203: Energize Your Remote Team with Shane Spraggs

Shane Spraggs, the CEO of Virtira, a consulting company focused on accelerating sales and enabling channel partners and remote teams. Shane is also the author of The Power of Remote. We discuss about the 3 components of Trust, the Relatedness framework, how to facilitate an event in a remote setup, the collaborative journal and Shane’s goal for writing his book “The Power of Remote.”

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Energize Your Remote Team with Shane Spraggs

Our guest is Shane Spraggs, the CEO of Virtira, a consulting company focused on accelerating sales and enabling channel partners and remote teams. Shane is also the author of The Power of Remote. Shane, welcome to the show.

Thank you for having me, Steve.

So, Shane, you’re the CEO of Virtira. Can you describe how you got here and ended up running this company that focuses on remote enablement?

Well, I’m sure every CEO’s got a longer story about how they arrived at where they are now today. Mine started way back when, back in 1998, I was in software development. Myself and three buddies from work, we left work, started our own entrepreneurial venture called Acromedia. And they were designers. I was the sole software developer and we, they were three designers.

And, you know, website development was new at the time and wouldn’t you know it, the ratio of three designers to one software developer was exactly wrong. We had far too much work for the designers, which meant even more work for me. And before we knew it, we had to start hiring software developers and that forced me into a management role. And in that role, I started learning all about project management, the basics of operations, and then about 12 years later, I left Acromedia and joined Disney, which was a studio here in Kelowna.

They bought the product Club Penguin and I worked to become the senior manager of production operations where I was running the roadmap and making sure all the projects were aligned and in order. And then from there I went on a series of small startups in Kelowna where I live and related to education, one really high tech one, which kind of mirrored the TV show Silicon Valley, where we were literally trying to find better ways to reduce video sizes, and we had a magic way of doing it.

And then the pandemic hit. And so like many people, that caused the startup I was with to start faltering. And I joined Virtira, who was looking for operational support at the time. I joined Cynthia Watson who who was also looking for someone to start taking over the company. So I worked as the operations person for a while at Virtira. Virtira has been working remotely for over 15 years.

And so I had an opportunity to learn from Cynthia Watson all about the best practices for running remote teams. Between her remote experience and my operational experience, we wrote the book, I’ll throw a little plug in. And yeah, as they say, the rest is history. So it’s been a journey, it really has been, mostly through the operational side of things. And now I’m getting a chance to really dip my toe into the sales and marketing side of the business and financial side as well.

Ok, so what I’m wondering about this, obviously this company probably transformed during the pandemic because helping remote workers be effective is such a big part of the company. How did how did this kind of this mission evolve and why is it important?

So like many companies, so most companies when they did the switch in 2020 from remote from in office to remote, I’d say that the employees were ready. Most employees had a laptop, they could set up, stand up and they can go to their house, they could work for from their office in their house without any, it was not too much trouble. It was natural for most of them, you know, a lot of them just did the same thing they did in the office.

Downside was that there was three groups of people who weren’t ready to go and work from home. Managers were not ready, HR wasn’t ready, and the executive team wasn’t ready. And it’s these groups of people who facilitate and set up the tasks and chores for the employees to work on and provide the strategic direction, the priorities of work.

And it’s not surprising to me that a bulk of them have gone back to the office, although through pressure from the employees, most have gone to a hybrid model of some sorts. Very few have gone full-time, and those who have gone full-time back to the office have really struggled. But it’s these three roles that needed to think differently. And so a lot of what we have in the power of remote is the rules and the best practices for managers, HR, and executives on how to run and keep a remote business operational.

That is very interesting because, you know, I have several clients who have gone remote during the pandemic. They started hiring people outside of their geographies and now they basically, there’s no way to go back for them. So all they have now is to embrace it and to, to double down on it. So what I’d like to explore here is one of the key components of, of being able to run a remote company, which really is trust. Because if people don’t trust you, if you don’t trust them to get the job done, then it’s not going to work. So how do you build that trust? And you talk about three components of trust. So I’m curious about these components. And then I’d also like us to drill down into one of those components.

Sure. Not too long ago I stumbled upon a psychological theory that was created by Edward Dessy and Richard Ryan in the 80s. And what these two gentlemen were looking into was motivation. What motivates people to do work? And up until it’s one of these surprising things when we think about psychological theories when we always think these have been around for years and years and years.

But up to that point, motivation was looked at mostly as extrinsic. In other words, motivation was applied to you. If I want you to do something, I made you do it through making you, getting you motivated either through financial means or some other method. And what they posited was that motivation was actually part extrinsic but also part intrinsic. There were things that motivated people to do things that they wanted to do, and they broke it down in the basics.

I told you the self-determination theory. They broke it down into three components, autonomy, competency, and relatedness. And these are fairly straightforward. You know, competency is probably the most obvious one. Are you confident in the work you’re doing? If you feel confident in something, you’re more likely to feel motivated to work on it. If you have autonomy, a sense of autonomy, you have control over the work that you are doing and how it’s being delivered, you’re even more motivated to deliver it.

And if you think about it from an office versus remote standpoint, it’s pretty straightforward for the activities you do in an office to motivate people from an autonomy and competency standpoint to be translated very straightforward into remote work. Managers can continue to provide work which gives people autonomy. They can continue training people to make them feel competent and providing coaching. It’s that last one which is relatedness.

Now relatedness is not friendship. It’s not social. Relatedness is a sense of knowing enough about somebody to feel that you can trust them. And competency plus relatedness equals trust. So if you have a sense of relatedness to somebody, you feel they’re competent, that they’re what they’re doing, you’re going to trust them.

And it’s that relatedness aspect that really suffered when people without any experience in remote work went from the office into working from home. And that’s where a lot of my strategies stem from in terms of how to encourage relatedness within a team and how to focus on it within a remote team to increase it and build that sense of trust between people to again get back to operational and productive approach to running your business.

Autonomy, competency, and relatedness are key components of motivation and trust. Click To Tweet

So what I love about this is that actually the motivation of people is really, and the trust really reinforce each other. So people who are more motivated, they’re gonna trust each other more. Why? Because motivation means autonomy, competency and relatedness. And the latter two, competence and relatedness is the base of trust. So if I have autonomous people who are competent and who can talk to each other, then I’ve got trust and then I can build a great company which can even be remote, right?

So the competency obviously that takes training, that takes, I guess, curiosity for the people. So you need to pick the right people first of all, that got the curiosity to want to become competent and then you have to train them or they train themselves. Autonomy, you have to empower them, that makes sense. But how do you create the relatedness? And I think we call this the relatedness framework in our pre-call. So please explain to our listeners what the relatedness framework is. How do you create more relatedness with your people?

Well, I’ll start by encouraging people to think about how relatedness is generated at all. How do you get to a place where you feel a sense of calm when you’re working with somebody and you understand more about them than say, what you get at a networking event. So you go to a networking, a lot of the conversation you have there is small talk and you don’t really get into any of the details that make you feel like someone you’re talking to, you feel like you know them.

And so in an office, the most obvious thing is social. You learn about what they had for lunch. You know what favorite sports teams they go for. You heard about their weekend. And most cases, there will be social events where you go, maybe you’ve had a drink or two and that really takes, you know, reduces the barriers. And then you end up sharing more than maybe sometimes you should.

And so you tend to get a sense of knowing people a bit better in those methods. The downside is that this is a two-way street. You could also, in the office situations, burn relatedness as well. So people would become to a sense where they’re like, they don’t want to belong, they don’t, you have negative relatedness because they either, you know, they feel slighted by you, or they, you know, there was something negative that happened at a social event and so on and so forth.

So in a remote environment, there are some very simple ways to build relatedness. For me, the biggest convergence of this is the one-on-one with the manager. So the one-on-one is where the manager makes sure that all three of these are checked off and takes time with the individual to not just talk about the work that’s being done, but learn a bit more about them. And this is the, you know, I say a lot that the, in remote work is that it’s not organic, it’s intentional.

You have to, everything you do in remote work has to be intentionally applied. So that you, you know, if you want, if you want people to learn more about each other, well, what are the processes you have in place to do that? So the one-on-one is a good place to start from a management standpoint where they not just learn about each other, but also how does this work relate to the overall goals and priorities of the organization. And that gives an individual a sense of, okay, well, by accomplishing this work, I now can see how this helps the organization achieve its goals.

And you had a good point earlier, the people you hire, you have to hire people who also feel a sense of relatedness to the priorities of the business. In an office environment, people can come to work and not have a sense of relatedness to the priorities of the company or the purpose of the company, but they can have a sense of connection to the individuals they work with, creating these little subcultures inside the business. And that has a false sense of community and culture.

So from there, HR teams can work on building relatedness through, so there’s some basic team events you can do that are remote friendly. The easiest thing to remember if you’re hosting a remote work event is that it has to be facilitated, either by you or a computer. And this again is different from an office environment where an office environment, oftentimes, someone will just put people together in a room, they’ll give them some food or pizza and let people do their thing. On a remote call or a distributed team, there’s just people who just sit there and listen. Very few people will talk.

Creating a sense of community and culture in remote teams requires facilitated team events and activities. Click To Tweet

And in the best situation, you might have two or three extroverts talking to each other, ignoring the rest of the room. So you need to have someone who facilitates some sort of activity that involves and integrates everybody in the conversation. And just simply having an activity that works together, that people work together and that people can share, hey, we both went through that experience together. That’s something that adds to the relatedness.

And then I also, I’m a big fan of icebreakers. So this is a very simple tool, it’s nothing near shattering, but if you’re having a large meeting, 10 or more people, start the meeting off by spending five, 10 minutes with an activity that brings everyone together. And it could be something as simple as, what’s your favorite smell? And this is, if you think about it in a sense, this gives people an opportunity to share stuff that they normally would share once they get past the small talk. But it’s it instigates it and it gets picked off. It’s not rocket science. It just need to put a little thought to it and look for ways to encourage the connections between individuals.

OK, so what I’m hearing is the keys are relatedness and it’s I’m mixing the order a little bit. So hire people who have a sense of relatedness to the company and this could be, are you excited about the why of the company, the mission? And are you excited about the core values of the business? So that could be a good way of checking whether they have a relatedness with the purpose and the culture. And then you have your one-on-ones where the direct report and the mentor meeting where the mentor and the mentee get together.

And it’s about checking in and getting feedback and set expectations and re-energize the relationship. So this is a one-on-one. And then you have events that need to be facilitated in a remote environment. Yes, it can be really hard. You’ve got 15 people on Zoom. How do you get them to interact? You have to be really good at engaging people to make sure that no one is passive and dropping off and zoning out and being on their emails. And the icebreaker is a really good idea as well, which can, again, it can be part of the facilitative event or it can be part of another event or meetings. How does the icebreaker relate to the facilitated event idea?

It’s really just a smaller version. It’s a 5-10 minute. Icebreakers are decent ways of breaking up the work week anyways. One of the things we’ve heard a lot about is meetings. There’s more meetings now than there used to be, and it’s not uncommon for someone like myself to spend, I’m looking at my calendar, I’ve got meetings from now until 2 o’clock. So it’s, you know, 6 hours of meetings and back to back and certainly would love to have an opportunity to, you know, to take a break with a bunch of people and share a bit of fun.

That not only makes the day more bearable, but it also gives me an opportunity to get a little bit, get to know someone else a little bit better. And so these icebreakers can be run by the meeting facilitator, often the manager. And they’re simple. A lot of them are just questions. We’ve got some fun ones, like for example, we put together a pretty long list of these, but one of my other favorite ones is that in a group, in your group, let’s say we have to count to 10. Everyone has to speak once. No one can speak twice in a row.

And as soon as someone says the number at the same time, you have to start again. And it’s a type of thing, you’re not learning anything about anybody, but it’s a little bit of fun. And it really does break the ice. And it makes people feel like they’ve shared a moment with each other and they’ve had a laugh. And I challenge any group of 10 people to get through that icebreaker without laughing.

Icebreakers and team activities can significantly enhance relatedness and collaboration in remote work settings. Click To Tweet

I like it. That’s cool. I’ll try that. So going back to the relatedness framework, I think there was another context that we talked about this as well, which was creating relatedness with your coworkers. That’s obviously the social relatedness. And then relatedness to the purpose of the company and relatedness to your own work. Maybe that’s something to do with autonomy or seeing how it fits into the big picture.

Yeah, that’s correct.

Is this correct approach?

Yeah, well, and you’ve what you’ve hit on there is is the role of the executive team and why the executive team suffered a bit when we went we went remote. Their job is to make sure we have clear, clear goals, clear objectives to hit priorities and that those cannot be done the same way that they normally are with an in-office company. First of all, if you aren’t able to meet together in person, there needs to be, we’ve got a special way of going through the strategic planning process, which takes into consideration, you know, if you and I were on a call for eight hours straight on Zoom, it would be exhausting.

So how do you facilitate a planning event where traditionally you’d get in a room and you talk around a whiteboard for hours at a time? It’s just not feasible. So what are the tools? What are the techniques? I won’t get into it here because we’ll take another call, but from there then how do you make sure that they’re well communicated? You can’t put them up on a wall. People aren’t gonna collide with them as they walk through the hallways.

So you need to have intentional moments where you reiterate the goals of the company, the priorities for the year, and how do you make sure that they are filtered down. I’m a big fan of the OKR system. In smaller companies, they become a little bit overwhelming than larger companies. But how do you make sure that the way you’ve done with your planning is filtered down to the team, and it’s reiterated over and over again so people know what they are.

That’s a critical aspect to measuring productivity, because once you know what people are supposed to be doing and from each of your priorities, you can create projects, and those projects have tasks, every time someone does something, they can feel like they’re contributing to the end result. And you can measure that as opposed to measuring time as a means of saying, okay, we thought we’d get this done. They said they’d have this finished by this point, and they did or they did not. And that gives you a sense of whether they are working and being productive.

Another big topic for remote work is how do you measure productivity? It’s simply keeping track of the work people are doing and making sure that people are engaged in the process in a way that they had an opportunity to set the time and the duration of the tasks, but also that they are getting them done in a reasonable timeframe. It can be harder to do, but once, and I often say as well, this stuff doesn’t necessarily only exist in remote world, in a remote company. If you do this in a regular company, it makes that company stronger as well.


And it’s just good practice.

Setting goals, setting KPIs for people and making sure that you make decisions, you take action and you track the whole thing and the people feel energized because they actually feel the momentum building. They see everybody getting initiatives, projects, OKRs, whatever you call them, done, and then actions and you make decisions, the velocity of decisions increases, and then the execution is really spinning up. That’s awesome. Before we wrap up, I want to also ask you about this idea of the collaborative journal. How do you do this and does that also improve relatedness on a team?

Yeah, absolutely. The collaborative journal, I have named other things and some tools for managers have this embedded in them. But again, it’s another straightforward concept. It’s you have a document, a shared document, whether it be on Google Docs or Confluence or some other tool where you can privately set the manager and the employee have access to it and just the manager and employee have access to it.

And throughout the week, you and the employee will add topics to it. So if something will come up, oh I need to talk to so and so about that, I’m gonna write it down in their collaborative journal. The one on one hits, you just go through it. This does a number of things. First it provides a framework and an agenda for your one on one. It gives the employee peace of mind that they know what you’re gonna talk about.

Because they can review that document before the journal. It gives them a place to write things that may be difficult subjects for them to bring up in person. You know, instead of having to broach the subject, it can be put on the journal and just read off by the manager. And it also removes these interruptions from your week. These are the types of things that, you know, in the office I’d walk past your desk and say, hey, you have a minute? I do now.

Because usually what happens is that they interrupt people and we all know that if you interrupt somebody, you break their flow and could take them upwards of 15, 20 minutes to get back to where they were. And if that happened at, say 1130, they’re going to have lunch at 12. There goes their morning, they’ve wasted, maybe up to an hour. By letting people work, you allow them to be more productive.

And they are happier because they had time to get stuff done. So the collaborative journal is a nice little, and again, it’s not rocket science. It’s just a simple shared page. It just takes intention to do it properly. And a habit has to be formed around it. Once it gets set up, employees love it. They get to put things in there. I find that my team are the ones contributing more to it than I am. And I arrive at the one-on-one, we have a list of topics to talk about.

We’re not flubbing our way through the one-on-one just trying to make stuff up to fill the half hour. We have meaningful conversations. They’re asking meaningful questions about the areas they need help with. And I’m able to provide them with proper direction and coaching.

A collaborative journal provides a structured framework and agenda for productive one-on-one meetings. Click To Tweet

I love it. I’m going to set this up for my team. We actually have a version of this, but it’s not working really well. And I wonder if it is because it’s not a one-on-one, but it’s a one, you know, it’s a group thing. So we have like five, six people in our group, and we have a place to collect the topics during the week. But generally, I tend to be the only one who really puts topics in there. I wonder in a one-on-one situation, would that be easier for people to post their topics or issues because it’s just, it’s not public, it’s just private to these two people? Do you think that that is the secret sauce there?

Yeah, absolutely. You know, in a group of, get a group of five people, there’s always one or two people who will lead the charge. There’s others, the rest will feel, you know, that they don’t wanna stir the pile. They just want to do their job. They don’t wanna cause any problems. And so they’ll let other people raise those topics. It does take for when you first introduced it, a couple of weeks for employees to recognize that you’re going to stick to it.

And so give yourself two or three weeks before they start contributing to it. Others will do it right away. The other thing from, I’ll just quickly share my framework for 101. I ask all of my team members to write up a very simple report every week. And it’s not a long report. It’s very similar to a standup. The questions you asked during Agile standup. What’d you do last week? What are you doing next week? What are your blockers or risks?

Those three questions, you tell them, okay, keep it to three or four points for each section, no more than that. I just want to hear about, and then a lot of them will do that in the five minutes before the one-on-one. It doesn’t take much time. Again, it gets them a chance to get their ideas out, get the thoughts out and be prepared for the one-on-one.

You go through that first, you get a chance to talk through all those things, and then you bring up the journal and you go through that. And if there’s time left, then you can talk about larger topics. But the nice thing with the journal is that not only does it give, like I said earlier, it gives people something to work through, but it also gives you a lot of stuff for performance time.

If you’re doing a good job, not only contributing proactively to the journal, but actually also rewriting in the, if you give them direction, you say, okay, I want you to do this by this date, or, hey, we talked about this thing you did wrong, you can do better next time, or we agreed you’d do it this way next time, put that in the journal, and you can reflect back on it come performance review time. And that’s usually one of the challenges with performance review. Most, a lot of managers are guilty of, usually in the last two weeks for performance reviews. But I’ve got no, I can’t remember what I did three months ago. That’s a pretty big problem. Yeah, recency bias.

Okay. Well, this collaborative journal is a big idea, so I definitely will implement this in my business. So those of you listening, listen up. These are really good, powerful frameworks, the relatedness, how to create trust. People have to get autonomy, competency, and relatedness. And then relatedness depends on how you relate to your coworkers, the purpose, the culture of the business, and your own work and how it fits in with the big picture. These are very, very important things. So before we wrap up, the power of remote. So quickly, why did you write it? And what is your purpose with getting this book out?

Yeah, and I’ll do another plug. We started writing this when the pandemic hit because we knew that there would be a lot of companies out there, a lot of organizations who would need help. It unfortunately was delayed until February of 2023 for a number of reasons, not least being the Ukraine war. Our editor was in Ukraine at the time that the war started and as well as the distribution challenges were happening at the time. So we hoped it would have been finished. It was ready the year before, but it still has provided amazing value to a lot of individuals.

We’ve had lots of great feedback on it, and it’s actually reached number one status in a couple of categories on Amazon. So we know people are reading it, we know people are getting value out of it. And it really is just to provide a framework for people who are not familiar with working remotely, for everybody, for managers, HR people, and executives. And it provides a lot of great common sense. And I guarantee if you were to read it, you’d get at least one or two good ideas that you could implement immediately and have a fine success with it.

All right, so definitely check it out, the Power of Remote on Amazon from Shane Spraggs. Shane, thank you for coming to the show. Remote working is a big trend and companies are trying to figure out how to do this right, how to not just attract but keep people, keep them engaged, keep them related, keep them motivated and connected to the purpose of the company. So thanks for sharing your ideas. And those of you listening, stay tuned because every week we’re getting more and more excited, exciting entrepreneurs, CEOs to talk on this podcast. We are now through 200 episodes. So the quality of our guests is continually increasing. So thank you for listening and thanks Shane for coming. Thank you, it was a pleasure.


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