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Dan Ward

Dan is Co-Founder and President of Detroit Labs. Through the belief that technology is successful when it empowers people, Dan advises clients through ideation, concept, and experience design. His unique ability to blend user experience, technology, and strategy has helped clients from General Motors, Kia, and Volkswagen to Domino’s Pizza, Jimmy John’s, and Kimberly-Clark. Dan serves as a go-to resource for media across the country, including The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the L.A. Times, providing insight into tech trends and issues impacting consumers and businesses alike in the technology space.

Erika Languirand, Director of People Development at Detroit Labs, talks to us about what it’s been like supporting a now fully remote team, and shares tips so you can be successful in supporting your team.

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Dan:

All right, let’s get going. So if you are tuning in, which some of you are, and thank you. We are on, I don’t know, day three this week of live streaming. I don’t know if we’ll go live three days next week. We just had the air max day in there, which was fun. And why not? So today we’re going to do another remote spotlight. So on Wednesday we did a remote spotlight around design. Specifically talking to Steven, who is a veteran remote designer and then Dave who is now newly remote designer going through processes, tips, tricks, tools, which was really great. I think we were able to highlight about five or six tools and now we’re going to continue that remote spotlight series and we’re going to talk about People Operations and specifically we welcome Erika, our Director of People Development.

Erika:

Hello.

Dan:

And Tobi is back with us by popular demand. Tobi is back, which is fantastic. And then Dave is here as always, but once again, on-camera for the second time ever.

Erika:

Hey Dave.

Dave:

Hi!

Dan:

So that’s fantastic. It’s a big… Steven would like to say hi as well, which is wonderful. Oh, the mic stands. I don’t know. This thing came with it. It gets closer to my face and it’s fancy looking. So that’s why we have the mic stands. All right, let’s dive in. Erika, why don’t you give us a breakdown of what People Operations means at Detroit labs? I think it’s somewhat of an industry term, but for those that do not know what that means, give us a little breakdown.

Erika:

Sure. So as an industry term, People Operations, often is kind of synonymous with HR. At Detroit labs, People Operations is a little bit bigger for us. So the first sentence of our mission statement is that we are a people first company and People Operations is responsible for ensuring that we’re living up to that commitment. Practically speaking, that means that People Operations handles everything from hiring and onboarding, to engagement experience, learning and development, coaching, performance management and also broader people policies that affect the entire organization. So, that is my 20 second, People Ops elevator pitch.

Dan:

I like it. And the people ops team, as we’ve grown as a company, that team in and of itself has grown, I think first starting as specifically people development, but has grown to encompass more with more team members. Right? And how many team members encompass the people ops group now?

Erika:

Anywhere from eight to 12 we have some permanent team members and then some who rotate in. So People Operations leadership is myself, our Director of Operations, [inaudible 00:06:24] and our Co-founder Nathan Hughes. And so we lead the people group at Detroit labs. And then I have a people development team which includes developer coach, people coach and team member advocates for our onsite business unit. And so all of us work in various areas of people development, full support. We also bring people in for short term temporary coaching roles. So we’ve got an apprenticeship program coming up in the next couple of months and we’ve brought in two developer coaches to assist and support with that. So they are also part of team people right now.

Dan:

All right. Give me a flavor. So if we rewind and we’re back in the office here, give me a flavor of some of the meetings you would find yourself face to face for.

Erika:

So I looked at my calendar for the last couple of weeks before we went remote to look at the meetings and it made my head explode as I was going through the list. But so I grouped them. I have all company meetings and that can be everything from all labs meetings like our business update, our diversity and inclusion meetings. And our team lunch and learns. Weekly operations meetings to talk about people issues in our various business units. Leadership team meetings, we often are creating and adjusting our people policies on a regular fast basis. So we have those in on an ad hoc basis. Cross group planning meetings, so when we do an apprenticeship program that involves our onsite business unit, our apprenticeship unit, our people team, our services unit as well. So there’s lots of people involved in those. My own team, we have team standup and retro and then I also have one on ones with all of my team members every other week. Monthly coaching meetings with people that I specifically mentor, annual performance reviews.

Erika:

I do a lot of one-on-ones with our team members either by their requests or just by me saying, I haven’t talked to that person in a while, let me go have a chat with them. I do facilitation of retros or other meetings for our role in project teams and there are a lot of one-offs. Like somebody will say, “Hey, can you come to the community work group meeting this week and talk about this particular topic?” And then lots of informal chats. Our Director of Ops and I joke that we are actually the directors of, do you have five minutes? Because that’s what people say to us most often. And that’s just, “Hey this thing has come up. I need input, I need a suggestion, I need direction going forward”. So a lot of those on a daily basis. So, that’s what it looks like in the office.

Dan:

That is a lot of face to face, one-on-one type of engagement. And, I think people ops is very important because you have to establish a relationship. So you are establishing trust in any one of those situations. And oftentimes that trust really is only built during those in person type relationships. How many of those have transitioned to the remote world? Have some stopped? Have some just altered and morphed a little bit.

Erika:

So I would say, I don’t think that I’ve specifically canceled any meeting because I’ve gone, “oh we’re remote. That’s not going to work”. We’ve figured out, we said, okay, we might have to make this different or have different people here or structure this into two separate meetings, but we’ve tried to keep all of those. For me personally, I’ve sort of deprioritized the nice to have meetings. I love going to, for example, lunch and learns that our team members put on. A, because our team members are so smart and do the wildest things and I always learn something really interesting so I love that. But for me right now, my biggest priority is providing team and one on one support and so I’ve kind of cut down on the bigger meetings right now just so that I can focus on my own team and also our team members. Because, shifting fully remote has been a big transition. And to me, my biggest responsibility feels like supporting that. So still all the meetings but prioritizing those one on one times right now.

Dan:

Do you find, do you have the 15 minutes to ask, does that like minimize a little bit and then give yourself a little bit more capacity for some of the more structured meetings or is it still just happening but in different ways?

Erika:

No, it’s still happening. Actually, what I kind of enjoy remotely is that people will reach out and say, “Hey, do you have time for something?” Because everybody is so cognizant that this is a big busy time. People will say “it’s really important”, or what I love is they’ll say “it’s not a big deal. I’m not giving you a problem to solve. I just want to chat about something.” So I actually find that I get some more context from those than I usually do, which is kind of cool.

Dan:

What’s been the most challenging thing so far?

Erika:

Okay. So for me, I live for one-on-ones. I think that’s where I do my best work and that’s the feedback that I’ve gotten from team members time and time again. I love that time. I love listening to people. I love hearing their stories. I love if I can help them through a thing. And the reason I love that is because people often know their own answer and their own solution and they just need to get through the process to get there themselves, and I love to facilitate that process. So a big part of that for me is holding space and that is physical. I cue with my body language and with verbal and physical indications that I’m present and I’m listening. I project a particular energy. Usually I shoot for calm and assertive, but it depends on what is needed in the particular moment.

I also rely on other people’s body language and their energy to tell me, what question to ask next and when to just leave silence and space. And when to prompt, and when to push somebody. In person, if somebody is struggling and they’re not telling me, I feel so confident saying “it seems like there’s something more going on here. What’s up?” And then feeling like the space is safe for them to fill that up. That is a harder dynamic to achieve remotely. One of my team members, Kyle was saying the other day, “in a good one on one meeting remotely. There’s a moment where the computer just goes away and you forget that you’re actually not physically together.” So for me the biggest challenge has been achieving that moment and doing it consistently and having it not take half the meeting to get there.

Dan:

Do you find it’s… So you’re hitting on some of the challenges that I’ve been having too as a leader being remote. Do you find yourself having a hard time with that transition from person speaking? I’ve noticed that, that’s been the hardest thing is timing during a conversation. When you’re all in the same room, sometimes you can actually step in as someone’s ramping down to have, maybe it’s a comedic effect or to really emphasize a point, something along those lines and you just really miss that on remote. And if you try to do it, you end up talking over each other and then all the wonderful software we’re using will start to cut audio out when that starts to happen and to try to compensate. And so I think that has been one of the hardest things at least personally.

Erika:

I find that, how difficult it is honestly depends so much on how good the other person’s internet connection is for the most part. Because the hardest thing for me is when somebody cuts out. Because when somebody is talking and is talking about an important thing, every word is important and I can’t really listen if I can’t hear. So whenever we get on a hangout and the Internet’s flipping in and out, I’ll usually say, can we jump on a call instead? That’s not ideal because I can’t see their face but I have to be able to hear the words. So for me the tech setup is really, really important. I am super glad to have fiber internet because I valued it before but it’s my lifeline right now. So I would say for me, having good tech is really essential to the fluidity and making it feel like we’re not losing those little moments.

Dan:

You said face to face, having the camera on, how important has that been at least personally to you and then how important has that been to those that you’re talking to?

Erika:

That’s so important that I committed to every single meeting I’m in every single time. No exceptions. My camera’s on. Doesn’t matter what I look like, doesn’t matter if my kid kept me up until three o’clock in the morning and I have giant bags under my eyes. It doesn’t matter if not wearing makeup. This might be the first time I’ve had mascara on in two weeks. It doesn’t matter. I think that face to face is so important and I commit to that and I commit to showing up however I am and I feel like that makes it feel safer for other people to do the same thing because it’s a whole different thing when you can see someone’s face.

Dan:

There’s no emotion without the face. It’s really kind of fascinating. We’ve done so many remote calls over the time. Joining on a call and just doing something really quick, and that all seems fine. It’s never the same as in person, but I think you really notice how not great that is when you are forced to be remote, and you do have the option of video. I mean even small things like, Dave and I talk quite a bit during the day and we’ll talk, just chat on Slack. But there gets to a point where it just makes it so much easier if I just call him. Obviously we do it through Slack and I’m a big fan like said as well as just throwing the camera on, no matter what’s doing, just getting the camera on, and I think it also forces you to pay attention more.

Erika:

Yeah. It’s really interesting since being remote, normally, I am in Slack, I’m on email, I’m in person meetings, I’m texting, I’ve got five streams of communication going on with people at work all of the time. I noticed that I’m reverting to Hangouts really strongly in this time of us all not being together much more than I would otherwise. Things that I might’ve normally texted or called about, I’m like, “Hey, let’s get on, let’s look face to face and just, let’s have an excuse to spend a little bit of time together” because we’re not getting those little in person, “Hey you want some Skittles” type interactions in the office.

Dan:

You know, I’m transitioning just a little bit because I’m curious, we’re talking obviously largely from the people ops and I do want to get back to that. At the same time, Tobi, you are talking to clients and I think the one nice thing is you’re used to having phone calls with clients.

Tobi:

Yes.

Dan:

Is it still primarily phone? Are clients starting to adapt to video now that they have to?

Tobi:

Yeah. I think this week and last week too, there’s been definitely more video than phone calls. I think back in the day it’s like we either meet in person or we do a phone call. Hangouts sometimes, but it wasn’t common because we knew that, let’s say we have a phone call, then we’ll have in person meeting. But now I find some of those first calls are video calls and pretty much everybody’s working from home and there’s an expectation and it’s like an icebreaker a little bit to just, this is where we are now and we just in a way has been, it’s helps build that relationship a lot quicker I would say. Because there’s, we’re in this common situation together and just calling from home and seeing everybody home set up and saying, “Oh this is what I do with this, what I’ve been doing this week”. Yeah, so I’ve definitely noticed more video than usual this past couple of weeks.

Dan:

It’s interesting. I’ve got a call sometime I think in the next week or so with hopefully a potential pretty large client. I guess we’ll find out. But it’s been something that we’ve been going back and forth trying to set up for some time. It was originally an in person meeting and I think now that it’s transitioned to either call or video, it’s unclear right now what it will be. It’s the first time in quite some time where I’m actually nervous. I’m not normally nervous for a meeting, but I think you really miss out on the easy instant connection that can take place in person and sometimes video feels more… Not forced, but you can feel a little bit more tactical with it. You have to figure out how do you create that connection. Sometimes you can’t have a nice quick little joke, because they can’t see or it just… Yeah, it just doesn’t work. So it’s like the first time where I’ve been nervous for a potential client meeting and largely because of the video side of things.

Dan:

So going back to the People Operations side. We were on a really great call earlier today with some folks from the family of companies that we happen to be a part of and a lot of the other leaders were asking questions, how are your team members handling the current situation? And some companies are more equipped than others to be remote. We happen to be fortunate enough to be equipped for that. But at the end of the day equipped or not, still human beings, altering your lives, being at home, some with families, some without families at home, kids ranging in various ages. Knowing that and knowing that that’s not an easy thing. What are some of the steps that the People Operations team has taken to be supportive during that time?

Erika:

Sure. So the first thing I just want to say before I jump into that is that I’m so freaking proud of our team and how they have handled this very sudden adjustment to fully remote work. It’s kind of blown my mind. When I knew this was coming, I expected chaos and difficulty. But I just, from the first day was so amazed by everybody jumped in together and said, okay, we’re going to do this and if we’re going to do this, how do we make it great? And had a wonderful positive attitude, asked great questions, gave us really good feedback. I just couldn’t have been more impressed. So shout out to our team because they made supporting them easy and a joy in a lot of ways.

Erika:

So for us as leaders and as people leaders, I think first and foremost we’re providing ourselves, I know all of us are making a lot. I mean we all do this anyway, but much more so and more intentionally right now. We’re listening, we’re making time, we’re just spending that time with our team members and be intentional about it because we’re not getting those small interactions in the office. So I think that’s the biggest thing. I’ve felt more emotionally tired in the last two weeks than I have previously. Normally this kind of work just feeds my soul. But it’s so much because I’m putting so much more forth right now to ensure that we’re providing the support that our team needs.

Certainly we’re addressing practical things, I’ve shipped equipment to various people. But I think the biggest needs right now are emotional. Not only are we suddenly remote, which is a big shift. We’re in a very scary, unprecedented world situation right now. And so what our team needs from us is reassurance and support. And so much communication and transparency, as much as we can possibly give. I think that we’re fortunate as leaders at Detroit Labs because communication and transparency were already our go tos. So providing more of that is in our wheelhouse and that’s a strength for us. But yeah, so that’s really been it. I think the biggest thing that we’ve provided is ourselves and our energy, and our listening, and our time.

Dan:

Yeah. And for anybody’s watching this. If you’re curious what specifically Erika means about some of that transparency and some of that communication. One of the things that we did so, so every other Tuesday we have a meeting called business update and that’s just a time where we talk about how projects are going. We share revenue, EBITDA, we share new potential business, we talk about our onsite division, we talk about our OKRs, and then we have some time to do some shoutouts and say thank you and have some acknowledgements. And we have started to add to that just information. Information about what we know is going on right now. This is the current state. Everything is changing. It was daily, I think now it’s going to settle down and probably be a little bit more weekly because this is just, it is what it is now.

Dan:

And then we also added business office hours. So as a company we’ve always been transparent, but we have become very intentional with our communication to get out there often. Even if we don’t have a lot to provide in that moment. I think like any good project, when we’re delivering software for a client and we have sprints every one to two weeks. We want to bring things to the table during each one of those demos that’s good, bad or indifferent. And the one thing we never want to do is have a big surprise a month or two months down the road after all the hard work.

And so, because that’s part of our culture and our being, we’ve taken that same approach with the situation is trying to communicate to the team members as much as we know, and as much information as can be helpful.

Erika:

100%.

Dan:

And some of the other things too. So, we utilize Slack. Slack’s our communication tool. I’ve seen a lot of folks talking about certain channels in Slack, certain channels specifically created for People Operations. We have our own channels that we’re using from the leadership standpoint, but I’ve heard positive things about that. Channels that are intentionally there for communication about… I think there’s a mental health channel?

Erika:

There is. Yeah.,So we did a couple things. So one of the things when you have a situation like this going on in the world is that the information can be so overwhelming because there’s so much of it coming from all corners. And so on pretty much day one we said we’re going to take our People’s Operations channel and that’s going to be COVID-19 central. Articles, we’re going to share resources, anything important, any updates, things you want to know can go in there. And if you don’t want to hear about it or you can’t deal with the news right now, you don’t have to go in that channel. But you won’t see this stuff popping up all over Slack. So we didn’t want to overwhelm our team members. That was important. The mental health channel that we’ve had at Detroit Labs has always been really active and a supportive and wonderful spot.

I think it’s just blown up in the last couple of weeks because people have been challenged in ways they haven’t been before. And it’s really cool because we already, as a company had a culture of talking openly and authentically about mental health challenges and supporting each other and a lot of us knowing a lot of resources and being able to offer those to one another.

So it’s been really cool to see as people trickle into the channel and go, “well, this wasn’t a challenge for me now or before, but it sure is now” to have people say “yes, we understand, welcome and we’re here to support you”. That’s been really cool. And then I think the remote channel too has also been one that’s really blown up as everybody’s figuring out what their new normal looks like. And it’s been great to see our remote team members sharing their expertise and providing their support and resources and things that have worked for them.

Dan:

I also saw, and I don’t know if anyone has participated in anything like this, but one of our teams, I think I saw Jackie Michael post this about scribble.io as a remote and fun, team fun thing, Tobi, you’re nodding your head like you’ve used it. Have you used it?

Tobi:

I think I have. Scribble.io it’s kind of like… I think your whole group gets together and draw I think. I think that is what it is.

Dan:

I don’t know. It’s new to me. I saw a link and the only reason I brought it up was every one of our projects has a monthly opportunity for team fun. And I think that could be anything between going to the bar or going bowling or I think some groups went go kart drive, I don’t know. But they do things, and they do things together and it’s a nice way to bond and especially if it’s after a release, it’s kind of a nice time to exhale a little bit. And it’s been encouraging to see team members on their own. I mean these teams very much run their own companies in some ways and it’s great to see them find opportunities to continue that team fun even though it is remote, and making time for it. Understanding that that is an important thing to keep that connection.

Tobi:

Yeah and I think also, I don’t know if it’s scribble.io or there was another one, some of our team found even before going to fully remote as being, if you have a remote team member we try to find options, where the remote team member can participate as well. So we’ve experimented with some of these tools before. Which is an added bonus in this time to be able to reference those and see how it went. So from having some remote team members, or even just maybe they’re not fully remote but they just couldn’t make it that week to work and we still wanted to include them in the team fun. That is where that kind of started from back in the day, but now it’s not the norm.

Dan:

Cool, all right. Well, we are at almost 27 minutes if you can believe it or not. Right?

Erika:

What?

Dan:

Yeah. Well when you get streaming it flies by. Any last things you want to add Erika, that maybe I didn’t touch on or ask or Dave or Tobi, anything?

Tobi:

I have one question for Erika.

Erika:

What’s up Tobi?

Tobi:

I want to ask, what was the most challenging part and I was also just curious on the positive side of things, from this remote shift. What has been the easiest or something you think about, “Oh this is nice” about this entire situation?

Erika:

You know, I think that the thing that I have liked the best, and what’s made my days a little bit better is that I think we’re all being a little bit more intentional with each other right now. We’re really thinking about, when I write something to somebody, how is that going to sound? Because I can’t go over there and make it better if they took that the wrong way. People are so, when they reach out to me to say, “Hey, I know you’re really busy and you have a lot going on and it’s okay if you don’t get back to me right away” and I am doing my best to get back to everybody fast.

But I appreciate that so much, because we’ve all got so much on our plates right now, more than normal. And I’m seeing that support happen all over the place. People are reaching out to each other, people are supporting one another. Our team does this all the time, but I’ve just seen it amp up in this period of time and that’s been really cool to me and is, that’s the thing that uplifts me when I read the news and I get down, I go and I look at our team and then I feel better about the world.

Tobi:

Thank you, that’s awesome.

Dan:

Awesome. Anything else, Dave?

Dave:

Nope. Nothing from this end and just a second, nothing from chat as well. Think we’re all-

Dan:

Yeah, it’s a quiet day. It’s interesting as we experiment with these alternate days. So we experiment with how much do we post on social? How much do we not? Experimenting with descriptions, this is newer territory for us because the labs live broadcasts have been very, every other Thursday, three o’clock, we know when we’re going live. And this one’s been a little bit different. And also this is the first time we’ve gone live more than once in a week I think. So, that’s been great. And you know Erika, obviously you and, Chrissy was actually on yesterday but you and Chrissy are still — I think we’re probably… Steven wants Tobi to play us a song but…

Erika:

I also want Tobi to play us a song.

Dan:

I think we’re probably close to being comfortable enough to do labs live here remotely, and to have you and Chrissy on, and then that’ll be fantastic.

And we’ll do more of our traditional marketing when it comes to that stuff. But, these remote spotlights have been nice. Like I said, we did remote spotlight design on Tuesday, or Wednesday. This one today. Likely have some next week. We will go live once or twice I think next week, depending on what’s doing and what type of content we decide we want to talk about.

If anybody that tunes into this, whether live or whether recorded, if you tune in. Please let us know if you want us to talk about anything, if there’s anything you want to ask our team members in any role. I think we talked about having delivery leads come on maybe next week to discuss what that’s been like having their entire team remote.

Erika:

I want to hear that.

Dan:

Great. Well you have the option to tune in and you’ll know when it happens, before most. Although I did mess up and I didn’t tell the team on Slack that this was happening today.

Erika:

Whoops.

Dan:

I will blame that on kids. I’m going to blame everything on kids for now, so…

Erika:

I hear that.

Dan:

Yeah. Tobi, how many naps have you had?

Tobi:

Today? Zero.

Dan:

On a given day. On an average day, how many naps have you had?

Tobi:

Zero. Surprisingly, actually it’s my sleep schedule. Typically I think maybe I nap because I go to work and I come back and I want a hard reset, so I take an hour nap. But now I’m at home so I’ve not had the need to nap as I used to. We’ll see if that changes next week. Tune in and find out.

Dan:

Could be a tough week next week for any man to get through. What can you play on that guitar there?

Tobi:

Right here?

Dan:

I know where it is, I’m asking what you can play on it.

Dave:

Too much pressure.

Tobi:

Too much pressure.

Dan:

All right.

Erika:

You’re going to break Steve’s heart Tobi.

Dan:

Dave wants you to play the Seinfeld theme song on the way out.

Tobi:

Surprisingly Seinfeld is the one popular show that I never got into.

Dan:

I wasn’t a big fan either. I’m going to be honest. I didn’t dislike it. I just, I didn’t get into it.

Tobi:

It was before my time I think.

Dan:

Yeah. Fair. Okay, that said, we will talk to everyone at some point next week. Like I said, hit us up on our social channels. We might prompt some stuff out there to ask what you want us to talk about. And ultimately we’re just going to, whether it’s just us having fun on a live stream because we can do it, or not. We’re going to continue to do some live stream. So thanks for tuning in and I will talk to you later.

Dave:

Bye.

Tobi:

Bye everyone.

About Labs Live

Labs Live is a stream hosted by Detroit Labs’ very own Dan Ward and Tobi Adebisi, where they bring on guests from the Labs team and our clients to talk about the latest in technology, software design and development, and whatever else comes to mind. Labs Live streams live on LinkedIn and YouTube each month.