August 14, 2023
Published by Authority Magazine
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Kirksey.
Scott Kirksey has been a part of the BenefitMall family for more than 20 years and currently serves as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer. Kirksey was elevated to the role of CEO in January 2018 and is responsible for leading the development of the company’s long-term and short-term strategies.
Kirksey served as BenefitMall’s President from 2015 to 2018 and was responsible for sales, marketing, product development, and operations. Previously, Kirksey was Chief Financial Officer of BenefitMall, leveraging substantial experience in financial management, strategic planning and corporate finance in challenging high-growth environments to lead BenefitMall’s strategic planning and acquisition strategy during a period of outstanding growth.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
You could say that teamwork is in my blood. I grew up in an extended farming and ranching family. I saw firsthand how working collectively allowed everyone to contribute to the success of the family. The experience ingrained in me that there’s great value in teamwork — and it can also be a lot of fun. Sharing a common purpose gives meaning to your work and makes it easier to rely on each other in the good times and the bad.
This commitment to teamwork is something I’ve carried with me throughout my career. In so many aspects of life, we are better when we work together with a common purpose. That spirit is core to our culture at BenefitMall. It’s why effective communication is paramount, particularly when employees are spread out across the country. It’s essential for everyone to feel they are part of one team.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was in a job interview with the CEO of a very interesting company. Towards the end of the interview, I asked whether there was anything that concerned him.
He replied, “your lack of experience with respect to this industry.” I countered that I was a very fast learner and pretty smart, and I would make it a point to come up to speed extremely quickly.
He leaned back, paused, and noted that we were wearing the exact same watches. He leaned back in and said, “I haven’t been able to set it to the correct time since the time changed last month…can you set it?”
I set the watch and got the job.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Steve Jobs said, “If you look really closely, most overnight successes took a long time.”
As someone who is impatient by nature, it’s important for me to remember that lasting success comes from a solid foundation built over time. It’s taken a great deal of discipline for me to resist that impulse for instant change. As a leader this is where effective communication among teammates is critical. Much of the success of a new strategy comes from the ability of others in the organization to absorb it, personalize it, and build it to reality. That doesn’t happen overnight and it takes a good deal of trust, built over time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There is an appreciation for what we, BenefitMall, do that shaped who I am many years before I even joined this team. I’ve been married to my beautiful wife, Jo, for 38 years. When we started our life together, even before getting married, we shared an incredibly active lifestyle together. Lots of outdoor activities, sports, concerts, parties and friends, just like most youngsters in love.
A year into our marriage though, Jo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. We were terrified and heartbroken. What was this dreadful disease going to take from us? But you know what? That woman has been the rock in my life and in our children’s lives, because she was able to receive the finest medical care. She was able to be there for us, to support, and to push in ways that many people who are ill cannot. Our fortune to work for a company with great benefits allowed us to live a life still full of activity, friends, and family.
What we do at BenefitMall is create that same safety and surety for families who might be exposed to situations where all feels lost. Through our broker partners, we help employers build comprehensive benefits offerings tailored to the unique needs of their employees. We make it possible for companies to offer strong healthcare packages, dental and vision plans, legal services, identity protection, life insurance, and other supplemental offerings that enable employees to ensure their families are well taken care of.
That motivates me every day because we really are making a difference.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
One of the main benefits of working side-by-side is that you get to know your coworkers as people and you find commonalities and shared interests that strengthen your relationships. You may see a photo and find out your coworker has visited a place where you’re planning a vacation or hear that your kids are playing in the same weekend soccer tournament. There are little things you see and hear that allow you to know your colleagues as people that you may not see when all of your interactions are online.
Being together physically for meetings can also allow you to pick up on non-verbal cues that aren’t apparent when you’re looking at a row of tiny headshots on a screen. And that’s just formal meetings. When colleagues aren’t physically in the same space, you lose the opportunity for the spontaneous conversations that happen when people pass in the hallway or drop by someone’s desk with a question.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
People are social creatures. We need interaction with others. For some people, particularly the most extraverted among us, the lack of in-person interaction can be difficult. These people can feel isolated and alone, even when their days are filled with online conversations. As a manager, it can be difficult to judge how your team is feeling — if someone is struggling with loneliness or if friction is developing between two people.
Being separated from your team isn’t just a challenge for remote workers. For companies like BenefitMall, with many offices across the country, leadership has to think about how we create a consistent culture across multiple geographies. How do we ensure that senior leaders feel just as approachable and accessible to employees outside of headquarters as they do to the people in the building? These challenges are not impossible to overcome, but you must be intentional about addressing these issues.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ?
- Have a complete picture of what’s going on: As leaders, it’s vital we have a holistic view of how our business is doing and how our teammates are feeling. When we’re not all in the office together — which at BenefitMall is impossible because we’re all over the country — how can we create engagement and ensure that our teams are productive and satisfied? I really believe it boils down to actively listening to your team and truly reflecting on and considering what is discussed.
- Communicate plainly and succinctly so everyone is on the same page: We should be honest in our feedback, but not hurtful, and our messaging should be as clear as possible. No dancing around the subject! That creates distrust instead of collaboration.
- Open up to each other: Leaders should be comfortable showing their human side and encouraging the same from their teammates. We are social by nature and we need connection, not just passing conversation. Trust is built over time and comes from really knowing and seeing one another.
- Recognize individuals for their contributions: We always think we should call out the top performers, but a company needs everyone to run fluidly. It’s necessary to notice and show appreciation for who is doing what. People want to come to work feeling like they are contributing and accomplishing something, and leaders are critical in enforcing that.
- Use technology (and your creativity) to build connection and maintain culture: The same tools you use to host meetings and broadcast town halls can be used to build trust and create a shared sense of community among teammates who are working remotely or spread across multiple offices. Don’t be afraid to use your technology investments for virtual games and social events. Soon after COVID began, we started a series of virtual “Exec Tours.” Each member of the executive team would schedule open forums of 20–30 folks at a time for 30–45 minutes, just to catch up and connect. All it took was “what have you been bingeing?” and the conversations were off! All of the meetings went long.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
The trend towards a distributed workforce isn’t new. The pandemic did accelerate our plans for supporting remote workers. We made huge investments in infrastructure, tools, and hardware to enable employees to be productive no matter where they are working. As part of that effort, we improved remote login processes and increased our video conferencing licenses, but we did it at a speed and scale we would not have attempted if we hadn’t been faced with the sudden move to an all-remote workforce.
Today, employees are fully supported whether they are working in an office or from somewhere else, whether it’s at home or on the road. We’ve implemented a hotel model in our offices. Every desk has a monitor, camera, and universal docking station. When someone comes into an office, they don’t need to worry about bringing all their peripherals with them. We want them to come in and start working with minimal fuss. Then, at the end of the day, it’s easy for them to pack up their laptop and leave.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
There are so many! We’re all very familiar with Zoom or Teams, of course. How can you use these two create moments of inspiration and engagement, instead of long meetings where half the people are listening with half an ear? We really push our leaders to invest time to do employee activities virtually, to share stories, and we even host virtual events for our remote workers to play games and win prizes together. Just recently, we held ice cream socials around the country on the same week. Lots of photos were taken nationally and posted on our intranet platform so that teams could relate and smile together.
Speaking of our intranet, we’ve called ours BE Connected. It’s a place our teammates can go to look for company information, current news, updates on initiatives, and also connect over fun things like pets, kids, and team social events. We use it to give each other Kudos and host contests. It’s really added a new dynamic to the remote environment, supplementing a human element where it might be missing these days.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Time is always of the essence. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, and I think the number one thing I hear from managers is that they just don’t have enough time or bandwidth for regular one-on-one meetings. Time gets away from us, there are other priorities, organizational shifts happen, and those critical one-on-ones just slip away. Our teams can tell us they are fine, and we can see if they are performing, but we’ve got to find a consistent way to do that “active listening” I mentioned earlier — especially when it’s not with our direct reports.
We’ve started regular round tables with our top executives and a few teammates at a time. It would be interesting to see if a platform could be developed that would guide these meetings and open up the dialogue. Everyone always feels a little shy at first, even the leaders!
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
Because I do value in-person interaction, I think tools that allow us to inhabit a shared virtual space will make it easier to replicate the in-person experience for teams that are geographically dispersed. There are platforms out there now that allow individuals to create avatars and move about a shared virtual space, but they are relatively basic and don’t really capture the feeling of being in the same room.
As the technology advances, I’m confident we’ll get to a point where it really feels as though you met with someone in-person, which will alleviate so many of our current challenges in communicating across geographies.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
It’s important to remember that technology is a tool, not a magic solution. Embracing a new technology is not a substitute for building a strong company culture. We still have to do the hard work of living our values every day. We have to think hard about the kinds of companies we want to be and how we want to treat each other.
We shouldn’t be afraid to implement new technologies or change our processes to reflect changing times, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that technology amplifies what we already are. It’s a tool, not a company value.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
At BenefitMall, we were prepared to capitalize on the remote work boom because we had invested early in secure online tools that allowed our clients to manage their business from anywhere. At the start of the pandemic, many of our clients were struggling to quickly transition their in-office staff to remote work, so they embraced our portal-based tools that allowed staff to seamlessly produce quotes and enroll and manage their employer clients’ benefits programs from anywhere.
In an industry where many brokers continued to rely on printed reference materials and time consuming, repetitive data entry, the ability to conduct business entirely online through BenefitMall’s secure portal enabled many small businesses to thrive at a time when their competitors could not manage a sudden shift to digital.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with 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 team member?
Exactly. It really is difficult to give “constructive criticism” — though I prefer “constructive feedback.” Inevitably, feelings can easily get hurt. Showing compassion and empathy is crucial here, as is leaving opinions and emotions out of the equation.
Concentrating on facts and actual events lightens the load significantly. Showing that you are behind your teammate, guiding them to being the best version of themselves is also a top priority here. You can suggest improvements, but what do they think they could be doing to improve? If they come up with their own solutions and goals, it’s so much more effective than if the suggestions come from their leader. It shows you trust them and believe in them. It really works.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
In March 2020, like many companies, BenefitMall made the rapid shift to remote work to ensure we could continue to support our broker clients through their own challenging remote work transitions. As a leadership team, we realized that the sudden change in routine was disorienting for many employees and that we needed to make a conscious effort to maintain company culture or we might lose something essential that makes us who we are.
At the time, we were leveraging Microsoft’s Yammer software, but this idea could be replicated in any enterprise chat program. We created the hashtag #BeTogether and encouraged employees to use this channel to foster a sense of community and togetherness, even though we were all apart. We wanted to maintain the sense of fun and community that happens naturally in an office where people can gather over lunch or see each other at the coffee station.
I made a point of initiating weekly shout-outs of colleagues and participated in chats about favorite movie quotes because these are the kinds of conversations I would have participated in if I’d come across them in the office. I wanted people to remember that our in-office interactions aren’t limited to business, so even though we were all working remotely, we are still the same friendly, supportive people that we were in the office.
We also started encouraging fancy formal Friday attire, which added fun and levity to our online meetings. It was something small that gave employees an opportunity to show some personality and make their colleagues smile.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. :-)
I briefly touched on how a business relies on every single person to be successful. Following that sentiment, I would like to inspire a movement of “small wins.” This isn’t only about your wins at work either, but every day, every week, every month, every year, what have you accomplished?
Maybe your five year old finally tied his own shoe. Win! Or you just finished your first class at graduate school. Win!
Each small win builds to a sense of ultimate accomplishment, and sometimes even leads us to those “big wins” everyone is always talking about. As a leaders, we may be tempted to focus on our top performers. That would be a mistake. There are so many small wins every day that make your company successful. They generally come from our unsung heroes: those people who are motivated, enthusiastic, and perform consistently. Or those people who have a great and positive spirit. Maybe they don’t sell the most this month, but they make everyone who works with them feel positive and joyful. These people make the difference.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about BenefitMall and the important role that employee benefits can play in attracting and retaining talent on our website. For the latest news, you can also follow us on Facebook or LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.