HASSAN OSMAN is a PMO Manager at Cisco Systems and the author of Influencing Virtual Teams, a book filled with practical and concrete tips and advice on managing virtual teams. He leads large and complex projects with virtual teams around the world, all from his home office. He also runs a blog and teaches an online course about virtual teams. He is, in his own words, “obsessed with life hacks and productivity.”



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His tips for working remotely:

  • Be specific with the time, date, and the actual time zone when setting deadlines.
  • Change the subject line as the conversation and the email changes so that it’s trackable later.
  • Get to know your team members.
  • Be generous with your information and resources.

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Graphic design by Alfred Boland


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Original transcript


Lissett:  Great, and we’re live. Welcome everybody to this hangout on air. My name is Lissett Sutherland and I’m extremely excited today to be interviewing Hassan Osman about his new book: Influencing Virtual Teams, 17 tactics that get things done with your remote employees. So thank Hassan for being here and for letting me take the time to pick your brain and learn more about the book.

Hassan:  Thank you so much Lissett, very excited to be here.

Lissett:  So let’s start with the first question which is tell us a little bit about the book and why you wrote it?

Hassan:  Sure, absolutely. So I just launched the book in fact 5 days ago so it’s a very exciting time for me and just a little bit of context about myself so you get a little bit of contacts about who I am. I’m actually a Senior Manager at Cisco Systems where I lead large and complex project with virtual teams all around the world on delivering projects for Cisco *inaudible* Customers. And so I do this for a living. I basically eat and breathe the topic of virtual teams on a daily basis. And in fact I’m right here in my home office in Boston where I do 95% of my work. I do travel sometimes to visit customers but most of my time it’s really working from home. And I’ve been doing this for nearly 10+ years. You know, with Cisco I’ve been *inaudible* for nearly 4 years and before that I was in Management Consulting. I’ve also worked with virtual teams from an entrepreneurship perspective and so we did a book is about all my lessons learned through out those 10+ yeas and boiling them down into a list of 17 tactics that would help managers in large organizations manage their teams. As you probably already know, managing people is probably the hardest thing to do in the world right? I mean you can manage your own productivity, you can manage your own workflow, you can manage a lot of things that you do on a personal level but when you move into managing other people, it’s really a different ball game on it’s own. And this is what the book is about, it’s really managing people you don’t see and influencing them to get things done basically and get the job done that you want to accomplish.

Lissett:  So now, why did you write this book? I mean it would just to share your lessons learned or were there particular issues that you were frustrated with that you wanted to say like “Oh, everybody would just write a synched subject lines we could go so much further.” Was there a why or a frustration that caused this?

Hassan:  Excellent question by the way and the answer is yes. The biggest frustration with virtual teams is miscommunication right? I mean the ultimate problem that underlies why projects fail in a virtual team environment is because virtual team members don’t communicate well because of the lack of face to face interaction, the lack of body language, the lack of facial expressions and what have you from that perspective. And so when you’re managing people you don’t see, usually the adaption rates of getting things done go down dramatically. And I’ve worked in a consultive capacity before, I helped a lot of managers increase their effectiveness in managing virtual teams and one pinpoint is really the frustration of having to chase down employees to get things done, to basically stay on top of them to make sure that things are being done the way they should be. And so that’s where really the book came out off, it’s how you manage people in a way which is very natural and at the same time very effective. And this is what the book really covers, it’s really focuses on specific tactics and actions that you can just pick up and say “All right, this is a tactic I’m going to use today.” For example, one thing I cover on the book is about how to specifically set deadlines. You know, I’m very- usually when you talk to managers, the way they set deadlines with their teams is “Alright, I need this done in the next couple of days” or “We should get working on this soon.” They use words that are very ambiguous and not focused on a specific time and date. And one tactic I mentioned on the book is you really have to be very specific with the time, the date and the actual time zone that you need to get things by, done by, to be effective. This is really what the underlying problem that the book solves. It’s the fact that you don’t want to chase employees to get things done, you don’t want that sucking up a lot of your time and by really focusing on specific action steps that you can take, you will increase your team’s compliance and adoption rates.

Lissett:  Yeah, and then I found some of the tips- when I was reading the book, I found some of the tips, I was like “Yes, that’s exactly- that would really help. Yes, I’ve experienced that myself” and I know one of those was the one that I brought up which was the writing up the synched subject lines which sounds very silly and also setting deadlines. It all sounds so simple but I think when you get into the heart of it, writing a subject line and changing the subject line as the conversation and the email changes so that it’s searchable and findable and easy to use and everybody knows where things are, it’s just something that does truly help. Especially when you’re working remotely because you’re trying to bridge the distance of how to be closer and how to talk to each other well. So one question I have is do you have a favorite tip? Is there something in the book that, you know, like for instance I have my own favorite tip, things that I recommend to everybody which is working out loud. I love the concept of working out loud which is narrating your work and making it observable to others. And sorry I’m just getting excited, do you have a tip like that in your book?

Hassan:  Yeah that’s a fantastic question as well. So one tip that I encourage people to use that gives you the maximum return on investment on your time. Actually it’s tactic number one. I lead in the book and if you go to Amazon, in fact, you could read that tip without having to buy the book because it’s part of the look inside feature there. And the title of that tactic is how one word can influence your team. And that word is because. So whenever you need someone to do something, just follow it up with the word because and give a reason after that. And the reason why this works is actually based on a study called the Xerox study which is done back in the 70s. And it was conducted by a couple of psychologist where they wanted to see if people could cut in line in front of other people waiting in line for using these Xerox machine. Xerox machine for those of you who are not from the U.S. is basically a photocopy machine. They call it Xerox machine here just based on the company name but they basically conducted that study and have people just say “Oh, can I cut in front of you? I just have five pages.” Other people basically said “Can I cut in front of you? I have 5 pages, may I use this because I’m in a rush” and they gave those different sorts of justifications behind it and it turns out that it didn’t matter what the justification was after the word because. It was just using the word because that helped increase compliance by 133% which is shockingly high number. So I first heard about this actually form one of the big books of influence called the influence designs of persuasion by Robert Chaldidi. And I dug a little bit deeper into this and I kind of read about the original study and it was just fascinating to me. And ever since I started using it, I’ve actually seen the results there so, you know, whenever you’re delegating tasks to your team members, whenever you need something done, whether you’re hiring a virtual assistant or it’s really someone part of your team, using that subtle words really helps a lot. *8:16*

Lissette:  Letting people know why. Why you’d like them to do something.

Hassan:  Right. And I think the ultimate reason why this is- why this works is because we’re trained at a young age that, you know, from our parents that saying something like “I need you to do this because  it’s, you know, makes you grow and become healthy” and all that. So you’re kind of trained at a young age that the word because kind of helps justify the reason behind it.

Lissette:  Interesting. Another tip you bring up, and I’m not going to give away all the tips of course because we want people to read the book which by the way, you can be downloaded for free today. So today is the last day it can be downloaded for free. So I’ll put up the website in a second just to show people where they can download that on Amazon but you can also just Google influencing virtual teams and you will also find the link. But one of the tips that I really like was- or that you brought up was trust equals reliability plus likability. And this is I think a crucial, crucial thing on virtual teams It’s the trust because you have to trust each other. And I think reliability stood out to me because I think that’s one of the main reason- main ways you build trust on a virtual team but the likeability actually stood out and I wanted to maybe ask you to dive into a little bit more of the likability of people. I mean I certainly have managers, I have not liked. So how do they change this? How do I change this?

Hassan:  So *inaudible* you brought up the subject of trust because trust is a very big component of virtual teams and having effective teams. And the reason why I came up with boiling it down to a very simple formula is because trust is a very nervy response, that’s right. You can’t touch it, it’s not very pragmatic, it’s not an on/off switch where you either have trust or you don’t have trust, it’s more of a spectrum where you have varying degree of trust within a team, within two members of the team and it’s really hard to nail down how you can increase trust within a team. And so the simple formula of trust equals likability plus reliability helps a lot because you can increase trust by focusing on one or both of those things and a lot of people as you alluded to really miss out on the likability portion of it. A lot of people focus on the reliability part where you want a verify skill sets, you want to make sure that people are on top of things and that sort of thing. But the likability part is extremely important and based on a lot of research, a lot of psychologist really believe that this plays a very, very crucial role in trusting someone. So to oversimplify it, people you like or people will like you end up trusting you more. And this is a well known sort of feedy and sales and that sort of thing. This is why they use sales forces that are very extroverted and they love interacting people and they have a very public character. It’s because, you know, people who are like more end up being trusted more which usually translates to sales or higher productivity. And so from a likability perspective, we tend to undervalue that a lot in virtual teams because it’s very transactional. So in a virtual team, usually it’s “Hey get things done. Let’s run with it. Here are the action item, please go ahead and work on those and report back in a couple of days and that sort of thing.” And we don’t focus so much on the people aspect of it or the social aspect where it’s really important to build the relationship with the people you’re working with. That happens very naturally in a physical world, right? In a co-located space, you have people who interacts on a daily basis and I talked about this in the book, there’s something called the *inaudible* effect. Which was a feedy brought back by a psychologist, I think in MIT that showed that people who are just close together in a physical setting end up liking each other more just because of the daily interactions that they have. So you need to kind of replicate that in a virtual setting and it’s really hard to do if you don’t put a concerted effort into it. By using, for example the power of small gifts. So we do this usually naturally where, you know, you and I for example, we interact through email, through Twitter, I send you a quick article and say “Hey Lissette, you might find this interesting.” We talked about the green screen behind me just before we started this call and I’m going to be sending you a link on where you can find that for cheap on Amazon. So those sort of things, you know the the power of all sorts of small gifts, the power of small interactions *inaudible* things really help build the likability factor. And in a virtual team, you really need to spend some efforts into focusing on that to help build that trust.

Lissette:  Right, managers can be a lot more deliberate about being generous with their information and the resources that they have and in terms of building- I also find the likability an extremely important component to all of this because with the virtual team, you want to be collaborating and bringing each other information very quickly and it really helps if you like the person. Because if you don’t like somebody, the chances of you contacting them regularly or interacting with them regularly decreases I think based on how likable they are and how likable they aren’t. So I can imagine this is- yeah so this was a very interesting part of the book that I really enjoyed, that you have these concrete tips like being generous with information and resources. It really, really thought that was great.

Hassan:  And one thing I wanted to add in terms of likability and other things that- again, sometimes this happens naturally in virtual teams, it’s to get a little bit personal with your team members and I’m not talking about getting too intrusive where you’re violating any policies or laws or anything like that. But you know, knowing a little bit about their background, their hobbies, what they like to do on vacation, maybe spending sometime upfront during the meeting when someone’s kind of waiting on people to join. Using that kind of downtime or maybe at the end of the meeting just mentioning something about- anything unrelated to work really helps as well.

Lissette:  Great, great tips. So I’m going to share my screen really quickly for observers so they can find out where to get your book. Let me make sure I get it off the screen, we’ll start the screen share now so hopefully people can see this here. It’s the website where you’re able to get the book influencing virtual teams. It is free, maybe if I cut it here so it’ll say it’s free on Amazon today. For one more day, you’re able to get the book for free. But it’s worth the download and I think that they’re very solid tactics. Things that you can start using tomorrow to make sure that your virtual teams are being managed better to increase the communication. So I’m trying to keep this under 15 minutes so people will watch it but I do have a couple of questions about the work with your teams at Cisco and I’m wondering- because it’s a big company and a lot of people say “Oh, I just can’t work at a big company. There’s too much bureaucracy” but what works at Cisco and what doesn’t work? What have you all tried?

Hassan:  Right. So I want to preference this by saying my opinions about Cisco are my own and don’t represent a company because obviously it’s important to differentiate that. But you know, that’s a good question. I mean, just because it’s a huge company, as we talk it’s over 65,000 employees all around the world and Cisco is one of the biggest telecommunicating company as well. So we actually sell products that help other huge organizations have a telecommunicating workforce. We do this through our *inaudible* products or Cisco virtual office products where I have my phone, my Cisco *inaudible* all that sort of technology that helps facilitate that. *16:34* And so we do rely very, very heavily on a, you know, distributed workforce which works really well for us.  I mean, at the end of the day, one big benefit of virtual teams is the access to talents. So we can hire anyone in the world basically who has access to an internet connection without worrying about specific geography. And when you think about it, that gives a huge competitive advantage to large organizations especially these days where, you know, competition is cutthroat and you really need to stay ahead 10 steps just to survive. So, you know, I think that alone really works really well for Cisco as a company. They started out with a whole telecommunicating idea that’s been earlier than other companies and I think that they’ve Cisco a huge competitive advantage there. So I think that from one aspect is a huge thing that works for Cisco. The second is, you know, our customers are all around the world as well. So I can lead a project for a customer in India or I can lead a customer engagement in Hawaii even while I’m right here in my office in Boston and I basically be let’s say, managing resource in India who works for Cisco and having that person travel to Hawaii or China or the Philippines to conduct that project. As well as work in *inaudible* on that. So I think having that sort of access to talent and having that access to so many different resources around the world really help Cisco stay nimble and at the forefront of technology.

Lissette:  Yeah, really, that’s actually the part of remote working that excites me the most to- it’s getting people together from all over the world to solve problems. Regardless of location, just getting the best people together to share resources and knowledge and then to get things done. So I love that companies are using that to their advantage for innovation and for being agile and nimble in the world. Because the fabulous, fabulous benefit, it’s what got me excited to begin with. So then last question Hassan which is if people want to know more about you and the book, where do they go? Where can they find you?

Hassan:  Right, and so I don’t know if I mentioned this in the beginning of our conversation but I do blog about remote teams and virtual teams. My blog is called the couch manager. You can find it at thecouchmanager.com and you have all my information there, my contact information, my Twitter handle which is @hassano. You can also- feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn, my link is on the account page, on thecouchmanager.com. And you can find the links to the book as well there.  So, everything is one place.

Lissette:  Perfect. So the couchmanager.com. And I’ll make sure you put that in the description of the interview also. So thank you, thank you so much. I really appreciated taking the time and I’m really excited about your book and I hope it does very well. I’ll be encouraging everybody to download and then read it and to apply the tips today. Start today and you can do gooder things. So thanks again and until next time everybody. Be powerful.

Hassan:  See you.


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