Transcript: That Remote Collaboration Episode
Xenia Muntean, founder and CEO of Planable, discusses how working from home has impacted the way marketing teams create content.
I think it’s fair to say that remote collaboration, as a result of Coronavirus, is very, very much still here to stay so it is worth diving into.
Do you think what, from what we’ve seen so far, this massive shift in circumstances has driven a wave of creativity around content, or have most teams got into, I suppose you might call it a bunker mentality that’s “Right, let’s trot out the things that we know work? And we’ll wait and see how this plays out?”
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think anxiety doesn’t really help with creativity. So that is something to always keep in mind. Considering the past few months, and just the past year that we’ve been going through anxiety doesn’t help with creativity, but at the same time, I’m not sure if, if I’m just being very optimistic and looking at humanity with my pink glasses. But I did see an increase in creativity, both from the business side, but like, on the personal side entertainments and so on, during COVID, beginning with March, and so on. And I think on one side, Coronavirus has posed great challenges. And, we humans are very good, well known for rising to challenges institutions like this one. So, I’ve seen a lot of innovation, and a lot of businesses being born out of this. But at the same time, on the other hand, boredom does bring out the best in us, in terms of content, and in terms of entertainment. And the mind, just wanders, when you have more time on your hands, when you can’t travel, when you sit quite a lot at home. So, we’ve seen a bunch of things people have been doing online to entertain others, and a lot of content, a lot of ingenious ways of making fun and having fun.
And at the same time, there’s another side of things. A lot of creative professionals that have been laid off or stuck at home and didn’t have a way to use their creativity. So, we’ve seen a lot of them creating entertainment, creating content to have some kind of outlet for their creativity. So, I think yes, in a way, we have seen this explosion in creativity, which was extremely unexpected for going through the extreme levels of anxiety during this period of time, anxiety and uncertainty. We did see an unprecedented level of people sharing their creations with the world in very new and even sometimes very collaborative ways. So, I’d say we didn’t luckily go too much into a bunker mentality. And, luckily, we’ve really taken advantage of that period of time and made something beautiful out of it.
Part of this is that business content needs to have systems of approval. Whether brands actively embrace it or not, they do have a tone of voice that they need to manage. Do you think that the systems of approval that are in place, have tightened? Have people been paranoid about the side they’re showing? Or have they been fairly aware that this is so unprecedented, we could afford to do something we maybe wouldn’t have risked doing in quote-unquote, normal times?
Yeah, yeah. So, at Planable, we’re working with 1000s of teams that are just building content inside our platform. And they haven’t really seen any people tightening their approval processes, though that was something to be expected, but we haven’t really seen it and we haven’t really heard it from our own clients. I think approval systems have definitely changed, but not in the direction of loosening them or tightening them up. They feel like they have changed in becoming clearer as a result of work from home. I’ve seen teams getting better and asking for feedback. I think more structured feedback, making the approval process more straightforward and clear. I think now it’s more important than ever to understand what you need to do, what’s next, what’s expected from you, what kind of feedback you need to give. And it’s also more important than ever to have clarity if something is a go or not.
The entire lack of time and the need of going to market with content or with products and services faster, has made the approval process less complicated and more straightforward and clearer, you need to know if something is okay to be published or not. More than ever, there is no time right now to ask follow–up questions. And to clarify if something is okay or not, you just need clarity in the way teams work. And I hope this is actually something that will stay with us after COVID. And I hope this was a lesson that you can have approvals in place, but not make it overly complicated.
Obviously, speed is always a facet, but particularly when it comes to industry breaking news. An example I might pick up on is, especially for our target audience, the fact that the European Court of Justice decided the EU/US Privacy Shield for data no longer applied. And that was quite a big shift. And providers and users both have had to scramble to cover themselves over that. In that kind of circumstance, when it’s breaking news, how do you effectively balance the need for approval and a brand voice with the need to react quickly, to show your clients that you are on top of this industry news? If you leave it too long, then it sounds like you’re a laggard behind it, and you’re not really on top of the industry in a way that your clients need you to be.
Yeah, I think it’s a matter of prioritizing things. And I think the responsibility on the time to launch shouldn’t fall just on the creators, but it should fall on approvers as well. So, everyone needs to be aligned with this, this is something that needs to be published fast. And it doesn’t fall into the normal approval policies and the normal approval procedures. So, it’s not just something where the creator needs to move fast to market to produce the content, approvers need to prioritize that and, give the Okay, the good to go, the green light faster than usual. So there needs to be some kind of carte blanche for content in this type of situations, where you make exceptions for particularly important or urgent or time relevant matters. And not all content should be treated equally in terms of approvals.
Sure. I think the word we’ve heard most often in the last six months is “unprecedented”. Do you think it’s possible to have a system saying “You need this approval process for this? Unless x, y and Z happen, in which case use your creative judgment?” Can you codify a process for opting out of the process, if that makes sense?
Yeah, that makes sense. I think you can label content that is urgent, or you can codify it in some kind of way, like “This is an exception, this is outside of our normal process. And this should be either prioritized or approved.” As a content creator, you should also be able to give deadlines to approvers even if they’re your managers or stakeholders or your clients. But you do need to give them some kind of deadline, because this is a time-relevant piece of content. You agree either to prioritize content in this way at the beginning of the relationship, or you agree that some pieces of content are going to go live without approvals in urgent or extreme, unprecedented situations. But in your own system of content management, you should find a way to make that happen either by labelling content, “This is exceptional content that doesn’t fall into our normal procedures” by just commenting on that content internally and letting people know that you need this to happen urgently. But you’ve got to figure this out and agree on that beforehand. And then, whenever that situation comes up, you’re going to have a way of working around that and a way of figuring out how to make it because we’ve already discussed that in the beginning.
If we zoom in a little bit on the specific pieces of content, one of the issues that we sometimes find in our own internal Spotler team when we’re creating content is managing tone of voice differences, rather than correction differences. As in, I might write a blog, and our manager might come back to me and say, “Oh, I wouldn’t phrase it like that.” But that’s because our writing styles are different, rather than either or both versions not meeting the brand tone of voice. How do you separate corrections from tone changes, and make sure everyone is only correcting things that are wrong, as opposed to what they might write?
Yeah, this, again, is about agreements at the beginning of relationships and agreements, whenever a team is being built, or when a client-agency relationship has started, it’s all about having those conversations in advance. And this particular one is based on having a brand guideline in place. Because if there’s a brand guideline in place, you can refer to that brand in terms of what words are being used, the style of writing, and so on. And it should be as detailed as possible. Our own brand communication guidelines at Planable have more than 30 pages. So extremely detailed ways of clarifying how the brand should talk.
And once you have that type of document, it should be pretty straightforward. Feedback should only revolve around brand guidelines, and not about personal preferences. So, I think having something like that in place generally for the brand, but also particularly for the social media presence, like hashtags and emojis and how many emojis you use, what type of hashtags you use on what platforms and so on, having those type of communication and tone of voice guidelines is extremely important to avoid feedback that is centred around personal preferences.
If we look at the responses that businesses of all sizes have been giving to returns to the office and maintaining remote working, it’s clearly not going to go back in the box and disappear entirely. Do you think in these circumstances that training about how to manage remote collaboration is useful or necessary for businesses? And if it is, where should we be starting?
Yeah, that’s a good one. I think it’s extremely important to have some kind of training. Maybe not necessarily day-long training, but conversations around managing remote collaboration internally. For teams, it’s super important. And the only way you can start those types of conversations or those type of workshops or training is by just looking at your team and asking them what kind of challenges they have. Making either a survey or just hopping on a call, if you’re a smaller team, with every team member and auditing what works and what doesn’t for each particular individual, coming up with a list of problems, and then figuring out what kind of solutions you have and what kind of training people need. Is it the tech stack that they are struggling the most with? Do they have challenges around what tools to use for particular jobs to be done? Is it about communication? Is it about setting breaks? is it about commitment and meetings? Organizing those meetings? The business figuring out that list of issues and developing content around that. Like a Help Center, but internal for your own company, for employees to figure out how to better do their best work.
Okay. I’m choosing to assume that most people listening to this will have a team already in place. So, it’s not a case of a standing start but adapting as they go. Is there one resource you’d point people towards, for getting started on that journey? I mean, other than to start thinking about exactly what the challenges are that are there for them, obviously you’ve laid out a load of different ways they can start to explore those challenges. But how do they get started? What’s your first reference point?
Obviously, I will be very subjective here! We do have a Planable Academy around this exact subject. So, we interviewed 12 experts around collaboration and workflow on content specifically. So, we have an academy on how to manage content workflow, how to collaborate on content, how to organize yourself, project management, and so on. So, if you want to check it out, that’s a great resource. It’s not just built by us at Planable, it was built in collaboration with a bunch of experts in the industry. And if you want to check it out, the website is planable.io/academy. It’s a video Academy, eight episodes around collaboration and how to structure your workflow for content.
So obviously, your platform, and ours as well, is built around the idea of being able to work from anywhere. What’s the most unexpected benefit you’ve seen from remote collaboration? And conversely, what’s the most unexpected problem that came up from a different source than you thought, maybe?
Yeah, I think the most unexpected benefit that I’ve seen firsthand, but I’ve also heard it from our own clients. The most unexpected benefit was the engagement levels. A meeting is a huge commitment. Having people engaging and giving feedback around content, or engaging around someone’s work in a virtual, where they don’t have to attend a meeting, that’s easier for people. So, whilst before COVID, and before work-from-home, people might not have attended meetings, now they can spend virtually about five minutes to give their valuable input on something. So, the engagement levels have definitely risen in some situations. And I think that’s great, because with physical meetings, you wouldn’t have gotten that particular feedback from that person. There would have been a meeting specifically just for that, whilst with virtual collaboration options, they might actually engage and, and leave feedback and actually help out. So, I think that’s a big, unexpected benefit that I’ve seen.
And on the problem side, I think the most unexpected one, at least for me, was just the screen fatigue. It’s kind of an obvious one, but I did not expect it to be as painful as it was. All the Zoom calls and just sitting in front of the screen all the time, that was something that really took a toll. And I heard it in the industry as well. But it also came with an unexpected benefit. The solution to the screen fatigue problem is taking more breaks, actually scheduling breaks in your calendar. That was really nice. And that was something that I hadn’t been doing before March. But since then, I’m doing it regularly. And I think that’s a very healthy way of working. So yeah, I would say, more engagement on the benefit side than screen fatigue on the problem side.
We’ve touched on this a little bit by talking about getting content out at a fast enough rate to make it valuable. But as part of an ongoing process of collaborating on a piece of content, how far can a piece of content effectively be tweaked and sort of reshuffled? Before it’s lost too much from the original and it‘s better to rip it up and start again?
Yeah, there is no straight answer to this one, to be honest. I feel like if you’re going through more than three rounds of feedback, and more than three rounds of iterations on that particular content, it depends on how many suggestions are in that particular piece of content, and how many changes are happening. If in the last run, there was just a couple of words that need to be changed, or just particular aspects of the content, that might work. But yes, there’s a piece of truth in your question; sometimes it just makes sense to stop everything, look at the content, and ask yourself, if it can really be improved, or it can really be taken into that direction that you’re imagining, or if it just makes sense to start fresh. And sometimes, starting fresh might actually save you time, rather than trying to make it work.
And the last thing is that your content isn’t bad, but maybe it just doesn’t work for the goal that you’re trying to achieve. Or it’s just not appropriate for what you want to do. The earlier you can ask yourself this, and give yourself an answer, the more time you save on those iterations, on those unnecessary feedback rounds.
Okay, I think that’s a really good point, leave it, get your collaboration set up, have some structure to it, but don’t overdo it, because you could end up killing your piece of content.
Okay, we’ll leave it there. Xenia. Thank you. Once again, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Thanks a lot Richard for having me. I had a great time talking to you.