Bringing a remote team together with Tom Mabey | DistantJob - Remote Recruitment Agency

Bringing a remote team together with Tom Mabey

Andreea Zorz

Successful serial-entrepreneur, with over 40 years of experience, Tom Mabey is the CEO and key founder of ECLIPSE, which provides tailored big data solutions as a service.

Previously he founded Sahara, Inc. (regional construction service provider), The Consortium (civil engineering consulting business) and he is Member of the Board of Directors of Nano Stone, Inc. an international provider of natural stone. A professional engineer, his focus is on building and leading teams to solve problems in a collaborative and productive environment.

Read the transcript

Luis: Welcome ladies and gentlemen to another episode of the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. I am your host Luis as usual. And today with me, I have Tom Mabey. Tom is the CEO and key founder of Eclipse Tech. He has over 40 years of experience, successfully serial entrepreneur in several areas such as engineering, construction, motor sports, and even charitable foundations. His specialty is understanding how to use resources and networks to bring people and ideas together in collaborative and highly productive environments. So Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Tom Mabey: Well, thank you very much, Luis. I’m happy to be here.

Luis: Yeah, I’m really happy to have you. And because I always like to kick off with generally talking about remote work, we were introduced by our common acquaintance JP. JP is the DistantJob superhero in the red suit. Right?

Tom Mabey: Very distinguishing in his red suit, such forgettable.

Luis: The DistantJob marketing team is proud of that. So yes, it wasn’t good bet, but you know what? It’s not for everyone. We had to find someone who was willing to go with it for us and JP is the man. So thank you JP for all doing this. And thank you for introducing me to Tom. I know you’re listening to this. So yeah, what’s the thing that most excites you right now when it comes to remote work? How do you see remote work impacting 2020 and beyond the future of work?

Tom Mabey: I  think that remote working is going to continue to have an incredible impact on the workplace and how people interact with one another. And I think in some ways maybe good and some ways may be bad, but I think people are getting more and more used to the opportunity to work remotely, especially through when they can do things by phone or by computer or through the cloud where they could collaborate with people.

Luis: Nice. So I mean, because we usually are more sunshine and rainbows. So let’s hear that. What are your concerns about remote work, let’s say?

Tom Mabey: I think some of the concerns I’ve had, and I’ve done it in a lot of different environments for a long time is trying to maintain the control of the culture and the values of the company. And sometimes when you’re not interacting with people more directly, often enough, the company can tend to lose some of those values and the culture of a company that you want to maintain. To be able to be in the service industry and give a consistent service, I think you need to have people who share the same values. And not saying that our values are better than anybody else’s. They’re just what they are. They’re what makes our company. And so if we need to be able to attract people who have the same value system to create our culture, and you want to maintain that so you can provide that service repeatedly.

Luis: Absolutely. So of course, you don’t have to mention any company names or nothing, so can you tell me a specific occasion where you remember facing that challenge? And I guess if you solved it eventually, what was the path to solving it?

Tom Mabey: Well, I think I worked very hard to make sure that the companies I’ve been involved with have maintained a consistent culture and it’s not easy. Communication is one of the biggest factors I think in any, whether it’s a personal relationship or a business relationship. And we don’t always communicate as well as we should. And I think constant communication of some sort is important. And I also think it’s important for people to get together periodically and actually built, see each other face to face and talk. Maybe that’s old baby pooper culture that I come from. But I think that’s an important aspect. It just gives you a chance to better see how people are responding to situations directly. And just to validate that everything’s staying on track.

Luis: Yeah. So that’s actually an interesting point and the point that’s come up in the show again and again is that no matter how good your remote structure is, the best investment that you can do as soon as you have the budget for it. I realized that sometimes a big budget is needed, but as soon as we have the budget for it, it’s important to fly everyone in to a single location. And maybe it’s the Christmas party on the main head office or maybe it’s a retreat where everyone goes or something like that, but at least once or twice a year optimally get everyone under the same roof so that they can actually connect. And what we found out is that if you work hard to establish that connection over those two or three days, then you can maintain it over the Internet for like six months.

Tom Mabey: Yes, I would agree with that. I think in my businesses we’ve often got people together to do what we call team building activities too. And you and you need to do it in an environment where people can kind of be themselves so it has a social element to it, but it can also be related to work in other ways. But it’s important to actually let people react as they would normally react without a lot of business pressures on them.

Luis: Yeah. Yeah. It’s true though. I find that sometimes it’s also really rewarding to work on a problem together in real life. And then when you encounter the same people through the Internet, you already know a bit of how their work process, thought process, written works because of trying to solve that problem with them in real life. I mean, that’s certainly something that I have experienced at this job where after I met with the founder and the director of operations of DistantJob for the first time and we love what we do. So, even though we wanted to enjoy our time together and get to know each other as a person, we obviously talked a lot of shop and they impact on our day to day operations after we split was really notable.

Tom Mabey: Yeah. And Luis, I absolutely agree with you. And what I meant by that is I think it’s important to understand the individual and understand what people’s strengths and weaknesses are and I think then that translates to a better business relationship. Absolutely.

Luis: Yeah. Absolutely. So I want to talk about, so your current business, well, I mean, you are doing several things, but you are the CEO of Eclipse Tech. And I want to know is the Eclipse Tech, does it have remote employees or are you talking from experiences in other companies?

Tom Mabey: No, Eclipse Tech does have remote employees. We have employees all over the United States, actually all over the world. And so we don’t have

Tom Mabey: We don’t have a central office. Everybody works from their home in most cases. And we have people in the Philippines, we have people in Minnesota, California Utah, Maryland.

Luis: That is a beautiful thing. So it’s basically like this DistantJob, we have people across like five continents and that is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a challenge, right. As you pointed out before. So what was your attitude when starting Eclipse Tech? By the way how long ago did you start it?

Tom Mabey: Almost two years ago.

Luis: Okay. So I have a couple of questions then after what you told me about the hard part is making sure that the values match, what kind of work have you done to make sure that the value of all these different people from different country, their values matched?

Tom Mabey: We try to make sure that everybody is communicating clearly that people have set responsibilities and also the ability to make their own decisions. But then we also want to monitor what everybody’s doing, fairly constantly so that we make sure everybody’s staying on track with what the overall goal is.

Luis: So how does that translate to your day to day operations? How do you handle, I mean, I guess as a CEO, you’re not really getting direct reports from everyone. You probably have a couple of direct reports that then, they deliver you the key, the reports in the key area. But how does this translate to the day to day operations? How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the company so to say?

Tom Mabey: We do two things, probably primarily one as we use a software called Freedcamp. And it’s what we use to identify what tasks everybody’s supposed to do. And it gives us a status of everybody’s progress doing those tasks. And in addition to that, we do a lot of video conferencing. We usually use Google Hangouts, but we get together so we can actually see each other and we can talk and we can talk through questions that anybody has. Talk through any problems that have occurred and how to resolve those. So I think that communication and I mentioned before is a key element of this. And you need to have some metrics to be able to see that people are meeting their objectives and our goals of the overall team. And again, Freedcamp has been a good tool for us.

Luis: It’s actually, I’ve actually looked into Freedcamp a couple of weeks ago but it’s the first time I meet someone actually using it. And so it’s nice to have that idea. So tell me a bit more about your video conferencing habits. Do you try to have meetings every day? Do you lock days without meetings? Do you have meetings with the whole company? Do you have meetings on team by team basis. How do you usually manage this?

Tom Mabey: We have a company meeting that we have scheduled once a week. Everybody attends that and then we have team meetings. Our engineers have two scheduled meetings each week and they get together and again, just discuss through what the objectives are for the week and for the month and see where people are at and see what information is needed and that they make sure that that information is provided by going to whatever resources are necessary.

Luis: Okay. Nice. So you mentioned Google Hangouts and the thing that a lot of people do with Google Hangouts is they have permanent rooms where people can come in and come out. Right. So it’s like a kitchen table where you can be working and people can join you or not. I personally am not a fan of this. I find it very distracting to be working in an app someone come into the chat and I kind of don’t want to lose my focus, but it feels a bit awkward if I don’t say hi or just some chat and stuff like that. But have you tried this or have you pondered doing this or is this just not, do you stick to pre-schedule meetings and that’s it?

Tom Mabey: Well, we stick to pre-scheduled meetings. I would tend to agree with you Luis that could be a little disruptive. But I can’t say that we’ve tried it that way either. So I do know what I’ve managed groups in a physical location. It is nice for people to be able to yell over the wall or get together and share ideas in a very collaborative type environment. But you’re able to do that with technology today, I think pretty effectively.

Luis: That’s true. That’s true. So I want to go back a bit to what you told me about that that’s important to keep track of the metrics, obviously to make sure that everyone is performing or to see, to detect if there’s anyone blocked in their desks and offer help there. As a manager, that’s an important part. So, and again, I have never tried Freedcamp so maybe my question is just answered by some sort of magic that the software does. But I found that one of the most challenging things for people managing and leading fully remote operations such as this in jobs or as yours is that managers tend to be overwhelmed by data and maybe not so much overwhelmed by data, but they tend to get to a point where they feel that most of the… They signed up to be managers so they could talk to people, connect with people, help people find solutions.

Luis: And a lot of remote managers fall into the trap of spending their whole day, creating tasks, checking tasks, checking metrics, et cetera. And that tends up not to be as fulfilling to them as what they originally signed up for. How do you avoid this trap of now that you have Freedcamp let’s say spending most of your time instead of spending your time in the thinking and developing connections with employers in helping solve problems, spending your time creating tasks and updating tasks and checking tasks?

Tom Mabey: I think our management team will meet on a regular basis and look at the overall objectives of the company in this case, the development of our software. And to make sure that we’re staying on task, that we’re picking priorities that we believe are going to provide the most positive effect for what we’re doing. And so we’re spending time looking at all kinds of ideas kind of doing a triage on that to identify which ones are the most important. And then we put it into Freedcamp so we can keep the people that are in the trenches, so to speak, focused on their tasks. Each of the tasks are prioritized and under each tasks there’s the ability for anybody who’s working on that to make a comment and the people that have been connected to that task get a notification that someone made a comment on it so they can look at it and respond to it. Somebody needs information or wants to kick around another idea or has or makes a decision on something that needs to be done. They can express it in that way.

Luis: Okay. So I want to go back a little bit to your history and how that led to the formation of your company. So Eclipse is a fully remote company. Was this your first fully remote company or did you have experience working on a fully remote company before?

Tom Mabey: This is my first fully remote company.

Luis: Okay. So let’s say on the past year or two years, what have you changed your mind the most about remote work or distributed work in general?

Tom Mabey: I guess in a way I have limited experience being my first time with it. But I think we’ve been very fortunate because the people that we have on our team know each other. I mean, some of them we have known each other for years and some of them may be just in the last year or two. But we’re able to get together, as I mentioned earlier going to a conference or something and getting to know each other a little bit better. And we’re able communicate frequently. So that’s helped kind of keep us all in tune with what the overall objectives of the company are. And again that goes back to, I think everybody has similar values as to what we want to accomplish and is passionate about the goal that we’re out to do.

Luis: Awesome. So I guess that let me put the question in another way. So if this new company, if this new project, if you had built Eclipse with everyone working under the same roof, what do you think would be better and what do you think would be worse?

Tom Mabey: I think it would be better in some ways to be able to let people, again, yell over the wall, go next door and share an idea that’s come up, just to discuss the work and how to do it better. I think that personal interaction is important to be able to have some times. But I’ve seen that in the past with other companies I’ve been involved with, but I also see, because a lot of our people know each other already. They’re very passionate about this and they communicate well and people are able to make sure that each other is in tuned with the overall objectives. And I think that’s helped a tremendous amount.

Luis: Nice. So I guess that part of it is also finding the right people, right? We at DistantJob, that’s our specialty, but we are trying to refine our process, every day, every week. And one of the things that we’re super interested in and we think we got more or less well is that besides finding people with good technical expertise, meaning people that are great at their job, we also are figuring out ways that we can find people that are good at that remote work in general. Because I mean we find that there are particular skills and traits that make some people particularly good at working remotely.

Luis: Remote work at the end of the day isn’t for everyone, just as office work isn’t for everyone. But up until very recently there was no choice. Whether you are good at working in the office or not, you had to. Now we have options. So when you’re trying to hire people, when you’re interviewing for a position in your company, what are the traits, the skill sets, what do you look for when you’re thinking, I know that this person is a great X, a great developer, a great marketer, a great something, but how do I find out if they are going to be good at working from home?

Tom Mabey: That’s a great question and it’s a difficult question to answer I think because we all have different ways of approaching this challenge. For me, I think it’s important to get, you want to know that somebody is technically capable. But we ask questions about how they would react to certain situations, how they organize their time, how they communicate. And of course you try and make the best judgment calls you can on somebody. And then the proof’s in the pudding when they go to start to go to work and you start to see what they can do and see how they react. And once you’ve made the decision to bring somebody on board, I think it’s important to make sure that they have the tools necessary to do their job that their objectives are clearly laid out and that you’re monitoring, and stay in touch with them and mentoring them. And making suggestions as to what they might try to do differently or what they could do a little bit better.

Luis: Nice. So obviously I don’t want you to give me the whole secret sauce, but can you give me an example of one of those situations that let’s say you role play people true. What does the kind of situation that you use to gauge if someone is going to be good at performing remotely

Tom Mabey: You might ask somebody, create a scenario where they’re working on a task and if they run into a roadblock with that task who would they go to? What would they do? How would they go about solving it? And see what their thought process is to see if they would ask somebody for some assistance if they would try and battle through it themselves. And how efficient they would be at trying to get it solved so that they can move on. And I think sometimes that can be pretty telling as to if people are open to communicating with others, open to getting advice and some help, or if they think maybe they have all the answers and they don’t need to ask anybody and they don’t communicate very well with people.

Luis: Oh yeah. That’s actually a great point because if that would happen in an office, if someone got stuck and just had nothing else to do, it would be obvious. People would look at the person at their desk and they would be like, well, why is John or Jane just looking at the screen blankly doing nothing? That doesn’t happen. Right? Because in the office that doesn’t happen. But it can happen when you’re at home that’s you’re just completely stuck, but you tend to get distracted like so you go up and you go do something else. That’s not work related because you’re at home after all.

Luis: And so you can’t really have those kinds of people, you need someone that’s actually when they get stuck, they immediately say, okay, I’m stuck. I can’t unstuck myself. Let me bang my manager or my colleague. That that is super important. So I’ve seen people that are actually completely unfit for remote work because what they do is, okay, I don’t have this data available, so I guess I’m not working. And this is exactly what you don’t want. Right?

Tom Mabey: Exactly. You need people that are disciplined, have self-discipline to be able to lay out their work and do it in a consistent manner. And you watch the metrics to make sure that if people aren’t performing what they’re supposed to be doing and that can raise a flag, that may be they’re not disciplined enough to be able to do it unsupervised.

Luis: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So let’s talk about flags a bit. You mentioned communication. What are some when you’re communicating with possible hires, what are some red flags in their way of communication and what are some green flags maybe?

Tom Mabey: I think when you ask people some questions, I think it’s important to see how they respond, how openly they respond to those questions and how well they articulate the information. I think if you feel like there could be a red flag, if someone is being too general about an answer, they don’t seem like they’re being very creative and finding a solution or if they’re very articulate and can explain what their challenges is or what their opinion is and be able to explain it so other people can understand it clearly, then that’s a good sign.

Luis: Yeah, I agree. Absolutely agree. And I found that some bad signs is if people are very short in their answers right. Short and to the point that tends to be a red flag for me because the reality is that in remote work you need to over communicate, not under communicate.

Tom Mabey: Absolutely. I agree with that.

Luis: If you are just super-efficient in your answers, in your communication, you usually either could not be understood properly or even if you manage to make yourself be properly understood, you still can come out as rude or as it’s almost like you’re barking orders right instead of having a conversation.

Tom Mabey: That’s a great point. And I think that’s something that’s always a little bit of a concern where I think when you’re working remotely with people because you can’t hear the inflection in their voice, you can’t see the expression on their face all the time and you can’t understand maybe the nuances maybe of what they’re saying. And it’s definitely much better to over communicate than it is to under communicate. And, again, I think that’s a potential concern for the technology today too, is because we’re so used to communicating via text or email. And some people don’t write as well as others and they may pick words that could be potentially be interpreted as being offensive in some way. So it’s more difficult. You have to be a little bit more in tune and you have to be willing to, I think, ask people when they say something to clarify what they’re saying.

Luis: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Okay. So I want to transition to some rapid fire questions and the questions are rapid fire, but the answers don’t need to be, feel free to expand on your answers as much as you would like. So as you said before, this is a learning period, it’s your first fully remote company. It seems to be going great. But tell me the story of a lesson that you’ve learned the hard way, the best year while building this fully remote operation?

Tom Mabey: Wow. I think for me it’s maybe a bit a little bit different than other people because I’m an engineer, but I don’t have a lot of, technology isn’t my primary area of expertise. So I’ve had to learn a lot about that. I’ve had to be able to get people around me who I trust know what they’re doing. And I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do that. What I do know how to do well is to be able to bring resources together, bringing the right people together. Be able to create a vision for where we’re going and be able to see the company stays on courses as it goes.

Luis: Nice, okay. So, if you had $100 to spend with each person working for you, what would you give them? And there are just a couple of rules. Number one, you can’t give them the money. Number two, you can’t ask them, you need to get everyone the same thing?

Tom Mabey: Boy, these are good questions. I think, with those restrictions and you say couldn’t give them the money, I guess one thing I would think of would be to give them maybe a general gift card or something so that they had the flexibility to do something they wanted, but the other-

Luis: Bending the rules.

Tom Mabey: The other thing is I think experiences are great for people. And as we were talking earlier about travel I think experiences have a huge impact. And I think if you can create an opportunity for someone to go spend that $100 doing some experience, something they’re passionate about, something they love to do, that would make them smile when they were done with it. I think that’s where I’d spent the money.

Luis: Okay. So what about yourself? What purchase has made your work life easier or more productive in the best, let’s say, one year, six months or so?

Tom Mabey: I guess it’s kind of a little bit of a general question, but I’d say maybe there are a couple of things that have made my work easier. You know having a second monitor, which is something I did very early on allowed me to be able to see more of my information and work load in front of me and more efficiently, and be able to deal with it. Another thing that actually has been helpful, and we actually discussed this in the beginning too, is getting a headset. When we’re doing conference calling, it’s made the communication, our entire team has them so that we just communicate better. It’s more clearly there’s less chance of misunderstanding.

Luis: Nice. Nice. Yeah, the second monitor is definitely something that I’m amazed how it doesn’t come up more times. I think you were the first guest to actually mention the second monitor. I’ve had all kinds of answers to these questions, by the way, from a dog to a house. That’s your range. But the second monitor is definitely good advice and one that I do need to follow because I keep putting that purchase back. So what book or books have you gifted the most? Or if you don’t give books, what book has influenced you the most?

Tom Mabey: I think one of the, there have been a lot, I read quite a bit and there’ve been a lot of books that have influenced me a lot and most recently I think the book that has influenced me the most is Homo Deus. It’s written by an Israeli who I think has a brilliant mind. And being able to look at a lot of different topics and be able to explain it in very articulate terms, what his concepts are and what his ideas are, and thoughts are. And it’s a great commentary I think on our society and where it’s at, especially in this technological world and where he thinks it’s going, which I don’t agree with everything he says, but I do agree with a large portion of what he says.

Luis: Well, that’s an important thing to keep in mind these days, it’s more and more common that we judge people and works as black and white. Right? Either we accept everything they say or we accept nothing of what they say. And there is definitely an argument for reading a book and selecting what ideas you agree with and would like to implement, and what ideas you don’t agree with and you don’t need to use them or interact with them as much. Right? So that’s definitely something that’s important even in the remote, even in the remote world. Look, I mean this podcast, we’re going on onto 70 episodes now.

Luis: I’ve talked with leaders from all kinds of organizations, all walks of life, all different age brackets, all of that. And look, if I go through the podcast and I tried to find, I can find some commonalities, but I can also find a lot of contradictory advice. So if you want to get something done, you actually have to pick and choose and build your own ideas from everyone that you study instead of just trying to find one universal solution, that never happens. Right.

Tom Mabey: Luis that’s a great, great point. You articulated it very well. I think that a lot of us, and this may be a little generalization, but there’s so many of us that are attracted to social groups, whether it’s on Facebook or LinkedIn or the church we go to or the bar we go to with our friends.

Tom Mabey: We tend to surround ourselves with people that think similarly for us. And so the information we’re constantly getting is kind of revalidating how we feel about things because we’re surrounding ourselves with people that think a lot like we do. That’s why I think it is so important for people to open their minds and to travel, to see things, to read books and be open minded about different concepts and deciding what you agree with and what you don’t agree with, but rather than constantly being surrounded by like-minded people, I think that is how you grow.

Luis: Yeah, exactly. And to the books that you might disagree with it, bad people sometimes have good ideas and good people sometimes have bad ideas. Your ideas are not who you are, right?

Tom Mabey: Yes, that’s right. We can change our ideas, hopefully we’re not so set in our ways. We’re willing to be open minded and listen.

Luis: Exactly. So going to my final question, it’s a bit of role play. Let’s say that you are organizing a dinner for where the top people at tech companies go. From let’s say from all around North America, you have the leaders, the CEOs, the CTOs, the hiring managers that are going to your dinner, where there’s going to be around table about remote work and the future of work. And the dinner is set on a Chinese restaurant. So you as the host can pick what is written inside the Chinese fortune cookies. So what does the message these people are going to get when they crack their fortune cookies open?

Tom Mabey: Go about doing good until there’s too much good in the world.

Luis: All right. That’s a tall order my friend, that’s a tall order, I like it.

Tom Mabey: It’s a good goal, but I’m not sure it’s achievable, but it’s a good goal.

Luis: I don’t remember who said it. I don’t want to miss a tribute to the quote, but it was something along the region of if you shoot for the stars you might reach the moon, something like that.

Tom Mabey: Exactly. That’s right.

Luis: Okay. So, hey Tom, this conversation has been a pleasure. I’m so glad to have you on. When our listeners want to reach you to continue the conversation or to know more about Eclipse and what Eclipse does, how can they find you? How can they connect with you and how can they find more about Eclipse?

Tom Mabey: We have a webpage, it’s and they could reach me at [email protected].

Luis: Okay. I’ll be happy to include that on the show notes. Again, Tom, it was an absolute pleasure. Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been listening to Tom Mabey, talk with me Luis on the DistantJob Podcast. See you around Tom.

Tom Mabey: Thank you Luis.

Luis: And so we close another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. And if you enjoyed the episode, please you can help us out by sharing it on social media, that would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners and the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me and I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to as well.

Luis: You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast gets to more listeners. Now another thing that you might want to do is go to click on your favorite episode, any episodes really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis: And of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally, not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world, because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent. And to help you with that, again, is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who we need and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidates, 40% faster than the industry standard. And with that I bid you adieu. You see the next week on the next episode of the DistantJob Podcast.

Maintaining control of the culture and the values of the company can be challenging, especially in a distributed organization. In this episode, Tom Mabey, provides a guide on how you can bring your distributed team together in a way that can boost their productivity, efficiency, and collaboration. From constant communication and team building activities to finding top talent and optimizing your hiring process, Tom covers important steps you need to take so that you and your team can be successful.

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