Kona is a young technology startup focused on helping managers engage, motivate, and connect with their teams. In October of 2019, the company’s three founders, all UCLA students at the time, decided to shift focus and set their sites on remote management specifically.
One of the founders, Sid Pandiya, had struggled to motivate and connect with a team of remote developers in a previous startup. Another, Corine Tan, felt completely siloed off from her boss while remotely tutoring students in China. These experiences made them curious about best practices for remote management, and so they started reaching out to as many remote managers as they could find.
They have now interviewed over 450 remote managers, and the insights they pulled from these interviews have been used to build Kona, a Slack app to help managers discover more about their team’s personalities and use that information to lead with mindfulness.
With COVID-19 forcing companies across the world to work remotely, often for the first time, Kona’s tool and research quickly became a valued source for managers trying to succeed in these unexpected circumstances.
We spoke with Corine Tan about how perceptions of remote work have changed and why she feels soft skills are the key to remote management success.
UNITO: Kona shifted its attention to remote management only a few months before COVID hit and now your research is more relevant than ever. Being on the forefront of the conversation, what did you see change?
CORINE: We started our research in January and had maybe two months of pre-COVID interviews. But then everything changed.
We were initially targeting companies that were already remote-first, but COVID has created new challenges even for them. Companies have taken a step back and questioned whether they were providing enough resources, whether their people were at risk of burnout, and whether their company culture had long-term plans for remote work.
Make no mistake: this is a different kind of work from home. We call it “forced work from home.” As in, being trapped at home because you can’t go outside, go to a restaurant, or go to social gatherings. There’s a lot more work-life imbalance and a lot more pressure on employees to produce at the same level under several different kinds of crises.
What’s been inspiring for us these past six months though is seeing remote managers really step up to help their teammates. Before COVID, a lot of businesses talked about building trust and showing empathy. Now they actually have had to act on those discussions and follow through. We can’t pretend anymore. Work is bleeding into life and companies have to treat their teams like people.
With the shift in everybody’s remote reality, perceptions about remote work are also changing. What do you think will be the last impact of this remote experience?
One thing that we’re always talking about at Kona are those “best company lists,” which are typically culture-focused. What those lists look like now is completely different than what they’re going to look like in five or 10 years.
Right now we see culture as having in-office perks, cool coworking spaces, etc. Without that physical space, company culture comes down to a company’s values and how well every teammate upholds those values.
Millenials work for companies that they believe in, that they feel seen in, and that they have a voice in. The best company list of the future is going to be full of value-driven companies, not companies that provide free salads at lunchtime.
What’s the biggest error you’re still seeing businesses make in regards to remote work?
I believe that a manager who doesn’t prioritize soft skills will struggle to lead remotely.
In the 450 interviews that we’ve done with remote managers, we’ve found that the soft skills aspect is overwhelmingly the hardest part. It has nothing to do with figuring out Zoom or getting Jira tickets, it’s actually about building psychological safety and trust.
Without extending empathy it’s difficult to connect and build trust. And without trust it’s hard to build a highly effective and motivated team that can execute in a distributed setting.
Without in-person interactions, all you have is the people and relationships.
Are soft skills really as important to remote work as hard skills?
There are different stages of the remote transition. People who are at the start of the transition are naturally focused on tools and structure and how to translate office practices to online.
What we’re seeing right now, six months into quarantine, is that a lot of companies are realizing that remote work will extend until at least the end of the year. Leaders are starting to look at how they can make employees not just survive remote work, but thrive. And that’s where culture building, trust, and those soft skills come to fruition.
What do we mean when we’re talking about soft skills?
We mean communicating with your team and understanding how to meet each teammate. Individual teammates have different needs while remote. A simple difference between Google Hangout and Slack can create a bunch of avoidable friction.
Then, there’s giving feedback. How does your team like to receive feedback while remote? Are you creating unnecessary tension because you can’t see their reactions or read their body language like you would in an office setting?
Finally, there’s understanding yourself, your own needs and blindspots, and how well you’re impacting and supporting your team.
Soft skills make up eight out of the 10 most impactful skills for reducing employee attrition while remote. It’s those soft, squishy skills that make the difference. It’s about studying people, not your screen.
So how can businesses better prepare their managers for this new reality?
According to our research, managers are not starting remote work with the tools that they need. A huge number of managers had less than a year of remote management experience before going full time when COVID hit. These managers often don’t get enough soft skills training either. It’s seen as a nice-to-have, while people are being promoted into management based on technical skills. As a result, you’re left with leadership teams that don’t have the soft skills they need to succeed while remote.
That’s why we’re trying to build the “empathy platform for remote teams.” There are plenty of apps tackling your tactical, day-to-day remote operations. But there’s a deficit in culture building, soft skills building, and manager tools. So we’re building tools to help remote managers build their emotional intelligence using their existing tools and platforms. Kona is our solution for Slack, but wherever managers work, we want to support and encourage them to lead teams in a way that reflects their company culture.
What are the essential tools in your remote work tech stack?
We rely heavily on Tandem. They’re just fantastic. It’s great to hop into different rooms and say I need help. It’s just like the office shoulder tap.
We also rely heavily on Zoom for communications outside of the team. Slack is our main hub for work. We love HubSpot for our CRM and use Superhuman for email triage. Google Calendar usually dictates my day.
Thank you Corine for sharing your remote management insights with us!
Want to know what Unito did to take our remote management game to the next level? Check it out here.