Managing a Team (and clients) During a Pandemic.

The below interview with Riley James Milhem – Creative Director, North America, BORN.

Alexa: Thanks for doing this, Riley!

Alexa: Many candidates I have spoken to that have started new roles during this time have expressed the concern of ‘last one in, first one out.’ With hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs happening daily across every industry, how often are you checking in with new and existing team members?

Riley: With new team members at least once a week one-on-one, and our entire team meets virtually 2-3 times a week for about 30 minutes so everyone can see everyone’s faces, check in and chat. For the team members who are not totally new, they got time before we went remote to get to know me, how I work, so it’s less important to check in 1-1 as much. We also have happy hour weekly. With new hires, face to face 1-1s is how I check in to see if they are comfortable, and really if I can do anything to make them more comfortable. It’s difficult when you run a team of 10 people while keeping tabs on every project. It’s hard to make that time, as well as being on top of everything that is happening but it’s important to carve out time to make sure they are okay.

Alexa: Do you find that remote communication with your team is better, more focused, with each meeting serving a specific purpose or the opposite?

Riley: It depends on who is putting the meeting together [laughs]. It’s about personality. Is it someone who can handle things independently or someone who needs input from a group? Those are two vastly different arenas. How comfortable are they making key decisions? How senior are they in the position? How new are they to the team? Project managers set up majority of meetings, they have agendas they need to accomplish to be able to respond to the client and gain a better understanding of a project’s status. It’s a spectrum, at times that person should have just called me and on the other end, some people have too many meetings. It also depends on the client. If the client is difficult and is pushing back on more things, more check-ins are necessary to be able to provide the correct answers to the client.

Alexa: We are all learning quickly that some meetings really could have just been an email. Of the dozen plus meetings you had today, how many were entirely necessary?

Riley: 50-75% of my meetings are directly beneficial, or rather that I can provide direct input on. Whereas the remaining 25% while I may not have input, it’s important to hear the information, so that I know the status of everything and know how to deal with it. Out of 25% percent, 15% of that [laughs] utterly useless.

Alexa: So less than 5% useless? [laughs] Not bad!

Riley: But that’s a mechanism of the client. If a client is difficult and pushing for answers, or pushing our team, and to the personality to the project manager who may not have as much experience in their role, the meeting is necessary so that the PM can get input and be able to make a decision.

Alexa: Do you feel more or less organized?

Riley: I feel far less organized. I have to do more work to keep on top of things, because we aren’t in an office, and people can’t come to me, ask questions, and on the spot come up with a solution together. Typically, a day in the office is 75% meetings and the other 25% people coming up to me and asking, ‘what do you think about this?’ It’s a little bit harder to manage everything now that we don’t have that. The ability to walk up to somebody and ask a question is gone. Being remote in meetings all day has even limited my ability to check slack. Meetings have gone up and direct contact has waned. I now have to be more proactive. And I have to make sure I make that extra time to check in with team members.

Alexa: Let’s talk about Slack. How has it been almost exclusively communicating with your team in short form written communication via slack? How’s that going?

Riley: It’s a difficult thing to do, communicate purely with text. I mean that’s the reason why emojis were invented. It reminds me an episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia [laughs] where the group texts, and them missing the whole entire point of text messaging and having to explain the rules, like all caps means you’re yelling. If people don’t understand the simple rules or if people don’t know how to set it up, like if you have criticism or even something positive to say, it can seem curt. You need to preface it. What I find with poor communicators in text is that they are not prefacing anything. It comes off short, because it is after all a quick communication format, but you need to be able to say ‘I totally agree with you but…’ ‘I totally feel that but what about this…’ The idea that ‘I get you, now let me respond’. Without that, people can get thrown off track, and misinterpret tone. You have to check yourself and make sure that you’re not just vomiting out what you think. You have to read it before you send it, at least twice.

Alexa: It’s like that scene in the Martian, like do you think he means it like this, or like THIS. [laughs] Have you modified your communication style since quarantine began?

Riley: Great movie! I do more of it, but I have not modified it. It’s just more frequent. Especially with my two new team members [who joined the team just as we were going into quarantine] they both have a great sense of humor. They easily pick up on my communication, and the feel I am trying to convey. I’m very careful to not sound short or perturbed, well, unless I am perturbed. I wear my heart on my sleeve. If something is going wrong, I will tell you point blank what needs to happen. You have to kind of maintain that fear [laughs] but actually, what I mean, is respect – which is the main thing. You can’t be based on opinion, you have to be based on fact, and be logical and be able to see all sides of what’s happening.

Riley: Poor communicators can just blurt things out, and it can come off short. A big part of designing is communicating and communicating clearly. When people come off curt or short or dry, it’s a lack of skill in communication. The other side of that – does your team know you, do they know your personality? I tend to take my team members side, rather than that of the client. My team knows if I’m being snarky, I’m really just trying to be funny.

Alexa: Can you tell me about your experience with the team to concept ideas, and iterate on creative, completely remote? What’s the brainstorm process like? Has it changed?

Riley: The brainstorm process has changed for the better in some ways. It’s hard to collaborate when you’re not in the room together, across the table, within arm’s reach of somebody. You don’t have the chance, in real time, to feel someone’s vibe – have an argument and prove your point. There have been tools that we have been learning, that I think will be important in the future. For example, Miro is a tool we’ve been using to workshop with clients. It’s a gigantic board, you have multiple boards, you can see everyone’s cursors, vote, create sticky notes, and collaborate in real time. We took 2-3 hours, if not more, outside of those client meetings, to do workshops within our own creative team to get a handle on this technology, to make sure it’s coherent, and that we can guide the client in how to use it to successfully collaborate. Invision Freehand also enables us to work remotely with internal feedback. Zoom is great, if you’re in a meeting with 25 people, as a host you can break out into teams and go into separate rooms. Previously in person we could sketch things out, and now we don’t have the ability to use our hands [laughs] which is a big challenge. What we are learning now can definitely be applied to future projects. For example, if there is a lower budget project with zero budget for travel, we can facilitate those workshops virtually, and that’s a huge plus. I don’t think virtual workshops can ever touch what we are capable of in a room together, but it’s a pretty good proxy. Now we can adjust on the fly, we honestly have even more capabilities now.

Alexa: How are you building culture between new and existing talent remotely?

Riley: This is a difficult one. I expect people that I hire to be problem solvers. I hire designers because they can solve problems. Design as a whole is problem solving. It’s not about your art or how you feel, it’s about can you take the client brief and solve their problem. I hire people on their intelligence, and less so on their skill sets. What I mean by that, is if you have a certain level of intelligence, you can easily learn a new skill. [laughs] Tell me the question again, I didn’t answer it.

Alexa: [laughs] How are you building culture between new and existing talent remotely? How have you helped your previously existing team get to know new team members?

Riley: Culture is difficult to build remotely. Especially at BORN, we are all cracking jokes throughout the day. When that got removed, we have virtual happy hours. It also makes it very strange, as it’s not how people actually socialize. People don’t go round-robin at a party and listen to 1 person talk. It’s a new paradigm for more than one reason. Human brains are not used to reading 15 people’s facial reactions in the middle of a sentence. It’s overload. I’ve read several articles on Zoom fatigue. The human brain just isn’t used to looking at 15 faces at once. I have a background in performing live music, or presenting to a large group of people, you zone that out. You focus on what you’re saying, you don’t focus on the audience.

Alexa: How have you been communicating your expectations of your team members?

Riley: Reviewing on a case-by-case basis. Whether it’s one on one with someone, or a retrospective on a project. What do you think went wrong, what went right, what could I do better, what could you do better? Asking questions is a pivotal point in making people analyze themselves, which is very difficult. If you get cued in the right way, it can open your employees to feel comfortable. Just starting with ‘How do you think that project went?’ And just being honest, prompting people to be open and speak freely, without putting particular pressure on any particular person. Gary Barth [UX Director] and I run a very collaborative – yet loosey goosey – yet tight ship. We play to the strengths and weaknesses of our team members. It’s all about phrasing those questions to disarm. In other words, if I could put more pressure on myself when asking these questions, I will. It’s about being humble always, taking criticism, and not being right all the time.

Alexa: Have there been any particular funny or awkward moments working remotely with your team?

Riley: On Zoom one person would take a screenshot of someone talking and pass it around so other team members use it as their background and superimpose themselves. It’s this hilarious menagerie collage of everyone’s faces, it’s the feedback loop of a zoom meeting. I have actually taken screen recordings of myself nodding and set it as my background and walked away, but then when I come back [laughs] there would be two of me, good for a laugh. Then there’s the occasional fart, burp or toilet flush.

Alexa: [laughs]

What is the biggest friction point internally right now with everyone adapting to completely remote work?

Riley: Collaboration is tough. Slack doesn’t cut it. I can’t just walk over to someone’s desk and in that 2 minute pow-wow solve all kinds of problems. New technologies are helping but it’s nothing like the real thing.

Alexa: What are the surprising benefits of working with your team remotely?

Riley: Naps. Taking naps. [laughs] No, but seriously, what’s really nice is work life balance. I genuinely feel like the team has the ability to take care of themselves more. If you have a spare minute, you can take care of something around the house. It’s much easier to keep on top of your personal life and have the ability to make your own schedule. The 9-5 crunch schedule is gone, which I actually think helps creatives be more creative, and be more balanced. That’s been a huge benefit.

Alexa: What has been less than ideal?

Riley: Management is difficult. Keeping tabs on everyone is tough. It’s way easier to walk over to someone’s desk. I prefer to just be around the people. Everyone is more serious when you have a check in remotely. It’s like I’m checking in because there is a problem, like it’s life or death [laughs] which isn’t the case.

Alexa: What advice would you offer another Creative Director who is managing new talent remotely?

Riley: Double check all of your written communication, have one-on-one check-ins weekly for the first few weeks at least, set up group calls so they can get to know the rest of the team, and pair them with other team members so that they can collaborate and get to know the team.

Alexa: What advice would you give a candidate who is about to make a job change in this environment?

Riley: Don’t. [laughs] Alright, but seriously, the more interviews the better, meet as many team members as you possibly can before making a decision. Make sure you feel comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable, any decision will be a bad one. Trust your gut.

Alexa: And to a candidate who has just joined a team remotely?

Riley: Be proactive. Most creative directors will let you fail if you’re not proactive. Ask questions. There are no dumb questions. Ask what can I do? Ask how do you want me to do this? Ask all the questions. Don’t be afraid of bugging them. It’s their job to manage. Don’t assume they don’t have the answers. It’s more important now than ever before to be proactive. Creative Directors are, for the most part, reactionary.

Alexa: The agency you lead, BORN, is digital first and rooted in e-commerce. Has the creative work itself changed?

Riley: It hasn’t. The only thing that really has changed is the discovery process being remote. On the client side, we are seeing delays from brick and mortar clients that have seen a 100% drop in foot traffic. In the future, it will be a good thing, as clients will continue to realize they really do need that e-commerce experience. I don’t think people will be rushing out to go to the mall anytime soon. Our creative process can’t change.

Alexa: How are you seeing this impact existing client relationships?

Riley: It depends on the client. Either there is a big rush or there is a delay. It’s touch and go. It’s more tumultuous. For example, some clients have furloughed entire internal teams. It depends on how set up the client’s infrastructure is for remote work. If they are not set up, they are dead in the water. Clients with teams that can efficiently work from home have been more or less business as usual.

Alexa: And what about new business?

Riley: New business is coming in with a lower budget. If we want the work, we have to meet the budget, which is the big stretch for us internally. It’s difficult from a sales perspective, as with smaller budgets, templatized and less customized e-commerce sites can be a solution, whereas we usually try to sell a completely custom experience. It’s a delicate dance of not overpromising.

Alexa: Lastly, what’s the one thing we haven’t talked about today?

Riley: I got nothing [laughs] this was thorough!

Alexa: [laughs] Again, thanks for doing this, Riley!

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