The world is virtualizing faster than ever, with no signs of slowing down. Work-at-home employment is now mainstream, presenting several new challenges for business leaders that built their companies from brick-and-mortar.
One of the most difficult aspects of virtualization is maintaining a collaborative, productive, consistent work environment that can withstand business continuity issues while strengthening culture and enhancing experiences for employees and customers.
At Activus Connect, we’ve been achieving this since long before the pandemic, so we wanted to share some of the secrets behind this success. In the second part of this two-part series, Felix Serrano, our esteemed CEO, talks with Darin Rowell about trust, transparency, and growing rapidly in a dispersed company.
[NOTE: Much of this conversation has been paraphrased for brevity and clarity]
Darin Rowell: Felix, you have more than 16 years of business experience with the work-at-home environment, so what can you share with other leaders about building a high-performing work-at-home company?
Felix Serrano: You need to be clear on your mission while being humble enough to empower your teams or engage with partners that can collaborate on your business objectives.
Start by considering the success of your organizational structure—if it wasn’t performing well in a physical setting, it’s not likely to work in an at-home setting. It’s important to realize that the at-home setting is not the problem, it’s how the business operates in general.
Virtualization represents an opportunity to take a step back and say, how can I begin to empower the people around me? For me, this very act has resulted in good ideas becoming great ideas, and it’s how we continue to push Activus Connect in new directions.
DR: Activus Connect has worked incredibly hard to create an environment of employee safety and transparency. What are the most critical aspects of achieving that in a work-at-home setting?
FS: First and foremost, it comes down to communication and consistency. We’re in a new business climate where transparency builds trust with clients and employees. As such, we’ve always tried to get out in front of every communication by speaking openly and deliberately, even to a fault, some might say.
Secondly, you have to anticipate that there’s going to be conflict, and then teach others how to navigate that conflict. For instance, if you’re dealing with two different personality types during a coaching session, you need to have a structure for dealing with that, which means teaching people how to engage in those uncomfortable conversations.
On top of that, you have to give employees the tools and the space to succeed in their roles, but never underestimate the power of challenging their way of thinking and giving them the confidence that they’re in a safe environment where they can try new things.
DR: What advice do you have to ensure effective coaching in a virtual environment?
FS: When I communicate with my direct reports I’m trying to understand as much as I can about their experiences, how they show up every day, and how we, as a company, can deliver value to them.
Oftentimes, it’s not even about work. Helping people address things of a personal nature creates much more trust, which drives better outcomes at the business level. I’ve found that coaching is about understanding what that person wants to achieve in their career and their personal life, and then developing a tailored program for each individual.
The first investment we made in our company, outside of going live, was to bring in a third-party coach to help guide some of our management members. This coach helped them develop a plan based on their individual needs and honed in on where they needed to grow, which is something that most businesses get wrong more often than not.
DR: In this time of global transition, how should companies revamp their approach to performance management, both for employees and the company itself?
FS: I’m not a fan of the term “performance management”. I much prefer “relationship management” as it better represents the conversations we have with Ambassadors about their work.
We start by walking through and redefining their processes with them, outlining everybody’s expectations, and then challenging assumptions along the way. This hands-on approach to teaching is fairly experimental, but, in the end, we find that it works very well for our organization.
When we bring on new team members, we’re teaching them about our environment, we’re giving them tools to operate, and we’re challenging them to make some mistakes along the way. After all, how can they know what good looks like until they’ve experienced bad?
As an organization, we challenge our Ambassadors to collaborate as part of a team and not just figure it out by themselves. We’ll then reward the whole team for its shared successes. For example, each year we pay a bonus based on the combined success of the entire organization, as it shows we were able to collaborate and overcome challenges together.
Again, it comes back to creating an environment of trust—if that foundation isn’t there, there’s no way you can build on it.
DR: In a lot of ways, the COVID crisis is allowing leaders to re-imagine their own lives, not just their businesses. As a leader of a completely virtual business, how has that impacted you on a personal level?
FS: One of my guiding principles is always learning and being willing to learn. It’s so easy to get stuck in your ways and think you have the best answer, but it helps so much to think about how to approach things differently, how to improve, or how to project ideas in a better way. While you’re learning, you should also be thinking about how to teach others and impart that knowledge on someone else who is equally willing to learn. Sharing your success is vital.
Beyond that, clarity of mission is just as important on a personal level as it is professionally. I’ve found myself becoming more deliberate around health and what it means to me. It’s so easy to get completely wrapped up in work and never make time to care for yourself, mentally and physically as well. With a virtual business, there are so many opportunities to make sure you find a good balance in all things in life. I wouldn’t change it for anything.