How can organizations meet the wildly unique needs of individuals working in remote, global settings? The SMG Events team spoke with Michelle Burrows, CMO at Splashtop, for her insights on this pertinent topic.
Like many of us, Burrows views the challenges of her life and career as opportunities to grow in resilience. Her experience managing a global team, back before “hybrid work” was a whisper of an idea, grew her in ways that prepared her for the unforeseeable pandemic-driven changes of the last few years. Early in her career, working with different cultures, different languages and completely different ways of doing business taught her important lessons in customizing her approach in order to motivate wildly unique individuals.
The Art and Science of Leadership
Simpler Media Group: First, tell us a little about you. How did you decide to study communications, public relations and advertising? Have there been changes in the industry that you didn’t anticipate when you chose it?
Michelle Burrows: I am one of the lucky ones that always knew what I wanted to do for a living. Even as a kid, I loved marketing. While my family enjoyed the programming on television, I would shush the room during commercials. I enjoyed the storytelling and the intrigue of it all, often more than the program itself. Studying communications and advertising seemed natural when it was time to choose a major in college. I had “Mad Men”-like dreams, albeit a bit more inclusive with a bit less in-office drinking!
Marketing is ever changing, which is another quality that I appreciate. The biggest shift I have seen throughout my career involves data and dialogue. Marketing used to be all about the “art” of storytelling — how things look and are perceived. While storytelling has become even more important to differentiate and cut through the noise, the decisions we make are married tightly to data. Brand-centricity has been replaced with customer-centricity, and that requires an understanding of your customers and alignment with their needs. This has created more mission driven companies, which brings me to my next point. Brands today have more of a dialogue with the public than in the past. Consumers are vocal about their needs and desires. There’s more of a convergence between brands and culture and technology, which keeps marketers on their toes.
SMG: Tell us about a challenge that had a big impact on you. What were some learnings that you’ve carried with you ever since? Any advice you’d care to share?
Burrows: When I first became a leader, I wasn’t very good at it. What normally happens in an organization is you do really well as an individual contributor, and one day as a reward, you are given a team. I thought being a manager was giving folks a list of to-do’s and then following up on that list. What I learned through trial and error is people need to be and feel empowered. My advice for other leaders is to figure out how they can empower their teams more and give them autonomy. I’m always blown away by the ideas and the magic that is created when you give your team a “what” needs to be done, but not the “how.” You’ll be amazed at the creativity that you unleash.
SMG: You’re leading a session titled, “Solving the Remote Dilemma.” In what way do you feel your experience through the pandemic gave you unique insight on this topic?
Burrows: When the pandemic hit, like many people, my team and I were going into an office every single day. Then, all of a sudden, we were home, endeavoring to complete collaborative projects in sub-optimal conditions, trying to make work work. I remember the panic I felt over the launch of a new website. How can we do this without a whiteboard? How are we going to map out customer journeys when we’re not in a room together?
This experience caused people to get creative and unlearn constraints we had given ourselves. We found tools to duplicate the whiteboard experience, while all being safely at home. The gravity of protecting my team and myself became front and center when I lost my aunt to COVID-19 just prior to vaccines being available. At the time, I had a few women on my team who were pregnant, and we kept figuring out ways to work remotely so that they would be safe. It just wasn’t an option to force them back into the office.
Beyond collaboration, I remember how painful the experience could be when having laptop issues. IT teams were stretched to their limits at the time, trying to create remote offices in a high-stress, high-stakes environment. End users became begrudging partners in the troubleshooting process, having to be navigated step-by-step to resolution rather than stepping aside and allowing the IT pros to take over. In my personal experience, I kept thinking that there must be a better way.
The IT Challenge With Remote Work
SMG: What are some ways IT teams can 'ensure people can do their work as if they were in person'? How can IT teams ensure success even for those people who are less comfortable/familiar with technology?
Burrows: The most important criteria for an in-person experience are performance and reliability. With the right technology, employees should be able to turn on their laptops wherever they are, and run the same programs, conduct the same work, without any hurdles or latency. With Splashtop, I simply log in to my computer and start working. It’s an identical experience to working in an office, and just as secure, with the only exception being that I’m not face to face with my team. Working with video and large graphic files makes no difference, it just works. And that is what I mean by an in-person experience. It requires the right technology, and with that, the fact that you are remote is irrelevant. In addition to performance, a remote access solution should be reliable, with the ability to rapidly troubleshoot remotely in the event that something goes wrong. That too, mirrors the office experience because you can hand over your computer to IT just as you would in the office.
SMG: What are the challenges IT teams face when managing a remote or hybrid workforce? How might those challenges be addressed?
Burrows: It’s been a huge mind shift for IT teams who have been on the frontlines, figuring out how to make remote work happen and be successful. Today, the real challenges involve maintaining security and providing support. With a distributed staff using a variety of devices and operating systems, IT leaders and technicians are overworked and stressed because in many cases, they are facing a higher volume of tickets with a longer time to resolution. Much of this stems from difficulties around the onboarding, offboarding and troubleshooting processes with many of the more clunky remote access tools. The right platform should be device-agnostic and integrate with existing workflows, with the ability to remotely control and support devices that need troubleshooting. Additionally, the rise of digitalization has created a new wave of opportunity for cybercriminals to take advantage of businesses in the form of ransomware. This puts enormous pressure on IT teams. Those two factors are the biggest challenges that I see facing IT teams in the future.
Weighing Next Steps: Remote, Hybrid, In Office
SMG: As companies continue to adapt to global changes, what insights can you share on deciding whether to function as remote-first, fully remote or hybrid?
Burrows: I recently said this in another interview, but there is no going back to the way things were. No one is going to be willing to go to an office five days a week. When a company is deciding on remote-first, fully remote, or hybrid work arrangement, the top three things they need to evaluate are the interactions teams need, the location of talent, and the maturity of their workforce.
For example, a whiteboard session between product and product marketing may be more effective in-person, but that doesn’t mean that the teams need to be in the office all the time. In fact, constructive internal reflection is essential to the creative process, which is probably why our best ideas come to us in moments of quiet thought.
Alternatively, a large share of people are perfectly capable and thrive in a remote environment, which can yield advantages for businesses as well, particularly to the recruiting process. The perk of a fully remote workforce is you can hire the right talent regardless of location, and that is powerful in difficult job markets like we are seeing today and since the great resignation.
Lastly, there is a social aspect to consider as well, particularly for younger workers that may miss having those in-office interactions (Microsoft study). Gen Z in particular — who are just beginning their careers — may feel disconnected if they are only working remotely.
In the end, there is no silver bullet, and businesses need to take a hard look at what their employees are telling them as well as the dynamics of the business.
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