Due to the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote business setup is here to stay. Since there is no escaping the hybrid workforce, building the right culture for it is a must to succeed in today’s market. Penny Zenker sits down with Rob Buffington to discuss how to raise productivity when running a business with a remote team. He explains how to run online meetings, group calls, and the onboarding process without overwhelming employees and keeping everyone connected. Rob also talks about what it takes to turn company values up on your wall into an actual foundation for an effective and rewarding workplace culture.
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Building A Healthy Culture For A Hybrid Workforce With Rob Buffington
In this episode, I’m excited to talk once again about the hybrid world that we live in. We’re going to talk about productivity for hybrid workforces and the culture and aspects of that. I’m super excited to have Rob Buffington with us. He’s an experienced consultant in the HOA management space. He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to management companies and midsize businesses that struggle with vendor services, staffing, bookkeeping and overall management. Rob is running a hybrid organization. He’s also helping provide staffing for many organizations. He’s not only doing it in his company but he’s seeing what’s happening in other companies. That’s why he’s going to be such a valuable resource for all of you. Rob, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
A hybrid workforce for you or a remote workforce is not a new thing since 2020. Is that correct?
No. We started doing it in 2017. We did it before COVID. We never intended to start a staffing company. We did it for our businesses. We have seven companies and they’re all majority remote staff. When COVID hit, we realized that this is not just something we do to help other businesses but this is a company in its own right that came about.
You learned before everybody else. You went through some of the growing pains perhaps of having a remote workforce and how to make that work. I’m curious. What shifted in your culture when you did this? How did you manage or direct that cultural shift to get the result and create the culture you wanted?
It is an adjustment. A lot of people out there expect it to be almost like software. “I’m going to do this. Everything’s miraculously going to be better.” It’s like a lot of things. You put the effort in. It’s like software, ironically. If you were to launch a major software like Salesforce without prepping, implementation and follow-up, you would be disappointed there too. We started with our lower-level positions, which is what we always recommend.
One of the great things for us is it allowed us to fill positions cheaper because we were going nearshoring. We did find that we had to work a little harder to learn about people and communicate. It became possible to have somebody on staff for several weeks or even months without having a meaningful conversation if things got busy. You had to make the effort to sit down, talk with people, get their feedback and learn about them as a person rather than a little square on a screen.
What are some tips to do that? That can happen. Everybody’s so busy. Before you know it, months have gone by and there’s been no real meaningful conversation or connection. What are some tips? How do you do that?
Treat it like anything. You have to prioritize it. I’m a big believer in objective data. Within the first 30 days, I’m going to have a one-on-one conversation or weekly, I’m going to meet with this team. We try to do virtual socials on a monthly basis. We find that that helps. We send out surveys to employees. We find that that helps understand how they’re feeling and stuff like that. We put the effort and time in. Move to direct questions. When you’re on a group call, it can be very easy to say, “Let me know if you have any questions.” Instead, we go one-on-one and say, “Steve, tell me what you’re thinking. How do you feel?” We found that makes a difference.
Call people out, specifically?
Yeah, but not in a hostile way. We require cameras on. We don’t do that thing where everybody has the camera off and muted and they’re doing whatever. It’s, “We’re going to be present and dive into it.”
You mentioned a lot of different things there. You mentioned surveys, virtual socials, regularly scheduled meetings and things like that. I’ve had people say, “We’re surveyed to death,” or people who have been on socials. It’s a couple of people who are talking with one another. They are doing other stuff while they’re on social. They’re not actively socializing. Do you find any of those types of things? How do you avoid that side of things where they’re there but people aren’t engaging in them or finding them connective?
On the surveys, we try not to do it too often. We do it twice the first week, one of which is, “How did onboarding go? Do you have your benefits? Do you have your login?” It’s weekly for the first month and then monthly after that. We try not to make it too onerous. That’s a lot of valuable information.
That’s helpful to understand the best frequency of doing that. You find that frequency connects people but doesn’t overload them.
They’re not long surveys. They could be done in two minutes, probably. It helps us know. One of the questions we added, especially with clients is, “Do you know who your supervisor is?” You would think that was an obvious question. You would be amazed how many remote team members said, “I have no idea who I report to. I’ve got my email but I don’t know who my boss is. I don’t know what’s going on.” It’s always evolving.
Wouldn’t it be a requirement that they would have contact with their boss?
You would think so. With large companies, they might have an IT guy set them up. They would have a group training for all new employees every Monday and stuff like that. They probably did interact with their boss but they interacted with six different people. They don’t know, “Do I talk to this guy?” I have a trainer at my company but then if somebody reports to me, they might not have even talked to me by the end of the first week even though they’re supposed to work for me.
Let me dig deeper into that onboarding process. I read some studies that people decide during that onboarding process pretty much whether they’re staying with the company or they’re not, which I thought was an interesting thing. It was something over 60% or 65% of people pretty much knew at that point whether it was going to be something they were connected to. That onboarding process is so important. Is there anything else special that you do in your onboarding process that helps people, even though they’re remote, to be connected to the organization?
For our remote employees, we have them come in for the first day. We agree that first impression is important. Aside from paperwork and getting their equipment, we want them to know the team. When something comes up, they’ve already spoken to the HR manager and met the people. It’s not calling a random number. It’s somebody that you’ve met and interacted with. We do that.
That’s not always possible. That’s a challenge when people are living in California and you’re in Philadelphia.
That’s why we structure it the way we do. We allow people to work from home but they have to live within driving distance of one of our offices. We have offices in 8 states and then 3 countries. They have to work within driving distance of one of those offices.
That’s a way that you keep people connected. They can come in at any time if they needed to.
We found it to be a middle ground of, “You get all the freedom of working from home but if you ever have concerns, we’re down the street. You can come in and talk to us.”
Anything else on that onboarding process that you think stands out that helps to get people acclimated?
Treat it as professionally as possible. It’s easy to go out of sight and out of mind with people that are working remotely. For example, we make sure the computer is set up. Everything is bookmarked. The screensaver shows the company logo. It makes them feel like it’s a very professional place to work and not just a side gig.Treat remote onboarding as professionally as possible so it doesn’t feel like a side gig. When setting up employee computers, make sure everything is bookmarked and shows the company logo. Click To Tweet
We have a training class. We try to do as much as possible to give them all the information. We’re always evolving. As soon as something comes up and we make a mistake or leave something out, it goes into the next onboarding class. We’re always learning how to do it better. We encourage them to follow us on social media. We have newsletters that go out through our HR portal and stuff like that. That makes them feel connected. It’s a lot of ongoing touches.
Do you find that you recognize people more in those newsletters or in other means to have people feel like they matter and show greater appreciation? Do you find that?
We do. For example, we’ll do monthly spotlights talking about this or that employee. We try to be as social as possible. We have HR generalists that have dedicated people that they talk to on a regular basis so it’s not just a faceless survey. It’s somebody that you talk to on a regular basis and have a good relationship with.
As far as that cultural aspect, what do you do to drive that culture other than what we’ve talked about? Is there anything else that you do that helps you to create the culture that you want in the organization?
It probably is an obvious statement but you have to know what your culture is to propagate it. You have to know what are your company values and what’s important to the company. It’s not something that’s done by osmosis. You have to know, “Our five key values are going to be this. This is what’s most important to us.” You have to be able to communicate that.
You don’t want to go too far, make it generic and copy and paste. It has to be real. At the same time, if you haven’t defined it ahead of time, employees are never going to pick up on it. Maybe you know it but if you’re not talking to them on a regular basis and it’s not front and center, it’s going to have a hard time. Our mission statement is put on the wall at our offices. When people come in, they see it up front and center.
How you make it real is a challenge. People are not coming to the office. They’re not going to see it on the wall. Even if they do see it on the wall, how do they make it real? With so many companies, you’re right. You have to know and define what your values are. Especially when they’re an organization that is hybrid or remote entirely, how do you ensure that people live those values?
Charity is one of our core values. Every company I’ve ever had, it’s been a key tenant of our beliefs. We will have quarterly workdays. We have people in our Guadalajara office, Mexico City office and all these offices. At least once a quarter, we will have a volunteer workday for a charity that we support. Not just, “Let’s go out and do something,” but, “I want you to see what you’re working towards.” A percentage of profits goes to charities. The more we make, the more we give.
In Guadalajara, we have an orphanage that we’ve supported for six years where I’m on the board of directors. We invite people to come out and volunteer for a day and say, “This is Diego. This is somebody that you’ve helped support. By working at Gordian Staffing, you’ve helped support this child,” and stuff like that. You have to find tangible ways to demonstrate it to people.
Charity seems to be an easy one. What are some of the other ones that you find maybe a little bit more difficult to show in reality? When I say easy, forgive me, what you’re doing is fantastic.
No, obvious, tangible.
It’s more obvious as to how you live it whereas some of the other ones might be less obvious, curious or might be more challenging for you.
Continual development is another one of our values. We’re working on a learning management system internal that we’re always going to be adding new courses to so that if you join us as a customer service rep or something like that and you want to move up to an office manager position, we have free classes that you can take with us to move up to that position. It’s what you put your time towards or where you put your money towards.
Do you give people and encourage people to take their work time to do those courses or is that something that they do outside of work time?
It depends on the clients because they’re permanently assigned to a client. It’s the client’s decision whether they want them to work on that but they do have availability and access to it. As an example, Google, I don’t know if they still do it but for a long time because I used to work there when I was in college, they would encourage people to take eight hours a week and think of stuff. Gmail came out of one of those work products. That was how they did it. They put their time and money because they were losing productivity hours towards think of crazy ideas and coming up with something new. Google did that.
I do remember. I don’t think that they do it anymore. It’s a great way that shows when you say you value innovation and creativity, you’re giving people time and space to live it. That’s a great point. One of the other last points that I want to talk about is when you have a remote workforce, there are a lot of managers and leaders who get nervous. They feel like, “How do I know that these people are working?” How do you help to keep a productive workforce when they’re all over the place?
One of the things I love to say is as it relates to monitoring people, you’re not paying for eight hours to the back of somebody’s head. You’re paying for what they produce during that time. Too many people get focused on, “I want to see every second of the day. They’re not 5 minutes late or 5 minutes early.” I tell people, “Back up. If somebody could take the same workload and get it done in two hours, would that be a good thing?” “That’d be great.” It’s not eight hours. It’s not the time, although you don’t want to let people work half days. That’s not what I’m saying.
If it’s a customer service rep, it’s answering 100 phone calls. If the missed call percentage is less than 3%, the customer satisfaction rate is 97%. Take the position and translate it into those objective metric terms. If it’s an AP clerk, “I want 300 invoices coded with an error rate of less than half a percent,” decide what that is and then build off of that. That can always be traced. That will give you a much better idea as to the health of your company.
I’m so glad that you said it the way that you did. I didn’t say monitoring. That was one of the things that you brought up. It is so true that in an effort to try to control people, there’s a lot of, “Let’s monitor how long they’re online,” and all of this kind of stuff, which is focusing on the wrong things. I loved what you said. It’s about creating those objective metrics. That’s where our leadership effort should be going, working with people to be clear on what those objective metrics are.
They understand what they’re working towards and they have a line of sight with their goals and how they add to the value of the organization. From that, that’s the best way. You’re enabling people to bring creativity to it so they can reach their goals. I love it. We’re coming to the end of our time together. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would like to make sure that you make clear?
In the nicest way possible, it’s not optional for companies. This is the future of the workforce. If a company tries to stay in the office solely, they are going to have a very difficult time getting staff. It’s better to embrace it and find the benefits in it. People like to quote Darwin’s survival of the fittest, especially as we’re in a difficult time.
I always like to remind people that that theory has nothing to do with strength. That has to do with adaptability. His theory was that those most adaptable to changing circumstances are most likely to survive. That’s very true in the scenario. This is the change of the generation. It’s not a question of, “If you’re going to allow this, are you going to embrace it or are you going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future?”
Figure out how to get good at it. That point about adaptability has been around forever. That’s why you see that many of the companies, that were leading companies for years, did not stay on top. They weren’t adaptable. Therefore, they didn’t continue with the same level of success. Tell us how people can reach you before we end the episode.
Thank you for being here, Rob.
Thanks for having me.
Thank you all for being here. Let’s face it. Hybrid and total remote are here to stay. I hope you’re embracing it and you’re looking for not just best practices but future practices. What are people successful with today? Keep thinking about where people’s needs, desires and behaviors are changing so that you can adapt well into the future and make sure that your organization is thriving and not just surviving. I’ll see you in the next episode.
About Rob Buffington
Rob Buffington is an experienced consultant in the HOA management space and brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to management companies and mid-size businesses that struggle with vendor services, staffing, bookkeeping, and overall management issues. Rob doesn’t understand just one or two aspects of the industry. He has been and HOA manager previously and also had experience on the vendor side working with HOA’s. He currently owns and runs an accounting firm and a remote staffing company, both of which focus on servicing HOA management companies. He brings a well-rounded, unique, perspective on the industry. His overall professional mission is twofold: Provide the best possible service and consulting to clients and make a positive difference in the world. Each of his companies are heavily involved in local charity work and are built on an employee profit sharing model, so everyone benefits from the success of their collective business ventures.
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