Shane Metcalf of 15Five: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Get together in person at least once a year. We actually built 15Five as a remote-first company from day one, with some concentrated hubs. Once a year (minus the pandemic year) we fly everyone to some awesome location for a week-long transformational business retreat. We do a lot of strategy and visioning, but we also offer tons of opportunities for personal growth and life visioning. We also have every department hold at least one retreat in person each year. It’s not cheap, but the ROI is massive. We are eagerly anticipating our reunion in 2022!

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 Shane Metcalf, a keynote speaker who advises on how to build a world class workplace. He is also one of the world’s leading pioneers in the space of cultural engineering and positive psychology. His insights have been featured in Inc., Fast Company, Business Insider, Washington Post, Tech Crunch, and Bloomberg. Shane and his team support HR Executives with data-driven people management.

15Five has won numerous awards for their company culture, including the prestigious Inc. Best Workplaces award and is ranked #3 in the U.S. on GlassDoor. 15Five has worked with thousands of corporations from around the globe like HubSpot, Spotify, and Citrix to systematically scale authenticity and create extraordinary cultures.

After 15Five decided to go remote indefinitely and shut down their Silicon Valley office space, Shane and his family decided to pack up, move to Colorado, and make the most of remote work. He brings the unique perspective of communication beyond that of Slack and Zoom. Since he co-founded 15Five, Shane has spoken in depth about employee wellbeing, mental health in the workplace, and how effective communication between managers and their employees is the heart and soul of successful business practices.

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?

Somuch of what I’ve implemented at 15Five in my effort to build a world class culture was actually picked up during high school. The principal there designed our curriculum using Ken Wilbers’ Integral philosophy and AQAL (all quadrants, all lines of development) theories. So we learned the traditional subjects, but also got educated on the interpersonal and interior of the human experience. So much of the experience there was different — we had a four-day school week, there were constant activities designed to build emotional intelligence and authentic interpersonal relationships, and we did activities that helped us focus on discovering what we really wanted, like reading Joseph Campbell’s “A Hero with A Thousand Faces” and writing the story of our future as a hero’s journey.

After college, which honestly was quite a letdown after such a dynamic learning experience, I got my first real job in Private Equity. It bored me to death, and I dropped out of my career for five years to pursue transformational coaching work and personal development. After going down that rabbit hole, I emerged as an executive coach who probably had no business coaching founders and execs twice my age. I persisted and built a reasonably successful coaching career, and then I met David Hassell who mentioned the business he was working on developing that leveraged questions to create a continuous feedback loop to manage and up-level performance and engagement.

Three days later we joined forces and we’ve been building 15Five together for the past 9 years.

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

I didn’t start working with 15Five as a co-founder. I was just a committed and passionate employee who had been given carte blanche to build a transformational culture using all the social technologies and tools for personal development that I’d picked up over the years. Three years in, David sat me down and told me that he wished he’d made me a co-founder from the beginning, and that he was retroactively making me a co-founder with equal ownership in the company. I was beyond humbled and frankly, had my mind blown — both in that he saw me providing that much value to the company, and his character, as a Silicon Valley CEO who willingly gives away such a large chunk of his company without any real need to do so. To this day, I’ve never heard of a similar story in the valley.

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

“If you’re not amazed by how naive you were yesterday, you’re standing still. If you’re not terrified of the next step, your eyes are closed.”

I love this quote because it’s such a great description of development and the attitude we must have. The next step is rarely what we think it is. There are so many times in my life where if I had known how difficult the next step of the journey would turn out to be, I’d likely not have willingly signed up for it. Progress of any type requires letting go of things we’ve grown deeply accustomed to. It’s hard but it’s the realization we all must have to 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 definitely have to credit my CEO and co-founder David Hassell for believing in me more than I believed in myself. There have been a few moments in our journey when I’ve confessed my deep insecurity that I wasn’t good enough to take things to the next level, and he has always laughed and said, “that’s always what I say right before massive break through.” It’s like he doesn’t even entertain my own limiting beliefs!

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?

The vast majority of communication happens nonverbally — and video cannot cover that gap. Being in person allows for so much more nuance and empathy in communication. Trust is easier to build in person, as it allows more “blank space” interaction. Simply being together signals safety to our reptilian brain, and trust helps code that into our nervous system.

Being physically together allows for those spontaneous and unplanned interactions between people who don’t typically work together.

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?

Trust is harder to establish when we’re not in the same physical space. Our brains have to work extra hard to create a somatic experience of belonging with people we only see on video. It’s much easier to “other” them.

We also end up mostly interacting with people who we have scheduled meetings with, and those meetings are typically set up to get something done. So, we become more siloed and less connected to the “whole” of the organization. This makes it easier to slip into self-preservation and self-interest mode, which can have a larger impact on engagement and even performance.

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.)

The challenges of remote work are real, and yet it just means we need to be more deliberate and intentional about building dynamic cultures.

1. Create space to be human together. Every week we host an optional “Question Friday” where one person asks a non-business-related question that everyone then goes around the Zoom room and answers. A good group size is 15–20 people for 30 minutes, and you can easily use breakout rooms and have hundreds of people answering the same question. It’s truly amazing to hear all the stories, experiences, and perspectives that every single human being on this planet contains. Every week I’m amazed by the strength, humor, and love that is displayed in this exercise.

2. Start your All Hands meetings with 5 minutes of something fun and out of the ordinary. We do everything from gratitude reflections to meditation to pushups to dance parties to micro lessons on cultural history and human triumphs. It’s 5 minutes meant to elevate perspectives, take some deep breaths together, and hopefully have a little fun.

3. Do a relationship kickoff with direct reports. Have a structured series of questions for ICs and managers to get to know each other, their working styles, and ambitions on an uncommon level, and document that information for continual reference. In 15Five, we cover things like top strengths, career ambitions, feedback styles, communication preferences, and personal passions. This exercise builds trust, rapport, and great foundation for relationships to thrive. It also goes a long way to counter the mistrust that being remote can bring.

4. Get together in person at least once a year. We actually built 15Five as a remote-first company from day one, with some concentrated hubs. Once a year (minus the pandemic year) we fly everyone to some awesome location for a week-long transformational business retreat. We do a lot of strategy and visioning, but we also offer tons of opportunities for personal growth and life visioning. We also have every department hold at least one retreat in person each year. It’s not cheap, but the ROI is massive. We are eagerly anticipating our reunion in 2022!

5. Create better asynchronous feedback loops. Have every person answer a few questions about their week in a format that’s easy for managers to digest and respond to. In a void of information, people tend to go negative, so regular communication is key. A weekly asynchronous check-in that can drive a more meaningful and efficient one-on-ones is a secret weapon when it comes to staying on the same page and being connected to the subjective experience of our people. 15Five makes this really easy for people to habituate.

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?

As a company we have pretty good habits around communication because we’ve been remote from the beginning. However, this past year has presented its own set of challenges, as the majority of humans have been in a state of survival and overwhelm. When our amygdala is activated (in fight, flight, or freeze mode) the brain has a much harder time processing new information. No matter how good the remote communication systems are, it has still been a struggle to get the right information to people and have them receive it in the environment we’ve been in for the past year.

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?

  • Not to just plug our own products, but the Check-In feature in 15Five has truly been a life saver for teams to stay connected and in the loop with each other. Zoom, while it has its downsides, is truly a blessing in being able to see eye to eye, though it’s also really important to pay attention to the content and structure of video-based meetings. Without ways of creating lightness and relating authentically on a Zoom call, it can easily turn into just a soul sucking and transactional interaction.
  • I’ve been playing with a product called Cosmos Video that essentially puts you into an 8-bit video game avatar that you can then walk around and when you get close to someone else, a video chat box pops up. It’s a fun way to have more random interactions that aren’t focused on work projects.
  • Slack also deserves an honorable mention — both for business collaboration, but also for “fun” channels, like “Pets of 15Five” and “Parents of 15Five” and “15Five Rainbow” and “Women of 15Five.” It has allowed for more of the multi-faceted humans to show up, and that’s a good thing.

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

I’m already building it! But in short, a platform that increases the truth-telling bandwidth in a company so that people are on the same page and can shift from covering their asses to problem solving. Technology that leverages questions that are designed to get to the root of people’s experiences — the wins, the aspirations, and the struggles.

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?

Well, it’s definitely increased the need for ways of keeping people on the same page when it’s really easy to hide behind video or simply not pay attention. Internal comms requires a multi-channel approach to really ensure that everyone is operating from the same set of information.

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?

One outcome of the pandemic is that we will now host a virtual retreat once a year at the half-way mark of our in-person retreat. I’ll be experimenting with a VR experience for the next one, though it’s too soon to tell if multiple hours a day with a chunky headset will just drive people crazy.

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

We’ll be going back to offices before you know it, though most companies will likely adopt a hybrid model. We need ways to ensure equitable treatment and process for people who work in person and those that work remote. There’s a lot of work to do to make sure remote workers aren’t treated as second class citizens.

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?

It’s kind of amazing how much easier it is to hop on a Zoom call versus spending thousands of dollars flying to visit a customer for a one-hour meeting and then do all the travel in reverse. We already were offering chat bots, doing video calls with all customers and prospects, so in reality it hasn’t changed that much, but there is a huge opportunity to use digital communication advancements, like bots and AI, to further engage and educate customers.

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?

  • It needs to be a regular process. If you never give feedback or have meaningful conversations about the quality of each other’s work, it will likely be awkward when you do. If you regularly discuss what’s working and what can be improved, the conversations are less awkward because people understand each other better and there aren’t big surprises. This is why regular feedback loops and the entire category of “Continuous Performance Management” is blowing up right now and is so needed. We have to move away from the annual review as the only time we engage in constructive feedback and dialogue to help each other grow.
  • Another key is to get people to engage in feedback-seeking behaviors. Train your people to ask for feedback on the regular. Neuroscience has proven that when we’re the ones asking for feedback, it’s far less threatening to receive it. That’s why we’ve built tools to make that process much easier and in the flow of work.

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

Lead with vision — always lead with vision. Paint a picture of what the world will look like if you succeed. That focus on a transformational outcome is what will be the true north that aligns everyone to move in the same direction. Make the vision strong. The stronger the vision, the stronger the alignment. And don’t share the vision once, share it every chance you get.

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 would love to inspire companies to shift from a system that exploits people and the planet for profit to one where we all make more money by regenerating ecosystems and unlocking the potential of the humans within them. Companies should be incubators for the genius that lies at the heart of each human, not a soul crushing meat grinder.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow me on LinkedIn and subscribe to our Podcast, HR SuperStars

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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