Balancing Focus vs Being Social, with Sharon Koifman

Sharon Koifman believes every company, from the biggest enterprise to the newly-launched garage startup, should have access to world’s top talent. That’s why he used over 10 years of experience in tech industry recruitment & HR to create DistantJob.

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Sharon Koifman

Luis:    Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to this episode of the DistantJob Podcast, the podcast about building and leading remote teams who win. And I am your host, Luis. And today I have a different kind of guest, because I usually interview top performers in remote leadership. And today, the person that I’m interviewing is actually my friend and President of DistantJob, Sharon Koifman. Because what happens is that often me and Sharon have what I feel are interesting conversations about our inside [inaudible 00:00:43] at DistantJob, how we’ve developed our approach to leadership and management. And during one of those conversations I thought, “Hey, you know what, our listeners with probably enjoy listening to this one as well.” So I asked Sharon to just to do a podcast and where we talked about, just freestyle. Now I asked him some of my usual questions, just to get the conversation flowing, because people aren’t as natural when they know they’re being recorded.

Luis:    But we ended up going pretty freestyle. And the main topic of this conversation, I would say, really is about striking that balance between having an environment where people can focus, where people aren’t being constantly poked by other people needing stuff from them or by the boss, in this case, Sharon, but still keeping that social feeling, that feeling that the whole team is part of the family… is a family, in itself. And we haven’t made it perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we are trying to learn. And what you’re going to do hear now, is our discussion about what we’ve learned so far. So, ladies and gentlemen, without any further ado, I bring you, Sharon Koifman.

Luis:    Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the DistantJob Podcast, a podcast about building and leading remote teams who win. And today I have, for the third time on the podcast, the President of this company, Sharon Koifman. And, Sharon, I always keep introducing you, so why don’t you introduce yourself this time, tell the listeners a bit more about you.

Sharon:    Oh boy. Okay. Well, my name is Sharon Koifman, as you know. I have been in the tech business for at least 15 years, before I actually started DistantJob, the famous or not so famous company, that I run right now. I used to run a web hosting company and an outsourcing solution company, where I would provide the usual web hosting and design and I hired a full team. I had two offices in India back in the days, and I’ve learned so much about working with offshore companies and with remote individuals, and pretty much one of the biggest lessons that I learned was that outsourcing as a model comes with a lot of weaknesses because you don’t have that direct relationship, and the little experience that you have when you have people working in the office.

Sharon:    And then, when I sold the first company, I realized that what I really want to do is specialize in just finding the best people that integrate as part of the company, as part of the culture, as part of the processes of my clients. Not of mine, because they don’t need a middleman in, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s why DistantJob started and that’s what I do ’til today.

Luis:    What’s the most interesting thing that you see in the remote work space today? What interests you the most? What excites you the most?

Sharon:    Oh well so, the interesting thing is a little negative, but that it’s not… that up to two years ago, I think I found that people still didn’t get it. It kind of blew my mind. It’s taking a long time, for people to understand why remote, what’s going on with remote. They always think about it as their cheap outsourcing model and they’re not yet capturing the incredible value of hiring remote people, whether in shore or off shore and what excites me too, and to oppose that, is in the past two years I’m talking to people and they’re really starting to understand. So, the concept of remote is catching on and people understanding that there is no better benefit, at least to a portion of their employees, there is no better benefit than working from home.

Luis:    And that’s fair enough. So, what have you changed your mind about the most in the last let’s say, three years?

Sharon:    So, the huge change for me, came about a year ago actually. Our VP has been quite focused and hardworking and improving our operations, improving how our company runs. And for the longest time I’ve been preaching that you absolutely need to replicate the office model, that the key to successful remote management, is to mimic pretty much what you already have in the office, because people build beautiful businesses. They have great models and we don’t want to change it. We don’t want to change the management. We don’t want to change the culture. And back two, three years ago, my opinion, the way that you don’t change, is you’re literally trying to replicate exactly what’s happening in an office environment. In the past year, when we start introducing this result oriented management, I’ve discovered that I don’t want to replicate everything that is happening in the office, because not everything that is happening in a physical office works.

Sharon:    And, the biggest thing that doesn’t work is the distraction. People are just distracting each other and a productive person needs time to get into zone to work. And needs to get out of the zone and every time, and that takes a few hours and every time you distract the person and in office it happens, could happen every 10, 20 minutes. It’s like, “Hey Joe, did you heard about this Notre Dame Cathedral,” and they talk about it for half an hour and then they just started working half an hour ago. So, by the time they’re really starting getting productive, it’s already 12 o’clock, because they continuously distracting each other. And that’s something that I don’t want to replicate anymore. And we’ve discovered in the past year that our teams are producing so much more where they’re not getting productive, when we’re careful about when we set up the meeting, when we’re careful when we communicate and that is a huge change, at least internally.

Luis:    So you add that to position. You started that experiment and it was an experiment. So tell me about the day when you realized that it really worked, that it really was true. What led you to the conclusion that, “Oh yeah, this is actually better than trying to replicate the office.

Sharon:    It was an evolution. There’s not a specific day. I mean, it’s completely not natural for me. I’m a hardcore introvert. I like to socialize with my people. Everything that I was preaching is bringing the remote people closer, being part of the team, let’s hang out, let’s be friends. Let’s really get to know each other. Let’s be a team. And it was incredibly unnatural for me.

Sharon:    When our VP, Rustam, came to me and said, “You know, we can’t sit on Slack all day and just nudge everybody all the time whenever you want it.” I used to have a bad habit. It’s just, “Hey,” I was just like, all right, “Hey, somebody talk to me,” and I was giving everybody a heart attack because for some strange reason, every time I said, “Hey,” the world is falling apart or something. But, it was a transition. It was not one day, because one day, and I give free range to our team and to our leaders, and one day Rustam said, “You know what, we’re not using Slack anymore.”

Sharon:    And, I’m like, “Ahhh.” I’m like, “What do you mean? How am I going to talk to people. How am I going to hang out.” And I remember our customer service manager was having the same issues. At least I had somebody backing me up. But that day I accepted, I said, “We’re all about experimentation, we’re all about improving things.” And, I tried it and after a week, I was kind of blown away. And not only, I was blown away by how productive I was getting, I started thinking about the many times that I had my accountants and my assistant, I mean, five years ago we had a small office with two people and they would come and knock on my door every half an hour to an hour and I kind of remember that I did not get anything done those days.

Sharon:    Accounting day, even if it was two hours or after an hour of work, of communication, the entire day was going into the garbage, because the accountant would knock on my door every half an hour. And just when I was like, “Huh-uhh.” It didn’t work out. So it took me a week to really wake up and to say, “Huh, this makes a lot of sense.” It’s still very uncomfortable. I still want to create a social environment. I still want to get to know my team. I don’t want to get to a stage where I… that I lose the connection, but I was so productive.

Luis:    Can’t you still have that connection? I mean, it seems to me that, at least in my experience, we do chat around. I mean, there’s almost no day where… we are using Basecamp now, and there’s almost no day that we’re not in the chat base, cam chat, it’s called Campfire. And there’s almost no day where we aren’t around the campfire just talking. I mean, you gave the example of Notre Dame. It’s topical because the cathedral, it’s roof and spire burned yesterday and you know, yesterday there it was, people were talking about it around the Campfire.

Luis:    So, I don’t see, and yeah, I personally believe that we could probably nudge people to be a bit more social, just by setting the example by talking more often in the Campfire. But I don’t feel that that was significantly lost, because when people were poking me on Slack, it wasn’t to be social. It was to ask about work. It was to ask about the task. And it’s fine to ask about the task, obviously, because the tasks are there to be done, but not at the expense of interrupting the work that’s being done in other tasks or maybe even in that task, in particular.

Sharon:    I didn’t want to, right, I was like, “Ahh.” Now that’s all I have to say. It’s semi true. Right. So, the part that you say that we’re more productive. No question about it. I’m sold. Right.

Luis:    The question… you never came to me. You never, when we were on Slack, at least to me, maybe you just like hanging out with other people more, I don’t know. But at least you never came to me to poke me to say, “Hey Luis, what did you think about that thing that happened yesterday?” No, you came to me asking me, “Hey Luis, what are the marketing numbers for this week? And you know, that’s something that, today, you can just go and see in Basecamp.

Sharon:    No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Every time that I bugged you, because I always contact… you are right. I was annoying. I always contact you to ask what are the marketing numbers? We talked for five minutes and then we talked another 25 minutes about nonsense. Right. And now that we don’t have this experience, right, we talk a lot less often. I do admit that the conversations are more valuable, but we don’t connect as much. When you take away the real time chat communication operation-

Luis:    Well we did, but that has nothing to do with Slack, I feel, because we never talked 25 minutes in Slack. The 25 minute conversation would be happening like it’s happening now instead. The only difference is that now we are recording it and usually we wouldn’t. What I mean is, it would happen through Zoom or through Phone. [crosstalk 00:13:46] part of that experience.

Sharon:    No, no. I have to tell you that I remember when I was a kid and I would visit my grandmother in Israel and there was some friends there, and we tried to keep in contact even through letters and phone, and we had phone. But it was so difficult. At the moment that Emerson Messenger came, before Facebook, before everything, suddenly I was talking to these people every day, because it was just so much easier. Please do not confuse it for a second. When you are running operation, result based operation, you need to work twice as hard to bring in the social component of the company. You’ll need to work twice as… which nothing is wrong with that, because result based operation really kicks ass. It really… there was something, and it’s not about the result based operation, which matters. It’s about how productive people got, when you stop disturbing them every few minutes.

Luis:    No, no, no, and I completely agree that it’s important. In fact, this is something that most of the guests in this podcast have talked about, that it’s important to have the social component. It’s important to invest in that. It’s important that leadership takes the initiative, all of that. I agree. The only thing that I am saying is that I don’t think that we had that in Slack as much as you’re making it sound like.

Sharon:    I think I talked to everybody so much more.

Luis:    All the conversations that I remember having with you were voice. I don’t remember a single… that we were typing in Slack, except the worst possible kind of communication during a meeting like this. Someone will be talking and we’d be like making jokes.

Sharon:    Sorry, but no, no. But Slack, with Slack there, because we were communicating more, we went to Zoom more. We did more voices. I mean Rustam, back in the days, every time that he wanted to talk, he said, “We talk,” and we want voice. And I literally had four or five voice conversation with him per day and probably one or two a day with you. And that moved to once a week. Right?

Sharon:    And, I noticed it lately and I noticed that the birthday parties were not celebrated as much as they should. And we always tried to revive it, but it’s always extra effort. Again, there is so much positive that came with it, but people are not allowed to neglect. If you’re going from real time chat operation to result based operation to scrum based or resolve based, whatever you want to call it, operation, you need to focus really hard on the social aspect. You need to make sure that you’re talking to people because it’s not the same. I don’t know what experience you had. My experience is so extreme to how much less am I talking to everybody, even about social aspect.

Luis:    Maybe it’s just a matter of scheduling. You know that’s something again-

Sharon:    The fact that you need to schedule to talk to people means you’re going to be less social. Social means, “Hey, what’s happening?”

Luis:    That’s a good point. I guess so. I guess so. Well put. Well put. Again, I still don’t think that you miss that much, when you’re going to results based, or at least I don’t feel that. Yes. I mean I feel that we are talking less, but I don’t feel that we need to be talking less. I think that it’s possible to have regular communication and being social without really sacrificing focus. It’s more about, I would say, and tell me if you agree with this or not, knowing that hey, we have… there’s this time zone, that most of our team works in. There’s a certain overlap with your own work time zone because it’s… there needs to be an overlap. This is something that we talk all the time, that you can’t really completely have one person working in Singapore and the other person working in Brazil, there needs to be some overlap.

Luis:    Otherwise those people won’t be just in a team. They’re just be handing over work from one to another. But, as soon as there’s some overlap and you know that okay, “Luis is busy from this time to this time, I’m not going to poke him.” But you know, during this overlap we can just start the conversation and it won’t lose… he won’t lose his focus because you know that’s his conversation time. Something like that. I don’t think that’s so much less social. I mean this is because, you know, I was a dentist before working in marketing and it’s like, when you’re a dentist you talk, of course, important component of the work is talking, is conversation, because we need to build empathy with people. But you’re not talking while you’re abrading, right? You’re not social while you’re concentrating on the work, you still have time for talk and time for focusing.

Sharon:    I don’t know. My dentist talks to me all the time and I answer, “Ah, ah, ah.” My dentist doesn’t stop talking. He’s actually my father-in-law. And he literally, once in a while does it, like when he does a Spritz he does, “To, to, to, to, to, to, to.” So yes, he doesn’t talk in this, because it’s my father-in-law, he likes the talk to torture me. Everything that I did wrong to his daughter by mistake and everything. “So did you take the kids to school this week?” “No, ahhh.” But I… so again, I don’t want to talk too much in circles, but I feel that the social aspect of it had required a lot more effort and when I get busy and my brain is in a different way, it’s so easy to drop.

Sharon:    It’s so easy to forget to talk to your people. It’s so easy. It requires a lot more effort. Again, it’s worth the change, but it requires a lot more effort and it’s not, at least for somebody like me, maybe you didn’t talk a lot to anybody. I don’t know. But I feel that it takes more out of me, to make sure that everybody’s communicated with. Hey, I just talked to Lili, first time in two, three months, I believe. That has never been the case when we had Slack, right? So and it’s my fault.

Luis:    I don’t know. Again, look, I don’t know how much you talked to Lili before. I mean I talk to Lili every week, sometimes several times a week. She is here. She is working. She is accessible, so you know, what I do appreciate is that when you talk to me or you talk to Lili, you have a reason to talk to us. Even if the reason is just saying, “Hi.”

Sharon:    Yes, it’s much better. I feel that I’m a significantly better manager and a better boss, right, when I-

Luis:    What would you tell people that are in that situation, what would you tell people that they feel the need to… that they fear that if they move from an in office operation to a more remote, to having part of the team remote and they fear that they’re not going to be able to have a social connection with their remote employees. What would you say to them? What would you tell to them? What is your advice to these people?

Sharon:    Look, first of all, before I give them advice, you have to understand the pain of a boss that has built a business a certain way and it works. Right? Look, this new job works. We want to improve all the time. But, you have a system. I know business people that they run 60 employee companies or a hundred employee companies and then until, and even at a hundred employees, they know every single person, they have control of every single person. And because of that they work 16 hours a day or weekend or whatever, because this is the way they know how to do it. And to go and to tell them, “Hey,” forget about remote for a second. “Hey, you need to change. You need to learn how to delegate. You need to learn how to empower your VPs and your Managers.”

Sharon:    And, even that is a foreign concept for them. Forget about going remote. I can’t even tell you, even with my brother, right? So that again, only now we start seeing the value of remote is blown away and the quality is blown away. The quality of how our accountant Tatyana is working, right? That our remote accountant is rocking it, right? And my executive assistant is doing so much better than any local secretary. And that you need to blow people’s mind to understand the value of it, because they just can’t get out of it.

Sharon:    But, but the only advice that I can offer people, because I know it’s so difficult, and I understand, is you just need to experiment with one person. You need to see how beautiful it is, and you’re not allowed to quit after the first one did not work, also. Right, because that happens with any kind of hiring. You need to try a few times with one employee or two employees and you are going to see how this is going to change the way you run a company, but before you start that you need to be the boss that is capable of delegating and trusting your employees, because you know, remote works for people who don’t trust employees, also. You can manage it in real time, just like we did in the past. But you need to try with one person and you need to practice and to experiment because it will change your company for the better.

Luis:    I think that this is a good place to stop, but I don’t want to let you go without, as is tradition, putting you on the spot a little bit.

Sharon:    Yes.

Luis:    I want to ask you a question that I’ve been asking almost all of the people that have been interviewed on the podcast. If you had 100 bucks to spend on each one of your employees, what would you buy for them?

Sharon:    Aha, great question.

Luis:    I know you have the money. Come on.

Sharon:    I believe in fun and health, right. So I would invest in everyone doing something, whether spa, gym, workout or something of that sort. I think that’s a huge investment because selfishly, it benefits the company where people are healthier. It makes them more productive. I also believe that if we can take an awesome vacation, your vacation is more fun, or at least if your weekend is more fun, right? You will come back and enjoy working for the company more. So that’s the two things I would invest, something entertaining or something of health.

Luis:    All right, so that’s pretty cool, and thank you for coming and hey, let’s keep doing this.

Sharon:    All right, that was cool.

Luis:    And that’s it, ladies and gentlemen. My conversation with Sharon Koifman. Well, one of my many conversations with Sharon Koifman. Let me know how you felt about the episode. If you enjoyed it, please do share it on social media. That’s the best way for us to do the podcast and to reach more interesting guests.

Luis:    Also you can go to distantjob.com/blog/podcast and subscribe to get our newsletter, including the notification whenever a new episode is released. And for those of you that told me that you’re waiting for the transcripts of the last podcasts, they are in the works, they will be coming. And if you subscribe to the newsletter, you will be the first to know, once they are finished. Now if you would like to help us a bit more, you could also leave a review on iTunes or your podcast service of choice. That helps a lot. And if you need to build a team from scratch, or maybe make a great addition to your current team, remember, you need to think globally. You need to think remote. You need to think DistantJob. We’ll find you the best, and faster than the industry average, should you be looking for such a person. Check out distantjob.com. That’s it for this week. See you next week.

For further inquiries regarding podcasts, eBooks, blog posts, or general information about remote recruitment don’t hesitate to send us an email at contact@distantjob.com

More ways to listen:

If you’re working hard to create a no-distraction, high focus and productivity environment for your remote employees, what does that mean for the need to socialize, to turn your team into a real family? DistantJob founder Sharon Koifman and podcast host Luis discuss their management journey in this special episode .

Welcome to the DistantJob Podcast, a show where we interview the most successful remote leaders, picking their brains on how to build and lead remote teams who win.

This episode is a free-flowing conversation where Luis and Sharon explore their growth as managers over the past few years, as they expanded DistantJob into a much bigger operation and tried to apply the big lessons they learned from the best leaders in the remote work space – many of whom have been interviewed in this very podcast!

As always, if you enjoy the podcast, we humbly ask that you leave a review on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice – and if you could share it, that would be even better!

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