams meet to come up with ideas, assign different aspects to each member of the team and work together and achieve the OKR. This encourages collaboration, while empowering the team, and gives people a great sense of team accomplishment.
We are proud of our team and the creative energy they share, we embrace the collaborative culture at lotus823. Despite our remote environment, lotus823 has maintained its grassroots and culture from which the company was built.
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. :-)
If I were to start a movement, it would be to help women that are victims of domestic violence. Approximately 1 in 4 women are victims of domestic violence. I’ve dreamed of creating a non-profit that helps battered women by providing shelter, protection, and post-traumatic therapy. Support would also provide continual care, as the abuse doesn’t necessarily stop even when no longer together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The best advice I received was from my brother-in-law, who was a psychologist/psychoanalyst. When I was having difficulty dealing with my ex-husband, he advised me to treat conversations with him as though it was a business conversation versus taking it personally. It completely changed my perspective and positioning in the conversations and gave me the no-nonsense approach I needed.