The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Important Advice on Managing Remote Employees“
April 6, 2020
Robert Bortins Jr.
Intro: For many organizations, having a majority of your employees work from home is a new challenge. This new environment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged leaders to learn new ways of leading their virtual workplaces. Today, we learn from the CEO of a growing Christian company, with 70 percent of their employees who have been working remotely for years. I know that you’ll benefit from this great advice.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact. And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button, and receive our free action guide.
If you can share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
It’s my pleasure to welcome back to the Flourishing Culture Podcast Robert Bortins Jr., the CEO of Classical Conversations in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Robert, good to be with you again.
Robert Bortins Jr.: Thank you, Al. It’s good to be on again with you and your audience. Excited to share my experience with you guys.
Al: Yeah. And a lot of people have experienced remote work for the first time, and you’ve been doing it for a long time. So I’m really forward to our podcast.
For those who are meeting you for the first time, Robert, Classical Conversations is at the forefront of home-centered education and that movement throughout the United States. In fact, in addition, you’re a certified best Christian workplace, continuing to serve now tens of thousands of families, and that’s fantastic. So, give us an example of how Classical Conversations works for parents who value their children’s education and what you describe the classical tools of learning so that the students can learn and discover God’s created order and beauty.
Robert: Yeah. That’s great, Al. We believe that parents are the child’s first and best educator and that children learn best in a loving environment. And there is a process for learning anything, whether it’s math, writing, cooking, music, science, golf, and on and on, and it’s called the classical tools of learning. And so we empower parents by teaching them these tools, that process of learning, by giving them great Christian curriculum and then by connecting them with a local community that can just help answer their questions and just support each other with that face-to-face interaction and now online, using tools like Zoom and Webex.
Al: And we’re going to talk about that because, yes, we’re in the middle of this, and maybe we’re in the beginning still, of this COVID-19 pandemic, and it certainly has caused countless families to come together under one roof, people working from home, kids not going to school in the public schools. So where do you see the current pandemic intersecting home-centered education right now? What are you seeing?
Robert: Yeah. We have a lot of insta-homeschoolers or accidental homeschoolers right now. And we know it’s not really homeschooling in the sense that us homeschoolers, we miss our athletic clubs. We miss our communities, our co-ops, and all of our hobbies as well. So, we’re isolated in our homes, like many of you, the experience of having that home-centered education. And so I’ve just seen so many homeschool families reaching out to their local community, answering questions, trying to help their neighbors figure out this homeschool thing, how to manage the children at home. We’ve created a list of free materials for families that find themselves isolated at home at classicalconversations.com/covid, so that they can be successful. And really, it’s all about building a relationship with your kid and just using this time to do that, first and foremost. And then, education will come second, and it’ll start to come naturally as you are with your kids.
Al: Well, that’s fantastic. I know a lot of parents, friends of mine, who find themselves working at home, with their children, and they’re confronted with, okay, so how do we do that? So that’s great. Free materials at classicalconversations.com/covid. Great.
You know, well, ministries, including churches and parachurch organizations, have been forced to really change the way they do things to adapt to managing their stay-at-home work staff, and that’s true with Christian-owned businesses, a large part of our podcast audience. We’re talking about organizational leaders and teams exchanging their meeting tables for video conferencing calls and 70 percent of your staff actually work remotely. So we’re looking forward to your advice to managers who are looking for ways to engage and lead their remote staff. What can you tell these managers?
Robert: Well, the two main ways to be successful is make sure you’re using the right tools, and then trying to create a rhythm. Many people feel isolated right now. And so a third item, really, to deal with that is trying to create a virtual community, whether it’s just having some fun together or sharing some things like you would around the water cooler.
So some tools that we suggest are Zoom or Webex for video conferencing. And then for managing your work, you can always use Slack or Microsoft Teams. And of course, there’s other tools out there, but those are ones people are most familiar with. And really just create a virtual workplace and continue to interact with each other. And then making sure you have that cadence, because you aren’t running into each other in the hall. And so what we do each morning is post in our different Slack channels what we have going on that day, trying to be as specific as possible. One, of the metrics that we’re tracking, and anywhere we need help. And so it takes maybe a couple minutes each morning to post what you’re working on and then read what everyone else is doing on your team. Again, this is everybody in your office, but each of your teams. So we’ll do that with our team one. And then the team one, they have their own channels they’ve established. So I.T. will do it with their team, H.R. with their team, accounting, marketing, sales. And they each do it separately. So first thing in the morning, by nine o’clock, we know what everybody’s working on that day and if anyone needs to have a conversation with somebody else. So that’s really how we start our day and try to get that rhythm going and stop that isolated feeling.
Al: Yeah. Wow, so, everybody is putting what they’re working on in the Slack or teams channel, and that’s being reviewed, and so everybody’s getting up to speed. That’s kind of like an instant stand-up meeting, right there.
Robert: So, we modeled it after
Al: Yeah. So, I bet you’ve got some favorite stories that maybe illustrate this. What can you share with us, Robert?
Robert: Yeah. Well, I think the biggest thing in this pandemic is this rhythm has allowed us to move very quickly with our response internally to COVID. And so for a while there, it seemed like every night, we were getting new guidance. So even the plans we had made the morning before were no longer good. But by having this regular meeting rhythm, we’re able to have a spot for that task and for that conversation. We created an ad hoc coronavirus task force. And I really feel like we’ve been a few days ahead of everyone else just because of that rhythm.
And then with the families, it’s just been such a blessing to watch all of these stay-at-home moms, who have been doing in-person meetings, have to go online. And just the grace that they’ve given to each other, the grace the families have shown each other, and just everyone kind of getting in it together and acting as a team, just saying, “We’re going to get this done. We know it’s not ideal, but it’s temporary. And God will get us through this like He always does.”
Al: Wow, so, that’s really interesting. And you’re talking about internally having this rhythm. What are some of the other meetings that you have on a regular rhythm?
Robert: Sure. Yeah, we do a weekly, longer meeting. We call it an L10 meeting, after EOS. And that’s a 90-minute meeting where we review our metrics, talk about issues. And so that’s our weekly meeting. And then we have our daily meetings in the morning. Of course, any others that are scheduled, but that’s the main ones that we have.
Al: Great. So now let’s get right down to it. What specific encouragement and advice can you give managers with limited experience working remotely with their colleagues?
Robert: Well, I think the first thing is to set expectations, give grace, review best practices with video conferencing. Try to do that beforehand. A couple of tips that we’ve learned over the years is use the feature chat box to help control who’s talking. You might say,”If you want to talk, put the number one in, and then you can be called upon the leader,” because a lot of times you see two or three people try to start talking at once, and it’s always start and stop. You guys have probably experienced that by now. And then have a copilot who’s kind of monitoring the chat box. Whoever is leading the meeting can be in rhythm, and they have one go-to person in order to keep the flow going well.
Make sure, before you move on to a new topic, that you get verbal agreement from everybody. So say that you’ve talked about subject x and that Sarah has a task to do y. You ask Sarah, “Do you agree that you’re doing task y by this date?” And she should say yes. Or if she says no or needs clarification, you can get that now. And then just go around your room, your virtual room, and ask the individuals, “Do you agree that this is what we’ve decided?” And that way, everyone has an opportunity to say something. It keeps people engaged, because in regular in-person meetings, you always have that quiet person that doesn’t talk, and it’s a lot easier for them to hide in a virtual room, and so you’ve, as a manager, got to get that wisdom out from them.
The other thing to do is encourage them to create a workspace at home. It doesn’t have to be big, but just a place where they can kind of walk in and just feel like they’re in the office. One of the big issues we see with people working at home is actually working too much. So encourage them to take walks, continue to have good habits.
And then finally, we always say start every meeting, your regular meetings, with some good news. You ask everyone, “Is there something good that happened in the business or something personal that you’d like to share?” So I always try to start by creating the atmosphere of acceptance and love by sharing good news, and that helps people stay connected with each other since we’re not running into each other in the hallways.
And finally, if you got a chance, I would suggest reading Virtual Culture by Bryan Miles, or listening to it on your favorite device.
Al: I know Bryan. We’ve actually had Bryan on a podcast at one point. Yeah, I’m looking forward to reading that myself. And he’s the cofounder of BELAY, and we’ve used a number of BELAY folks on our team to help us ramp up quickly. Yeah, that’s great. Good advice.
Robert, wow. I think that’s probably eight items that you’ve just mentioned right off the top. Setting expectations, and learn your video conference tips. I like the idea of a co-pilot, where you actually have somebody besides the meeting leader monitoring the chat box so that everything gets coordinated effectively. And you’re right about that’s good meeting practice just when you’ve finished, make sure everybody’s agreeing on a decision, getting that verbal agreement. It’s like the old days when we had conference calls before we had video conference, and it’s easy to hide in those calls because you’ll be doing email or something like that. But getting verbal agreements. Those are great thoughts. Thanks.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast. We’ll be right back after this brief word about a valuable tool that can pinpoint the true, measurable health of your culture.
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Al: All right. Now, let’s hear more from today’s guest.
If you had a suggestion or one key thing that managers must do to engage their people remotely on a video conference call or a cell phone or online content, what would that be?
Robert: I think the number-one rule for video conference calls is make sure you have your web cams on. Make sure you get the agenda out early, and always try to create a standardized meeting so you get a good rhythm going.
And then make sure, depending on the topic, every five to 15 minutes, make sure you check in with everyone. Again, just going around the room, “Hey, does anybody have any questions? Jim, do you have any questions? Sarah, do you have any questions?” And then make sure that you’re giving them an opportunity to talk.
A funny one. You would think it’s funny, but only because it’s happened. There’s probably some videos on YouTube. Don’t take your device into the bathroom, no matter what. Never do that.
Al: Okay. There we go.
Robert: And if you are going to have a meeting that’s going to have to last longer than an hour, I always take a break at 50 minutes. So at 50 minutes we’ll take a 10-minute break, agree on a time to get back, make sure everyone gets a chance to walk around, refill their coffee, use the restroom, or whatever they need to do. And just establish that before the meeting starts so that they know that they’re going to have that break. They’re also going to come back from that more refreshed and more attentive. So it’s really important that you build in those breaks.
Al: Yeah. I know you can have hour-long meetings and back to back to back to back. And that’s a great idea. You can generally get as much done in 50 minutes as 60 minutes and still have that kind of a break.
And it reminds me, quite frankly, when people say, “What’s your most embarrassing moment?” well, you kind of hit it. I was giving a presentation, and I had my microphone on, and it was a mobile microphone, and it was break time, and I went into the restroom. Oh, boy. Yeah. So, yeah, that’s good. Robert, you really are hitting on the practical aspects here. Don’t take a device into the restroom. But taking breaks after 50 minutes, 5- to 15-minute check ins, having your agendas ahead of time, and then, again, just making sure that your cameras are on. Those are great points.
So, working remotely means more than demonstrating effective communication. What are a few important intangibles that contribute to effectively managing individuals and teams from a distance? What advice do you have for us there?
Robert: Communication is hard enough in person, and it’s definitely more difficult to do well electronically. Like I mentioned earlier, you just really have to be clear on your expectations. You have to trust your team and create accountability around that trust. So trust, but verify.
And really, the ability to listen and ask questions is going to be really key now because you don’t have as many non-verbal cues that we can use instinctively when we’re in face-to-face interactions. So you’re not receiving those. So make sure you’re asking the extra why. Why, why, why, the five whys. Anything you can do. And then make sure you’re trying to understand what they’re saying before getting them to understand your position.
Al: Yeah. To focus on them, not focus on you. That’s great advice.
So, all of us serving in ministries or Christian-owned businesses have been leveled—I mean, really leveled—by the current pandemic, and COVID-19 means that we have a continuing opportunity to share practical, helpful, even important information that can help each other. What leadership lessons have you been learning during the pandemic that you’d like to pass on to other fellow leaders?
Robert: I think the first thing to do is really get down in the dirt with your people. They know it’s bad, they know you know it’s bad, and you have a lot of information that they would like to have. And so really just give them the honest situation, but also give them hope. We know that our hope is in the Lord. But we need to acknowledge the situation we’re in, we need to articulate what our plan is, and just let them know that we have their back.
And even though we might have to make some hard decisions, the first thing that we have to do, of course, as leaders is protect our organizations any way we can. Because we can’t rehire people, we can’t serve our communities if the organization is gone. So it’s a wonderful time to be a servant leader, to show people how to walk the walk, and really just cast a vision for this season and remind your people that you have a faith in Jesus Christ and that you know that God is in control, and that’ll be a great way to just minister to them at this time.
Al: Yeah. And I love it. Get down in the dirt. There is a season—this is a season—and it will be over, and to position yourself for the future with that hope. Yeah. I love it.
If I could borrow from the organization’s name, Classical Conversations, can you give our listeners a classical conversation, maybe from the Old or even New Testament, that reveals a leader who famously turned to and trusted God in midst of a huge crisis? Is there one that comes to mind?
Robert: Yeah. I’ve been reading lately Nehemiah, who was truly a great leader as he faced all sorts of obstacles, as he was told by God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. His enemies were snickering at him. The people, of course, had just been living life without the walls. And he was in troubled times like we are today. But he had a clear vision from God what needed to be done, he cast that vision to everyone else, he empowered others to do the work, and he did a great job preparing. And so I know we are all feeling a great season of responsibility for our team members, their families, our families, our community, and Nehemiah spent a great amount of time in prayer. And I know I’ve been spending a lot of time in prayer with our team and by myself, just asking God for wisdom and guidance. The people, they didn’t think the wall could really be rebuilt, but he did get buy-in and they just started working on it. It wasn’t easy, but they got it done. And we aren’t in an easy time either, but with much prayer and preparation, we can get it done as well.
Al: Just day by day. And I’m struck in the Nehemiah story. Thanks for bringing that up. How he instructed people to, you know, he gave them responsibility. Here’s this section of the wall, and you are responsible for that section. And it did come about, yeah.
This has been great, Robert. Thanks. And as we wind down our time together, I wanted to save the best for last. I’d love if you could tell us a memorable story about an employee on your team who, working remotely, truly made a difference, and maybe for a parent and a family and with home-centered education. Do you have a story that you can share with us?
Al: Well, there’s a lot of stories right now about reaching out and loving our neighbors well; delivering homeschool supplies to those in need to help finish the school year off; and helping families with children suddenly at home, to start educating them well.
But right before all this, you might remember those tornadoes that hit Tennessee in the middle of the night? Well, one of those families was in our program, and they had their farm hit hard and ruined. And it wasn’t just their Classical Conversations community that helped, that reached out, and, of course, helped educate their kids and helped them rebuild, but also their church, their neighbors, even the farm suppliers that they had recently purchased equipment from came together to support them. And so they went from not knowing what was going to happen to their future to within two weeks, really having the farm rebuilt, having the finances they needed, and having their homeschool materials replaced by us. So it was really just an opportunity to see the love of community for your neighbor. And so that’s just a special story that I have.
Al: Yeah. Boy, that’s a great way to really kind of end the discussion, because as you’ve said at the beginning, and I really like everything that we’ve learned from this conversation, that technology-oriented tools are available, creating a rhythm, and then creating virtual community, because as human beings, community is important to us; as believers, community and worship, group worship, is even more important, but we can do that virtually. And you’ve really been very helpful in sharing with us some great ways of leading a virtual organization, having meeting rhythms, and some real practical tips on just even keeping the webcam on. And the way you suggest that we trust, that we listen, that we asked the five whys; these are all using the classical methods of leadership and how they apply in a virtual situation. Thanks for sharing.
One final thought, Robert, for our listeners, maybe an encouragement. What would you like to leave as a final thought to make a point with our listeners?
Robert: I mean, I’d just like to say that God is in control and that we have all we need to fulfill all He has called us to do. So I know it’s odd to go to the grocery stores and see that we’re out of toilet paper, but I’ve also heard reports that the bookstores are out of Bibles because people are buying them all up as well. So we’re going get through this, and I hope that we all become closer to God during this time.
Al: Robert Bortins Jr., the CEO of Classical Conversations in Southern Pines, North Carolina, thanks for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, and thank you for investing yourself in everyone who’s been listening and benefiting from all you’ve shared with us today. Thanks, Robert.
Robert: Thank you, Al, for the work you do at the Best Christian Workplaces Institute and how you’ve helped us serve our team members and their families more effectively through your Survey and the tools you guys have developed. So, have a great day.
Al: Yeah, thank you, Robert.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba. Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.