Melissa Jones of CSAA Insurance Group: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

I think one of the primary benefits of having a team physically together is the “water cooler” conversations that can occur spontaneously throughout the workday, which can lead to innovations that develop through the exchange of ideas. Those conversations can also help build your company’s culture by keeping employees closely connected in an organic way.

Weare 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 Melissa Jones, Chief Human Resources Officer at CSAA Insurance Group.

Ms. Jones leads the company’s efforts in corporate culture; employee and CEO communications; enterprise program management; charitable programs; talent management and leadership development; employee benefits, such as wellness, recognition and pension programs; and diversity and inclusion. Under her leadership, the company has achieved a perfect score in the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality index for LGBTQ workplace equality, and she co-founded the company’s Women’s Professional Network, which was created to empower women to take risks, use their voice and make an impact in the workplace and in the community. She is also the executive sponsor of the Black Employees Association. Ms. Jones has been recognized with the Industry Leader Award from the Professional Business Women of California, and also sits on the board of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano County. She received a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from California Polytechnic State University and her MBA from Brandman University.

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?

Ididn’t set out to be an HR person. I started college as a chemistry major, thinking I was going to do something in pharmaceuticals. But after my first year, I realized that it was probably not the right career path for me. So I took a more general path and chose social sciences. I got a job right out of college working in payroll and benefits, and that’s really where my career started. I realized that a career in HR is industry-agnostic, so there’s a lot of opportunity, and you have a significant influence on shaping a company’s culture. That’s what brought me to, and keeps me at, this particular organization.

CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA Insurer, has a strong focus on creating a culture that’s inclusive, where everyone can find something that’s meaningful for them, whether it’s inclusion and belonging, wellness or volunteerism — and that’s meaningful for me. We’ve been focused on transforming our organization, becoming a more customer-focused company that’s flexible and ready to meet the challenges of change. We have really exciting opportunities for people who are interested in being innovative and working on changing a company that’s more than 100 years old so that we can continue to remain relevant in the future.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I worked in banking for a long time up until the financial crisis in the 2009 timeframe. Through an acquisition, I knew my job and the jobs of about 3,000 employees I worked with were going to be eliminated. My team and I made it our mission in a very challenging economic time and job market to focus our last months with the company on creating opportunities for others through means such as job fairs and creating networking opportunities. By the last day of employment, about one third of the population had new opportunities. That included me in a consulting capacity with a connection I made through setting up one of the job fairs. I knew at the time that my career was going to be focused in HR, but it really reaffirmed my passion for helping my community in a way that was aligned with the work I do.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off” is my mantra. I am extremely resilient, and I had to develop that capability because I have a pretty strong internal critic. I think my resiliency has really served me best in my career. You can’t please everyone 100% of the time, and if I let that always get to me, it would be really difficult to be in this line of work. Sometimes I have ideas for the organization, but it’s just not the right time. It doesn’t mean no forever, it just means not right now. The whole notion of persistence and not letting yourself get knocked down all the time. And if you do fall, get right back up, dust yourself off and move forward.

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?

I recently chatted with a group of employees through a discussion forum we hosted and talked about my career journey and what helped lead to my success. There are three things I’d highlight: 1) Work really hard; 2) Be resilient; and 3) Know when to ask for help. The last one is so important and so hard at times. You want to appear capable and competent, but everyone needs helps at some point in their life and career. I’ve had champions throughout my life and my career, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. It’s the people who can be truly honest with me that I find the most helpful. Advice such as stop multitasking, because you don’t come off as present when you’re doing so. And stop doing things that make you look smaller, because it can affect the impact you have; talking too fast or too quietly, slouching when I sit, crossing my legs when standing and present — all made me physically smaller, and I’m small in stature to begin with. I didn’t know if was ever doing those things, and I really appreciate direct, honest and helpful feedback.

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?

I think one of the primary benefits of having a team physically together is the “water cooler” conversations that can occur spontaneously throughout the workday, which can lead to innovations that develop through the exchange of ideas. Those conversations can also help build your company’s culture by keeping employees closely connected in an organic way.

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?

To echo what I said above, networking opportunities can be hard to duplicate remotely. The spontaneity can be lost, so we need to be more intentional about creating such opportunities when working from home.

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”? (Please share a story or example for each.

With 98% of our employees working from home, it’s important to us to make sure that all of our coworkers continue to feel included, connected, engaged and heard. We’ve developed a wide range of resources for our WFH employees that can help maintain and even strengthen our inclusive workplace, in virtual space.

Shift accountability from the leader to all team members

  • Realize you all have a role to play in the team’s success. You’re not only relying on your manager’s leadership. (This also aligns with CSAA IG’s core belief, Personal and Mutual Accountability.):
  • Redefine what “team” means to you. For example, have any expectations or communications changed, now that you’re virtual?
  • Commit as a team to support each other.

Identify your team’s needs and create transparency

Take the time to answer these questions with your team, to inspire greater understanding, trust and loyalty:

  • Are there non-negotiable hours when we are available or not?
  • Are there ways to manage work shifts differently?
  • Do we need to recalibrate workload demands among the team?
  • Do we need to clarify or shift accountability for ongoing work or special projects to help preserve work-family boundaries?
  • How do we make time for de-stressing?
  • How will we recognize and appreciate each other?
  • Will we have set meetings to manage the changes?

Intentionally plan to include input from everyone

  • Be thoughtful in making sure everyone can be heard and understood
  • Agree on a regular meeting cadence.
  • Make sure there’s equitable access to the tools everyone needs to contribute.
  • Turn on the video function during Teams meetings.
  • Avoid using acronyms.
  • Identify yourself before speaking; include preferred pronouns if you wish.
  • Avoid making report-outs or status updates the entire focus of your meeting, particularly if you are trying to problem-solve.
  • Identify a single, team-health check-in question to discuss each meeting, e.g., “What can we do when we lose energy during a meeting?”

Be kind and understanding

  • Be inclusive and remember that everyone has different circumstances:
  • Treat your coworkers with respect, whether they’re with you or not (physically or virtually).
  • Be patient with one another.
  • Try to be as clear as possible in online conversations.
  • Build a sense of team through virtual coffee/tea chats with colleagues.
  • It’s important to practice self-care. Learn to recognize your own stress, and make time for your physical and emotional needs.

For people leaders, learn how to better support your employees working at home

  • Clearly set expectations for productivity when working from home. You may need to play a larger role in monitoring productivity than you typically do, especially for employees who may not be used to working from home.
  • Talk with employees about their experience working from home. Try to understand any challenges they may have, and ask directly what they need and how you can best provide support to them.
  • Help employees make their time at home more effective. Ask if there’s any equipment, tools or supplies they need. While you probably can’t buy them new equipment or furniture, just having a conversation about how they might work more efficiently and comfortably might be helpful.
  • Increase check-ins with employees and maintain regular contact. Sending an email or making a phone call every day or two is a minimum. Continue your one-on-one and team meetings, virtually, of course. Continuity is more important than ever with a remote team.
  • Encourage the use of the video function (Zoom/Teams/Skype). Seeing each other face-to-face can help employees feel more connected and increase engagement.

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?

I’m very proud of the way our employees have met the challenges that the pandemic has presented. We were able to move our workforce to 98% working from home very quickly and smoothly, and our employees have continued to serve AAA Members, our partners and each other without sacrificing quality of the experience. And in many cases, we’ve seen an uptick in productivity. For those employee who require the use of a cell phone for work, we do offer either a company-issued device or a stipend if using your own personal cell phone for work. Additionally, we offer soft-phone capability through laptops, which are now the standard issue for every employee. We also provide an internet reimbursement for employees who work from home.

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?

We use the Microsoft suite of products, and Teams has been invaluable. As mentioned above, seeing each other face-to-face can help employees feel more connected and increase engagement. In the wake of COVID-19, we’re also using Teams and Zoom for 100% virtual interviewing and hiring. How we’re conducting business during the pandemic will likely have a significant impact on how we want to do things going forward in the long term.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Recreating the in-person experiences (hallway conversations, brainstorming, innovation, etc.) is going to be critical to supporting a dispersed workforce in the future. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s available to us, and I firmly believe to compete for the best talent in the future, flexibility with the ability to maintain our culture and what make us unique will be critical.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

There have been some great unified communication and collaboration tools out there for a while now, but the pandemic has definitely increased both the need and the appeal. I think many people, including me, have been pleasantly surprised at just how well our work could be translated into a virtual world.

What I think will be interesting is seeing how the workplace will adapt to using these tools when some people are back working in the office and others are still working from home, whether part-time or permanently. But that blend of work scenarios will be the reality for a lot more companies after the pandemic subsides, and that will be one our next challenges to navigate in the workplace.

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?

Any technology that helps simulate in-person experiences is exciting to me. We believe that greater flexibility is critical to attracting and retaining top talent. We also believe that our culture sets us apart from other companies. In order to maintain and potentially enhance the employment and culture experience, we need to shift our programs to be delivered in a variety of modalities. We’re also just beginning the leverage all the capabilities for virtual meeting and team experiences offered to us through the M365 platform. We have a change-management plan to continue to roll out and drive adoption of those tools.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

We need to be purposeful about how we create equitable experiences no matter where you sit. It’s going to take an investment on our part both in real estate and technology because we previously designed programs and space with an in-person approach in mind. I’m excited about the possibilities and know that it will take work and commitment to achieve the expected outcomes.

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?

We were able to quickly and safely transition our workforce to work from home, while continuing to provide excellent service to our customers. Our goal has always been to leverage technology to meet customers where they want us to be.

As an industry, we need to try to keep up with the technological advances that consumers are demanding. We continue to invest in technology innovation to meet those new consumer expectations and are working hard to upgrade our digital capabilities to best serve our customers. The younger generations have never known life without a mobile device and have a very different set of expectations for who and how they do business. We must continue to innovate and challenge ourselves to exceed their expectations in how they want to interact with their insurance company.

We also rapidly adapted our claims processing. Many insurers introduced virtual, touch-less approaches for claims adjusting and inspections. Customers can share photos through apps or do a virtual inspections. For us, we had been using virtual tools for several years, but we ramped up our efforts to meet the increased need and demand due to COVID-19.

With a shift to a more remote workplace than ever before — and a likelihood that many companies will continue to have a higher proportion of remote workers after the pandemic — there will always be a continued need for new ways to connect with digital tools — for employees and customers. We have been doing a lot of work on what the “new normal” will be, and I believe this is providing the industry with an opportunity to be innovative.

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?

This goes back to my “5 Things You Need To Know.” Be kind and understanding. Be sure you understand your employee’s circumstances and don’t make any assumptions. Listen, but also set clear expectations and let them know you have their best interests in mind. Make sure your criticism is constructive, and that you have an understanding of how you can help them make the changes you want to see, especially in their current working environment.

Personally, I set expectations that unless there’s a good reason, cameras have to be on for meetings. It’s not exactly the 3D experience you get in person, but still helps with connection and non-verbal cues.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

I’m a big fan of setting up virtual social hours where team members can come together to just chat about their lives and spend some time that’s not about work. And it shouldn’t be compulsory — it should be an environment where colleagues can join if they want to, and talk about whatever they want — whether it be TV shows they’re watching, books they’re reading, or recipes they’re trying at home.

Every Monday at noon for 15 minutes, my team gets together and just talks. Work subjects are off limit, and we usually just check in with each other on what we did over the weekend. It’s a lot of fun and keeps us connected as a team.

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’m a big believer in wellness. I’m proud of what we’ve done in that space, but I’d love to get the whole organization and the whole world focused on how to take better care of ourselves. And not just physically, but emotionally. If we could take the stigma out of things like getting care for mental illnesses and disorders, we would create so much more productivity. While we are great as an employer that champions this, if I could really get broad adoption beyond our walls, we would make a huge difference in people’s lives and their ability to be more productive at work.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My work as well as CSAA IG’s, is highlighted on our social media channels — FacebookTwitterLinkedInInstagram.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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