Business as Virtual: Tips for Working Remotely

With most Americans forced to telecommute due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we must all adjust to a new way of working and thinking.

A disruption in your regular routine likely feels uncomfortable. And things may never go back to “normal” or the way they were. To effectively communicate, collaborate and achieve cultural harmony, you need focus, preparation, and patience.

To learn the best practices of working remotely, we talked with a company that was founded with a virtual workforce over a decade ago. Chief Outsiders provides interim marketing executives to middle market companies. Managing partner and book author, Karen Hayward, discussed the importance of establishing a routine, the need to plan ahead, and ways to stay connected—and even thrive—in today’s fast-paced world.


Topics covered in this podcast episode include:

The value of getting up and showing up dressed and ready to go

Video conferencing is the key to keeping your culture

There is no such thing as over communicating

The current reality of special circumstances

A crucial tip for parents


Episode Transcript

Welcome to Expert Opinion, the BrandingBusiness forum where leaders share their views, insights, and experiences from the world of B2B branding. And now here’s your host.

Ryan Rieches: Hello, I’m Ryan Rieches, and welcome to Expert Opinion. We’re recording this podcast on March 19th, 2020, during the first week of our country’s request that people work from home during the COVID-19 virus pandemic. So many of us are learning how to work in a new, virtual world, and we thought it might be helpful to hear from someone who has been doing it for several years. Today’s guest is Karen Hayward, managing partner of Chief Outsiders. They’ve been a virtual firm from the start, over seven years. Their business model is providing interim or part-time marketing executives to mid-market companies, helping the CEO build and execute growth plans through the power of strategic marketing. They’ve got over 70 CMO level execs in the field, so I’m sure Karen can give us some great insights to this new world of working from home. But before we get into that, well let me just first say, welcome Karen.

Karen Hayward: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you this afternoon.

Ryan Rieches: Yeah, well I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation we had recently. We spoke a little bit about this new world we’re in, and we spoke a little bit about the uncertainty and fear caused by this coronavirus. And the reality is that we’re all in it together on a global basis. It’s affecting everyone, so we should all step up, help each other out, and share our expertise. And so, for us, that’s been reaching out to clients and friends, offering any counsel or advice on brand related topics; basically, being available anytime, anticipating their needs but also just being there. And you mentioned a similar approach, and I really liked it a lot. You established something you call a hotline, where clients and partners can reach your company’s execs with questions. Maybe you could share a little bit more about that and how it’s working.

Karen Hayward: Yeah, so we do a lot of work with private equity firms and their portfolio companies, and as you know, there is a need for speed in that business and channel, and they’re under a lot of pressure to grow really quickly. So when something like this hits that kind of firm, a lot of those organizations don’t have really senior marketing talent on staff. And so we decided to create a hotline to help some of our partners get access to one of the four managing partners in the firm so that when the phone rings, literally it rings on all of our phones and one of us answers it, and as soon as one picks it up then it stops ringing everywhere else. And so that’s been great. So we want to be available around the clock to anyone who has an issue that wants to access a subject matter expert to get some guidance and experience.

Ryan Rieches: That’s fantastic. I’m sure they appreciate it, and I’m sure you’re deepening some relationships along the way, and this may become a new normal going forward as well, right?

Karen Hayward: I think we’re definitely in a new world.

Ryan Rieches: Yeah, that’s for sure. Well, things have changed a lot. I did a little bit of research and realized that over 50% of American workers already spend the majority of their time working away from the office. And that could be in a variety of different situations. But yet for the rest of us who are a big part of the workforce that is typically in the office and not used to a virtual structure, it’s very challenging. And knowing that Chief Outsiders has bottled this model of being a virtual environment and virtual company for seven years, thought it’d be wonderful just to share your point of view and find out what’s worked well. Maybe start with the basics and we can just start to ladder on top of that.

Karen Hayward: Yeah. So there are a couple of things I think that are fundamental. And the first is you kind of got to get up, get dressed, and “go” to work every day. Setting yourself up with a specific place in your home where you can hopefully close the door and operate and focus is really important. I know many people right now have the added burden of having children who are not in school, so there are certainly technical resources to help provide them with coursework. Planning what your following day’s going to look like in terms of how are we going to keep the kids focused and organized, and then how are you going to be able to get at your work. But getting up and getting results, it all starts with showing up, as many things in life do.

Karen Hayward: And then I think there’s some things clearly that have to be done at a company level, and that’s really figuring out what’s the tech stack that needs to work? Is it a VPN? How do people access documents and applications? That, with the cloud, has become a lot easier. So enabling your employees to have the appropriate tech stack so they can be effective. And then there are a whole bunch of soft things that you can do that certainly we’ve done over the last 11 years where we’ve been operating virtually, and that is to really leverage video. As one of our managing partner says, “Ditch the phone. Video for everything.” Because that creates a sense of community, and as we know communication, it’s about 7% of what your words are and a lot more about your facial expression and your tone and your body language. Video has got a huge component to facilitating good dialogue.

Karen Hayward: And I guess the two other things would be you have to kind of figure out how to replace the lunch room and the water cooler. And so the way we’ve chosen to do that in our company is to celebrate success. So we celebrate everything. When we have a company meeting, we celebrate who’s become a grandparent and whose child graduated from college and who went on a great vacation, and we share pictures, to create a sense of community. So I think those are certainly two really important items and ways to start creating a community when you can’t actually be together.

Ryan Rieches: Those are great examples. I love the idea of get up and prepare your mind to go to work, even if that’s the other room next door. But it does help to enter a new frame of mind. So do you start the day with team meetings to kind of establish and get everybody on the same page, or do you end the day? How does that work?

Karen Hayward: Well, at Chief Outsiders, we have established management cadence. So we have managing partner meetings every Monday. It’s the same time, it’s all done by video conference. We have company meetings twice a month. Some companies have all hands meetings every week. But in our organization, it’s twice a month, and those are all on video, where we go and share values. You know, when I talked about celebrating wins, one of the important things when you go remote is to not lose your culture and to keep people feeling as though they’re part of something.

Karen Hayward: So when you have a company meeting that’s remote, you might want to do things like recognition around your values. For example, at Chief Outsiders, one of our values inside the organization is collaboration. We all help each other, and together we are stronger. So we have what we call smoke signals. And that’s when one CMO can say, “Hey, I want to recognize this CMO and this CMO for jumping on a phone call with me and providing expertise on digital marketing and giving me a second opinion.” So smoke signals are a great way to continue to underscore and live your values.

Karen Hayward: Celebrating customer wins, so keeping the good news going. Today, I just sent out a note to the firm, everybody, about a client extension we got and it was like everybody piped in right away, “Oh, well thanks for some good news… This is great.” And you can just feel the enthusiasm come together. So the notion there is you just really, really, really have to over communicate.

Ryan Rieches: And is a lot of this done on email or do you use a different platform for collaboration?

Karen Hayward: Well, we message a lot on email, although individually we may text a lot, but tribe messages, we call our organization a tribe, they all go out by email. But we do have a platform for sharing things. If someone wants to ask a question, they will ask it in our knowledge base, and it’ll go out by email, but it gets captured and categorized so that if someone has the same question a year from now, they can just check our knowledge base and they can find out all of the entries that were there previously.

Ryan Rieches: Perfect. Well, speaking of video, you mentioned the example of that’s becoming the new norm. I saw an example recently where there were a number of people in the workforce that were outside the office, and each of them as they picked up and joined the discussion, I think it was a Zoom meeting actually, they of course all had video on their laptop. And then the people that were actually in the office, in the conference room, rather than having just a conference room setting, they each individually had video on their laptop as well, so everybody was basically on the same playing field. I think it was just a wonderful way of demonstrating that we’re all individuals, but working collaboratively together, I think it just is a good example. Maybe kind of a norm going forward. You guys do something like that?

Karen Hayward: Yeah, all of our team meetings, so I run the West Coast team, so I have about a team of 20 chief marketing officers, and when we do business development training, we do it all by video. We have our coach that works with us, he chimes in by video. We’re so used to it now that it doesn’t even feel weird. It’s just kind of the way we do our business. And I think everybody actually loves the fact that you don’t get up and have a one hour commute to the office and a one hour commute home. And now with the coronavirus situation, we did something that’s a little different. I sent a note out to the team and the other managing partners, that was one of my colleagues’ ideas, Slade Kobran, and he said, “Well let’s get the team together for a cocktail.”

Karen Hayward: So, I sent a note out to my team, and I said, “Okay, who’d like to get together for a cocktail Thursday at five o’clock?” I said, “I’ll be making a quarantini, a vodka quarantini. What’s everyone else’s libation of choice?” And oh my goodness, everybody chimed in. It was lighthearted, it was fun, and today at five o’clock we’ll all jump on our Zoom meeting, have a little toast to each other, and we’ll share how things are going, what’s going well, what’s not going well, and who needs some help, and continue to create a really strong sense of community in these times where it’s very easy to feel so isolated.

Ryan Rieches: I think those are great examples. Yeah, it seems that rather than just canceling a number of events or even meetings or lunches or cocktails, just move to a virtual perspective. My daughter’s doing the same thing with her team this afternoon, and video is a great way to bring that personal connection forward, create that sense of belonging, that tribe that you mentioned.

Karen Hayward: And you just can’t do it with voice. Just like when my kids went off to college, I said to my husband, we better make sure we’re Face Timing them to see how they’re really doing. Because when you see somebody you can tell so much more about how they’re feeling, how they’re communicating, and how engaged they are. There was that body of work that was done that said as you communicate, words are only 7%, everything else is communicated by tone, by body language. So, you just don’t get a full picture unless you can engage and see the person.

Ryan Rieches: Yeah. Well, Karen, you offered some fantastic insights on this new work-from-home model, and I’m sure it will continue going forward, but just thinking about that, our firm has been around for a little over 25 years and we’re going to be publishing some new content, just how to survive 25 and how to think about the next 25, and we’ve been through a number of different recessions and crises like 9/11 and the financial crisis, as well. I was chatting with Paul, our producer, about this and he shared the point of view from a PR perspective that we all enter these crises with a bit of shock and disbelief and the perspective that how bad is it going to get, and then we move into the next phase of, okay, I’m tired of looking at all the bad news. How are we going to actually get through this? It seems like we’re now moving into that second phase already, which is comforting.

Ryan Rieches: Then fortunately the third phase will be upon us soon, and it’s up to us to make it happen, and that is what comes next and how do we live this new normal, because the world will be different going forward than it is today and where it was a month ago. In addition to what you’ve shared so far, any other thoughts come to mind in terms of what that new normal looks like for a workforce?

Karen Hayward: I think for the workforce, it’s going to propel the whole work-from-home movement, because people are going to figure out that it can work. So I think that’s one. I’d love to share a tip with the listeners, for those people that have children who are at home that need to be schooled. And I think that’s particularly challenging. I mean, I have a business degree, but I would be hard pressed to go back and tutor my kids in calculus. So, there’s a wonderful resource out there called Khan Academy. It’s K-H-A-N Academy. Sal Khan is running a not-for-profit that Bill Gates has funded. He’s an educator, and he’s created this free online platform and he provides lessons for kids of all ages. So whether you have a preschooler or whether you have someone who’s preparing for an SAT, he’s an incredible resource. So please help take the stress out of your life by leveraging Khan Academy for your kid.

Ryan Rieches: Working from home and working remotely, working virtually, and I imagine that this will also have an impact on the movement to independent contractors going forward, unless people actually fully employed or full-time employed, but rather leveraging their expertise and offering that expertise to a variety of different companies and firms, kind of like what Chief Outsiders did. You’ve probably been following the stats on that topic. Anything else that you’d like to share on that?

Karen Hayward: Yeah, no, I think the gig economy is alive and well, and is only going to continue to flourish. The borders are breaking down, and as far away as we need to stay from each other, in some ways I think we have the opportunity to get closer. So, I would just say now’s the perfect time when maybe people in certain circumstances aren’t as busy as they are, go and be helpful to someone. Pick up the phone and connect with someone you haven’t connected with in a long time and see what you can do to be helpful. And you know, the more we try and help each other, the easier we’ll all get through this.

Ryan Rieches: Absolutely. We’re all in it together. Let’s be helpful. Let’s be flexible. We all have talents. Focus on our strengths and be able to share them with other people. I think it’ll brighten all of our days, as well, when we feel fulfilled, when we’re accomplishing helping somebody, that’s the best feeling you can get. Well, Karen, we’re almost out of time. Any other thoughts or insights you’d like to share?

Karen Hayward: Well, I think everyone should just reach out and have a fun team meeting. Create some fun around it, put some humor into it, and connect with people sooner than later because people who are used to operating in a highly socialized environment, it’s really different when you’re sitting at home and staring at your computer. So try and figure out how you can create a culture that is going to work whether you’re face-to-face or whether you’re remote for at least some period of time.

Ryan Rieches: I think that’s great advice. I think we’re just now moving into a new phase. As I mentioned earlier, where first it was doom and gloom and how are we going to get through this, and okay, what are my technical requirements I need to have, etc. And now we’re just starting to see on social media a little bit of levity, people with some very interesting backdrops behind their video at home, costumes, sharing stories of embarrassing moments on conference calls where they’re saying things they shouldn’t have said or someone walking by, either a child or their spouse coming out of the shower. A lot of embarrassing moments that are actually hopefully can bring us some light to, and a humor to this situation.

Ryan Rieches: So, I think you’re absolutely right, we’re people who like to gather together and help each other and learn from each other, and we need to be together in one way or another, so we might as well make the most of it in a virtual world. Wonderful insights. Thank you so much, Karen.

Karen Hayward: You’re welcome. Stay safe.

Ryan Rieches: Well, that concludes our show for today. This is Ryan Rieches. You’ve been listening to another edition of Expert Opinion, a brand new business forum where thought leaders share their point of view. If you’d like to listen to past shows or read our blog series, visit