Name: Stephan Dohrn
Superpower: Designing virtual work spaces
Stephan Dohrn is a Managing Partner at Radical Inclusion, a company specialized in new ways of working and helping teams work better together remotely. We discuss the importance of connecting meaningfully, having an experimental mindset, and what the defining qualities are of a good remote leader.
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Lisette: Great. And we’re live. So welcome, everybody, to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies who are doing great things remotely. And I’m super excited today. I have Stephan Dohrn on the line.
Lisette: Stephan, you’re in Brazil. You’re from Germany.
Lisette: And you’re the managing partner at Radical Inclusion. And when I saw your LinkedIn profile, I just jumped on the chance to talk to you. You’re specialized in new ways of working, you advice companies and orgs on the use of virtual tools, and the design of virtual workspaces. So we had to talk. So thanks for doing this interview with me. I appreciate it.
Stephan: You’re welcome. Thank you for connecting with me.
Lisette: That’s great. Very, very fun for me for sure. Let’s start with the first question which is “What does your virtual office look like? Tell us a little bit about your setup and the tools that you use.”
Stephan: Well there’s always the two parts to a virtual office: one is the space that you’re actually physically in individually or in small groups; and then there’s actual virtual tools that I use or that we use in Radical Inclusion. So my own setup is I’ve moved from Germany to Brazil in January so it’s still quite flew it my personal setup. I usually work two to three days from home in a home office where right now, I won’t show you around because I’m sitting between boxes and unpacked suitcases and things because on Sunday, our container with the moving stuff arrived. And then two days, two to three days a week, I go to a coworking space. There’s an impact hub here in Belo Horizonte in Southeast Brazil where I live. And so I work from there two, three days a week, and two, three days from here. And that is mainly due to child bearing issues that we, my wife and I, split up who stays with the kids when.
Stephan: If I’m home, I have to be on-call if you will and kids running in and out of the office.
Lisette: And so that’s why you go to the coworking space.
Stephan: That’s where the other days, exactly, so I have a full day of actually concentrated work.
Stephan: It’s because of that I don’t really have a setup where I have a lot of personal stuff around. It’s really mostly me and my computer, sitting at a desk wherever there is space. But then there’s a part as I said earlier that there’s the online space so Radical Inclusion is me and two partners. One sits in Berlin, Germany and one in Brussels, Belgium. And we actually use sort of an image of a spatial office also a lot in the work with our clients to discuss what functions or what needs do people have in the office. We know this or we actually take it for granted in physical offices that we have a kitchen where we can go and grab something to eat and meet somebody casually on the way or that we have physical meeting rooms or in the old days, we had filing rooms where actually the physical files were stored.
Lisette: Oh, right.
Stephan: We have cupboards and desks in our offices, etc. And in the virtual world, we usually end up having email, and phone, and maybe some web conferencing tool, and that’s it. And then all the other needs that we have that are fulfilled in the physical office don’t really get translated into the virtual world. So we use this kind of image of an office quite often to get that point across this. You need to think a little bit more broadly than just what is the tool I need to write a document or to communicate with somebody. But what other needs are underlying that needs of connecting as human beings, needs of being able to communicate spontaneously and or planned. Those are often very different things to do. One usually involves scheduling which in the virtual world is you probably also know can be quite a drag.
Stephan: And so that enter to say that we have for the three of us, well it’s the three of us stable and then depending on the project, we bring in individual consultants, sometimes designers, or people that help us with media, with audio, or video stuff that we do for our clients. But it’s mostly the three of us, and we’ve put together a tool suite if you will that sort of works for us. And I think central to that is group chat where that all of the three of us have open all the time, and where you see when somebody’s online, and you ask anything from the casual “What’s going on?” to “I really need to talk to somebody now.”
Stephan: Or you just post stuff that you’ve been working on and then people give feedback asynchronously so it’s sort of the connection point if you will, and it serves a lot. There’s a lot of talk about the need for a water cooler or a coffee corner in virtual worlds and it I think is what that is for us. And it’s also our project management tool, it’s where we coordinate, it’s where we figure out our dates, etc. And then we use different tools for things like Dropbox and Google docs to store our stuff and to write jointly on documents. What else? Oh, and then the big one because we do a lot of trainings with our clients, so we actually use Webx training, the training center, and mainly we use that because you could do groups so you can do break out groups which is sometimes quite handy. It helps people to get a little bit more intimate even though it’s virtual, they can have a more intimate discussion on stuff and sort things out. Instead of having 10 to 15 people, they talk to three or four others, which helps quite a bit to go a bit deeper.
Stephan: Mainly why we have that. I think by now there are probably tons of other tools that are equally good or even better in some aspects but for some reason, they are not many that you can do groups in. And then for our own connecting between the three of us, we usually either Hangouts, Google Hangout or Skype depending on what’s open and where the other one is, who’s online in what tool at what moment. Sometimes you don’t open Skype and then people will find you somewhere else.
Stephan: So I think that’s sort of the office, the virtual office I’m hanging out in all day and where I find my two business partners.
Lisette: And tell me a little bit about Radical Inclusion and what you guys do. It looks like a really, really fascinating company actually.
Stephan: So what we do is help remote teams work better together if you will. Actually in the recent weeks, it’s become much more clear to me what it is that we are actually doing in terms of experientially with them is one of the feedbacks we always get from clients is that virtual is so distant, and so unpersonal, and so dishuman, and people are looking for that deeper connection and for—how would you call that?—for closeness in a way.
Stephan: And I think what we’re helping those teams to do is actually bridge distance to become closer and to have a feeling of working together that is similar to what they often might say nostalgically think how it was in the colocated world.
Lisette: It’s funny to think back and to think, “Oh, back in the good old days when we went to an office.”
Stephan: Exactly. Five years ago. So yeah, exactly. And then they forget all the times that it was actually quite a drag to be in that office, and to be disturbed all the time and to have meetings, to run from one meeting to the next and in different meeting rooms, and to just be annoyed that you have to sit there. And then they’re sitting in the virtual meeting and they say, “Oh but in a physical meeting, I can go so much deeper and I have so much more meaningful discussions.” But aside from the fact that that might not actually be true, I think what people are still looking for, they look for it in the physical and the colocated world, and they’re still looking for it in the virtual world, is this “How do I connect meaningfully in a conversation communicating in real time, in a meeting, but then also asynchronously as a team?” And basically, that’s what we do. So we help them connect at a deeper level.
Lisette: Oh sorry. You were going to say something else? I’m a chronic interrupter so I stop myself.
Stephan: No, no problem. And I just wanted to say that mainly we do that through training and team development processes so we give trainings where we show people how to create more engaging virtual meetings, how to connect more with their audience if it’s a meeting that I’m presenting something, or how to have a discussion that goes a little bit deeper than everybody’s, and then let’s meet again in two weeks, but then also training on how do you lead virtual teams, so what is different, what is actually different when you do that virtually as opposed to face to face, and then work with those that are sort of more open trainings where different people from different teams might come together but then also work with teams, so a marketing team in an international company or HR community in an international company, and helping them set up a structure, figure out how they want to use the tools that the company offers them. So often they don’t have much choice in that, right?
Stephan: And they have to do good with what they have. But even that, you can be creative within that frame. You can be quite creative and do things a little bit differently often. And then how to engage, what are sort of processes that you need to align around similar goals, to know about how different people work, and how to be accountable to one another so you can actually perform as a team.
Lisette: Do you find that this trying to connect meaningfully, is that what people are struggling with the most that you’re seeing with the clients that come to you or do they come to you with one issue and then they find out that that’s actually what they’re struggling with the most?
Stephan: Yeah, it’s never the reason they come to us, or yeah, “The reason is our meetings are boring,” or “We’re just not productive,” or “I can never reach my team members. How do I know they’re actually doing good work when they never reply to me?” So it’s really much more the surface issues and then as we go into the conversation, something that comes up very fast is that virtual is not so good as face to face, and face to face is so much better because I can see much more whether that person is connecting with me, is aligned with me or not. And then it goes into that “I want more, I need more meaningful connection.”
Lisette: Right. Okay, that ends up being the one thing that’s sort of the deeper.
Stephan: Exactly. And that’s why we found training to be quite a good vehicle because you can train people on the more of the surface things so how do you use that tool that you have in a good way and what can you do to make an engaging meeting, and to have people actually respond to you and not talk to an empty void when you’re in a virtual meeting. But at the same time, you’re showing them how to create an experience that is more fulfilling for everybody in that space.
Lisette: Do you ever have somebody who at the end of it thinks, “No, I still want to go back to the office. I still want to go back”?
Stephan: Probably. Probably yes. I think they accept that it is the way it is more than they did when we started out, I would say, and they probably can see how they can make the best of it. But in the end when we are, if you’re with somebody who’s in their 40s or 50s, they’ve had 10 to 30 years of experience where all that was colocated so to let go of that and to learn to do differently is just hard.
Stephan: And all the sensors that you’ve created in those 15, 20 years, they don’t work as they used to anymore so you don’t pick up as easily if that person on the other end is just in a bad mood or if he has a problem with you.
Stephan: And that just takes practice to readjust those sensors if you will.
Lisette: And do you find that’s the biggest resistance that people have as just sort of the not being used to it or is there another, I mean I guess what I should say is I hear a lot of managers saying “I don’t know what people are doing so it’s hard for me to trust” and to let go of a little bit of that control that you have just by seeing people in the office. That seems to be a big resistance point. But I don’t know what you’re seeing.
Stephan: We usually work with teams that are already remote so it’s really not a question anymore if you should allow more of that. That’s just how it is. That’s what they have to deal with.
Stephan: And then not dealing with it well and so they come to us and try to improve. So we rarely have that situation where it might be an option to do more virtual or more remote in a team. We do get that discussion of should we allow home office or not in companies but it’s funny because it’s usually not that direct managers that have the problem with it but it’s upper management that has a problem with somebody low in the company sitting at home working.
Lisette: Oh interesting.
Stephan: So it’s thinking about Vice President of this part of the company, and now all the people that are supposed to be doing producing for me are sitting somewhere where I have no control over them even though in the day to day work, they don’t really see them either, even if they’re sitting in the same building, right? So I find that quite interesting.
Lisette: Yeah, indeed. Why do you see people going remote? Why are the teams that you’re working with, why do they go remote?
Stephan: Part of it is a necessity. So we have a client that just restructured in a way that new teams that are created are all distributed. So when before they had marketing group in that location, a marketing group in that locate, a marketing group in that location, now they have a global marketing team that has people from all locations.
Stephan: So they just a year ago was restructured so the teams that we work with are just in this new situation and they want to make it work.
Stephan: So that’s one reason. Another reason is for people to go more for the home office, it really is this “I need a day a week or a few hours a week to get stuff done” and they feel they don’t get stuff done in the office. I’ve heard that quite a bit. And then a group I work with quite a bit, a research institute, they have a lot of people in the home offices, and those people are working from their home offices for years, for decades even. It’s just been very understanding with some of their senior staff that wanted to move away from the center from the headquarters for family reasons.
Stephan: And so there you have a lot of these teams where one or two people are somewhere and the rest of the teams are all in headquarters. And that I think is another thing that we see a lot there is different types of these teams so that you have these teams where you have clusters in different locations, you have teams where it’s all individuals scattered around, and then you have teams where there’s a big group in one location and few outside, and they all have different dynamics.
Lisette: Yeah, and different challenges I’m sure that they’re facing.
Lisette: Yeah. And let’s talk a little bit about virtual team management because I always find that as super interesting. What’s the difference when you’re a virtual team manager versus when you’re a colocated team manager? They’re probably not a difference, what are some of the biggest differences that you encounter?
Stephan: I think if you want to sum it up, it really is about structure and being explicit about what you do and how you communicate. Being a good manager in a colocated team, the same sort of principles I would say apply also virtually. But because people are far away, or sometimes not so far away but far enough away so they can easily ignore you, you really have to take on those leadership lessons from even two, three decades ago is be a motivating facilitative leader and don’t do command control etc. You really have to take that on now and practice it because otherwise, people will just disappear into the internet and you will only get the minimum that they need to give you so you can’t do anything against them, right? So I think you really have to work much more through motivation trying to align your interest with their interest and what’s the space that we can walk together on as opposed to each doing their thing and then every week I tell you that you did things wrong, and then being very explicit about connecting. I think that’s the other thing that people often don’t do as they expect us to be the same as in the colocated team, only the difference is that when I’m in the same office building, I meet in the hallway, I walk by people’s offices, I see people in meetings. And usually before or after, I can have chats with them. So there are a lot of connection points where I interact that I don’t really realize are there, and virtually, they’re not there if I only have a once a week standing meeting of an hour, that’s often not enough if it’s somebody that I have to work with a lot, right?
Stephan: So you really need to keep that communication channel open all the time and be constantly connecting with the person to make sure that there’s communication flow or there can be a communication flow. Sometimes, it’s just about “Is there anything I should know?” and then their answer is “No, everything’s fine. Everything’s well” so great. But if you hadn’t asked, the person didn’t have the chance or didn’t even think of informing you that maybe it’s not going the way it should and that they’re going to be delayed with whatever they’re contributing to a project or to the team.
Lisette: Right. And I really like the concept of being more of a leader in that sense because I think you’re right in terms of it’s not the command and control thing anymore. You’re almost pulling information out of people and how do you motivate them to give you that or do the best work.
Stephan: It’s really much more coordinating than controlling and telling people what to do.
Lisette: Have you found the personality traits in virtual leaders that work or don’t work? Are there things that have stood out in really bad virtual leaders? I don’t know. I always ask.
Stephan: I would be curious to see if somebody has actually come up with a framework that works. We’ve tried several times to go down that road and develop something on virtual personalities and who works. Well, the initial motivation is “Are there traits that work better or worse in the virtual world and yes, there’s this typical things that come up is you have to sort of you have to know how to organize yourself alone and you have to in a way be self motivated to get up if you’re working from home, get up in the morning, get dressed, and actually do your work. But most positions where most knowledge workers if you will have that anyway also if they’re going to an office. They might have a bit more structure externally, imposed structure, and that might be a difference that you have to be able to create that for yourself. But they also have to be self motivated and they have to be proactive and do their thing. So I’m not sure it’s so special for a virtual worker. There are differences in that there are people that like to communicate much more in writing and those that are actually prefer to talk like we do now in voice or even video. And I think there are, we’ve just had a discussion with a team where some people are very comfortable picking up the phone and calling up the other people when they want to know something from somebody or when they haven’t heard from somebody and they want to find out how they are. And then the other half of the team that’s really interesting because it’s almost a split there, they’re very uncomfortable doing that. They don’t like calling people in the first place or even less when the other person doesn’t know that they’re going to call.
Lisette: Ah, the surprise call.
Stephan: This feeling that they’re going to be annoyed when I call or when they don’t pick up, how I am going to feel, this kind of thing. And we were just discussing whether it would help them to have a tech space to have a space where they can sort of connect with the person first before calling.
Stephan: I think that the differences in personalities, they come really through in what tools the team uses effectively.
Stephan: And how they use the tools. I guess with all that long explanation to come down to that.
Lisette: No, but I can see that actually because if somebody who hates using the phone gets an abrupt phone call, it kind of it’s sort of that space where they’re not expecting it and they don’t want to do it necessarily but if you just give them a few minutes warning that they can prepare their brain for what it is.
Lisette: And it’s just a style that I think people.
Stephan: Right. They can say, “Let me finish that email and then I’m available.” Yeah.
Lisette: Right. “Let me finish my thought of what I was working on. You’re just interrupting.” Right.
Lisette: Do you have a process teams go through for choosing the tools or for choosing the communication styles that they want to work with like team agreements is probably in the agile world the working agreement? Is there something similar that you do for virtual teams?
Stephan: Not as a process in the sense that you always do step 1, 2, 3, 4 but then we would take them through a discussion, yes. It depends a little bit on the context and on the team. And if it’s for a specific team that has some set conditions, then it’s very different because then we know already these are the tools they have and that’s just what they have to work with. And then the discussion is “How can we use what we have in a good way?” And if we figure out there are gaps or there are issues that they can’t work around with what they have, then they have a strong argument to go to their management or their IT and say, “We need to do this and we can’t do it. Give us something that helps us do it better.”
Stephan: And then in that case, we can even help recommend stuff and search for things but we usually don’t start with that.
Lisette: Okay. I’ve heard that a lot in companies that say, “I’m not allowed to install any external applications.” I mean in the bigger companies, this seems to be more common; or I’m not allowed to use video. And in the beginning, you said that you’d encourage people to be creative with what they have. And I think the really common challenge actually with people in big companies where their hands are a bit tied on what they’re allowed to use. How do you encourage people to be creative with what they have? I don’t know if you have any example or story because I see it a lot and I never know what to tell people. I always think, “Yeah, if they’re binding your hands, well they’re binding your hands.” I don’t know how many rules you want to break to make this happen.
Stephan: I think there are two things that happen: One is that we don’t necessarily encourage that because we obviously work with the client organization, not with a specific team but what happens a lot, we see a lot is that people just go around and use some cloud application because that works for them. And I find it interesting how a lot of IT departments, IT teams in the companies don’t really see that undermines them and they are not ready to do something about it. Yeah, then we probe it even more, it seems to be sort of standard response.
Lisette: Oh really?
Stephan: So that’s one thing. It’s that they actually go out and are creative on their own and are just looking for whatever tool works for them. What we’re trying to do is start with what you have and experiment with it, not necessarily coming out with—I’m trying to think of a use case—well there’s a client that they use IBM Connections, the Lotus Connections as Communities and they use it also for team spaces. And there always an overview field where you can put in what the space is about and people in that company have started using it as the news field. So they just overwrite the community description for the latest biggest news, and that’s what they put there. And then when it’s not new anymore, just make space for the next thing about “We’ve just posted this and this in there and there. Here’s the link” or “Our next meeting is then and then” because it’s the first thing that people see when they go to that space.
Stephan: So they don’t have to click down and go into one of these subtools.
Stephan: And it’s not easy to edit that all the time and everybody has to be an owner of that community to be able to make that work but the result is much more practical than going where it’s easy to edit and then people don’t find it because it’s buried in some four layers of other things that you have to search for.
Stephan: So that might be an example for where people have been creative in using the tools in a different way. And then really I think it actually goes back to one of the questions you’ve asked earlier is what people have most trouble with, and I think one of the things that we get to hear a lot is that they don’t want to invest time in trying out things that work and that don’t work.
Lisette: Interesting. Of course.
Stephan: It’s “Give us the solution and then we’ll be productive. Tell us what we have to do.” And first of all, I don’t believe that’s possible but I also don’t think that it works. I mean this sort of prescriptive way of saying “This is how you run this type of meeting,” then you have to develop processes for so many different things, in the end takes more time than just figuring out for themselves over a period of time what works and what doesn’t work. So I don’t think it actually saves time but for me, that’s also very much against how I think learning should happen.
Stephan: And how people should develop new skills and abilities.
Lisette: It does seem to be quite a change from the office to the virtual office because it is, at least at the moment, it seems that you have to really have an experimental mindset when you go to virtual office.
Lisette: Because the tools are developing so quickly and the needs are developing so quickly.
Stephan: You have to have some curiosity as well to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. And I think the processes that we take people through help with that definitely because it carves out that space to experiment together and it gives them a space. I think one of the things that comes in here as well is people don’t want to make mistakes in front of others. So I don’t want to create a workshop process and present in a new way when I don’t know whether it works well or not because I’m going to make a fool out of myself in front of my colleagues.
Stephan: And as soon as you give them this sort of more protective space where everybody’s forced to experiment, it becomes easier.
Stephan: Yeah, it becomes easier.
Lisette: Do you see a generational gap with that at all?
Stephan: To the extent that people think. Younger people tend to be more ready to experiment with tools in technology but generally at the mindset of being curious about how to work differently and trying out things, in every age group, you have people who are very resistant against changing the way they work even if you promise them it’s going to be much better afterwards, even if you can credibly promise it to them, they’ll still want to invest time and energy. And yeah, in every age group, you have those people and you have those who say, “Oh yeah, it’s getting boring. Let’s try out something new.”
Stephan: The people that are more used to dealing with technology so the younger generations are more willing to try out different tools and just go and create an account and try out something, and if it doesn’t work, then “I just have an account that I won’t use anymore.” With older generations, you usually get, “Then I have to create an account and what do I do with that account then?”
Lisette: Right. Oh, right like [inaudible—35:20] later.
Stephan: Exactly. How can that just be there in the space? They don’t feel comfortable with those loose ends that younger people feel much more comfortable with that.
Lisette: Alright, just leaving your trail of tools behind you.
Lisette: As you leap forward. So now we’re coming to the end of our time but I want to ask your advice for teams that are just starting out. How do you advice people to get started other than taking your trainings of course.
Stephan: Yeah, obviously.
Stephan: I think it’s to be conscious that it takes time to set up your processes, your tools, your spaces that you communicate in, that you collaborate within, and to not jump to conclusions too fast, to not take decisions too fast. I think that’s sort of the biggest thing that I think most teams that we work with tend to do is that they “Okay, now we found something that works more or less, let’s get on with it.” And it usually ends with them having to reopen the discussion a few months later because they figure out that it really doesn’t work at all because they forgot about the use case or some need they had or they figured they have a new team member and that person can’t go on that tool because they’re sitting in China and it’s blocked or something like that.
Lisette: Right. Right. That’s actually just happened to me last week with a team member so yeah, it happens.
Stephan: Exactly. I mean that can always happen so that probably is the other advice. Just be aware that this stuff changes all the time and you will always encounter stuff that doesn’t work as planned so you just have to be much more adaptive and agile in the way you organize yourself.
Stephan: So time is one thing, and the second thing, time change, and then the third thing would be invest in connection. Invest in connecting with people, getting to know each other, building relationships, and make an explicit effort to connect with people regularly because we tend to not do that in the virtual world in remote teams. We come to a meeting, it’s all about business, and then we log off and we have no clue what the life outside of that meeting is for the other people.
Stephan: And that then leads to misunderstandings and it all goes exponentially wrong once the little things start going wrong in terms of interpersonal relations.
Lisette: Right. We make a lot of assumptions really fast.
Stephan: Exactly. Yes.
Stephan: And it really helps knowing the other person well. It doesn’t mean you all have to be best friends but knowing how they tick, how they like to communicate, whether they maybe are night owls or early birds, it helps a lot figuring out why they have a bad mood in meetings.
Stephan: And these kinds of things, you just don’t know spontaneously. You have to talk to people and find it out.
Lisette: Right. Yeah. It does help. It does help when you think oh yeah, they have three—there’s somebody I work where they have four children–so chances are when they’re tired that day, it’s because of the children.
Lisette: It’s a lot of children.
Lisette: So the final… I do. I can’t imagine…
Stephan: I have two.
Lisette: It’s exponential I think, the number of kids you have and the trouble that it must be.
Stephan: Somebody told me that once you have a certain number, you add one, it doesn’t add much more work.
Stephan: So it plateaus off at some point.
Lisette: It’s a different kind of curve.
Stephan: Exactly, yes.
Lisette: So the last question is if people want to get in touch with you and learn more about the workshops and the trainings that you offer, what’s the best way to get in touch? Where should they go?
Stephan: So there’s our website, Radical-Inclusion.com that gives sort of a general overview of who we are and what we do. There’s email and it’s on the website but it’s Stephan with ph and then @radical-inclussion.com. And then you’ll find us on Facebook and Twitter, the usual suspects as well. It’s been my experience that people like to go to the website as a first contact but anything goes with regards to…
Lisette: You’ve got the virtual world covered.
Stephan: We’ve got the virtual world covered and we respond to wherever their message comes from.
Lisette: Great. Great. Well thanks so much. I thought you had a lot of great tips for people. I think people are going to be lucky to hear your interview.
Stephan: Thank you.
Lisette: So thanks very much for talking with me.
Stephan: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it a lot.
Lisette: Great. And until next time, everybody! Be powerful!
Stephan: Yeah. Bye!