The boss is away: An interview with Michelle Spencer

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Running a digital team from the other side of the world

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

I’ve known today’s guest for over 10 years. She describes herself as a digital leader with a strong UX and design background. Currently she’s working as a senior manager for a major Australian Bank, heading up an Experience Design team where she is “1% on the tools and 99% on leadership.” However, I wanted to talk to her about some of her experience with a previous company, Telstra, the largest telco in Australia.

Michelle Spencer, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Michelle Spencer

Thanks for having me, Gerry. Nice to be here.

Gerry

Now, at your previous role you were head of UX content and design I believe. Can you give us a little bit of an overview of what that entailed?

Michelle

Sure. The team was quite a large team that grew to be over a hundred people. My role was to lead, grow and manage the UX, content and visual design discipline at Telstra Digital. The team itself served over a hundred million customer interactions per month, across all of its digital assets, which for us includes Telstra.com, their 24/7 app, My Account, crowd support, live chat, all those good digital things. And we worked a lot with customers and stakeholders, dd a lot of workforce planning in that role, program management. Operational efficiency was also a key part, commercial viability of the team and what we were doing, and how to do this at scale as well due to the sheer numbers that were in the team. But at a day-to-day level, what the role entailed was really to manage and lead a multidisciplinary team across three locations, being Melbourne, Sydney and India.
And we provided full stack end-to-end design capability including strategic, project, campaign work, BAU [business-as-usual], in a platform delivery environment. So very much an execution environment. We started Telstra’s first design system or global experience language for those of you who know it as that, an accessible design framework. We also created beautiful content and storytelling, idealization and conceptual and detailed design. We did a lot of iterative customer research and user testing, reporting of that, and overall delivering our digital customer service solutions, for Telstra customers. So it was quite broad, and a lot to manage. But a really great challenge to have.

Gerry

It sounds like a rule that would be very much hands on with a lot of face-to-face staff interaction.

Michelle

Yeah, in part, absolutely. There was, and I think the industry being telecommunications and the digital environment setup that we had lent itself towards working with people face-to-face or via technology. And I think, because we prioritized building relationships with one another, it enabled a culture of trust and empowerment. And this ultimately allowed us to collaborate and also practice autonomy and to take risks and try new things out without processes bogging us down all the time or an approval required for absolutely everything. And of course that has its place. Um, but a healthy balance is what helped with those interactions.

Gerry

In fact, for six months, talking about it being a hands-on to some extent, for six months or so, you ran the job from the Netherlands despite the job being based in Australia. Why did that happen? Why did that come about?

Michelle

Yeah, totally, totally crazy. This had nothing to do with, Telstra sending me overseas or any of that…

Gerry

This is you absconding.

Michelle

Yeah, this was absolutely a dream that really my husband and I had on our bucket list for life. Um, we’re both really well travelled. That wasn’t the point, but we really wanted to experience our children going to a school overseas and also being able to pick up a new language, and just really testing the boundaries of flexible working. That’s what it came down to. And, you know, the options in doing that, we thought, okay, well how do we do this, was to have the conversation with our bosses at the time to say, look, this is, this is the dream that we have. We think it’s doable. It is doable. How are we going to do it? That’s where we need your help. So the options really were to resign, and just go and do it, have a career break and go and do it or to work remotely.

Gerry

So how did you manage to persuade a Telstra in this instance that first of all, that it was possibly to effectively fulfil the role remotely and to support you in attempting it?

Michelle

I think there was a bit of persuasion, but I think it was more around the proof was in the pudding. And for me, I mean, I don’t want to pump up my own tires, but I do very much believe in, effective people can work from anywhere. So, you know, whether they’re working from home or working from a cafe or working from Mars, I don’t really care where people are working to a point, as long as they’re being effective because we all know, you know, sometimes when you’re coming into an office there can be extreme inefficiency working from an office for a hundred reasons. But what matters is that that people want their colleagues to be effective. And that’s what it was centred around. And because over time I had been able to build relationships with various people and people knew that it didn’t really matter where I was. I was, you know, always dialling into meetings, whether it was video conferencing or via the phone or on Slack or whatever communication methods or being there in person, that was the key thing because they needed my input. And whether that was being there in the room or working from the other side of the world, that didn’t really matter to them so much. It was what was I bringing to the table? And we made that the focal point because that ultimately was the key thing.

Gerry

In Australia we’re used to dealing with the hassle of working across three or four times and the same in North America and lot of different places I guess. But you are working across far more than that. I just had the look and I’m in Australian midwinter 9:00am is 1:00am on a Dutch midsummer night. How did you manage those time differences?

Michelle

Yeah, and then we had part of our team was based in India, in Mumbai as well, so there was a different time zone there as well. Luckily the time difference between the Netherlands and where Mumbai is was more closely aligned so that worked white well. But yeah, indeed, particularly with Sydney and Melbourne, that was where the bigger challenge was. But absolute meticulous planning on my part, to really, I basically opened an Excel spreadsheet and put in a 24 hour clock in, you know, the hour in each cell and then translated that to what the time in the Netherlands would be. And then I coded some of the colours in red to say, look, these red colours, that’s off limits. You can’t contact me during those hours unless it’s an absolute emergency because it’s in the middle of the night in the Netherlands and with the colorus or the times that were orange, they were the ones where, yeah, it was borderline. You could contact me if you needed me to, but the green was the preferable times to contact me. So, pretty much, I started work at 6:00am Dutch time every morning, which meant that it was 2:00pm Australian time on the Australian eastern seaboard. Which was very doable and the team quickly realized that Michelle is available, we just need to prioritize what we need from her and, you know, do all our administration or whatever it is we do those tasks in the morning. And then when Michelle comes online at 2:00pm Australian time, that’s when we really contact her and that’s when we schedule our meetings that really need Michelle’s involvement. And I did the same, right? If you flip that around at 6:00am, in the Netherlands, I had to really make sure that I was on the ball for the next three hours. So 6:00am to 9:00am in the Netherlands was 2 to 5:00pm in Australia and at 5:00pm most people are going home. So everything that I needed from people, I needed absolutely crammed into those first three hours at 6:00am, which isn’t for the fainthearted mind you. But I’m a morning person, so it, it did work. And on the odd occasion there was a meeting I’d have to dial in at 1:00am, but I think I can count on two or three fingers how often that happened. So luckily it was, it was scarce.

Gerry

Presumably while you were away, you had to deal with some important, one-on-one staff interactions. How did you manage those sorts of things?

Michelle

Just pick up the phone. That’s all it was. And whether you’re actually having a traditional phone call or you’re using an app to communicate with people via Slack, via Skype, by Google Hangouts, it doesn’t matter. You are extremely accessible and so are other people. And all it takes is, to pick up the phone if you like or your computer and have a conversation with someone. And I would really encourage people to really work on their communication skills if this is something that other people want to attempt as well. Because you do need to be a good communicator because people are really relying on your communication skills, either your written communication skills by email or you know, text messages or messages via Slack, et cetera, or through your video conferencing. So you do need to have those, that type of technology set up, and you need to make it work. And inevitably, sometimes the internet connection’s failed or whatever was going on so that that really is catastrophic because you are so dependent on an Internet connection because all of your communication is digital. And if that Internet goes down, you’re on your own for top troubleshooting. But luckily I had about two or three different Internet connection’s going at once. I had, you know, a postpaid Internet connection, I had a couple of prepaid ones going on. So just in case one, you know, would falter, I had a backup, a Plan B and a Plan C to go to, if you like.

Gerry

You talk about communication skills. Did you have your conversations scripted in advance or did you work out this is what I want to get out of this and what I want to say, This is what I want to hear?

Michelle

I didn’t have anything scripted in advance if you like, but I do, just out of habit whether, you know, I’m working remotely or working in an office, doesn’t matter where I am, I do like to ask the person, who I’m having a conversation with, whether they’ve set up a meeting or whether I’ve set one up, I do like to set some sort of expectation of what we need from that session. So whether it’s an agenda or whether it’s having some clear outcomes, whether or not we resolve what we needed to resolve in the discussion, that’s another thing entirely. But just having even one, two or three bullet points, what is this meeting about and what are you to get from me or me from you in that particular interaction? And I think just having those clear points up front make for such richer conversations.

Gerry

Now you mentioned that the multiple channels that you use, again, it’s a thing that I think is noticeable and a lot of workplaces over the last, I guess, three or four years while Slack as emerged as being such an important tool, you know, I guess there’s a plethora of tools that are changing the way we communicate. But a downside to all of that, is that and I’ve seen it, a lot of people say, oh, was that in an email or was it in Slack or was it on Skype? Or was it a DM or was it in Whatsapp? You know, there’s been a fragmentation of communication. Do you, do you see that as an issue in the workplace in general?

Michelle

Probably yes and no. I think it really does depend, like you have to have your head screwed on fairly well most of the time. And just use your discretion. What are you discussing? What is it that your discussing and what method of communication is suitable for the topic that you need to discuss? If it’s highly sensitive information, you know, you need to consider whether you’re posting that on social technology I would say, or whether it’s better having a face-to-face or a video communication, or whether it’s more suitable to do that by text. I do find from day to day, you know, I don’t monitor Slack in real time I do have the notifications turned off and I do that because I find it that not just with Slack, but any, sort of digital app communications, I would say it can be very distracting. And you find yourself responding to messages all day long and your ability to focus, to be clear, for stuff that really needs attention and a deeper level of thinking or higher order thinking it may be, it can get very distracting if you’ve got your phone, you know, pinging you all the time. But I do out of habit try and check, you know, Slack, Yammer, Skype, LinkedIn, all of that, once a day if possible. And if people really need me, if there’s something super urgent, text message is normally the way to get hold of me, with, with some kind of speed.

Gerry

We’re talking about dealing with people remotely. How would it, how would you go about it… Presumably with a team of 100, there were times when disciplinary actions of some sort where necessary or perhaps a termination of somebody whose employment or contract is it, is it acceptable to do that remotely?

Michelle

It has to be. There’s no question about it. You need to be able to be empowered when you’re working remotely. There are some things, absolutely that areI think better done face to face if possible, but if that’s not possible, you still need to be able to make decisions regardless of where you’re working. And yeah, there absolutely were probably one or two times in that period where there was, you know, there was a real challenge with needing to deal with, you know, could have been a particular HR issue. And you really needed, I really needed to rely on my team members, on the ground, to help resolve some of that. So while the crux of it sat with me, some of the semantics, you know, and the reality is sometimes you do need to end people’s contracts or terminate employment, whatever it is. There’s semantics involved with that and now luckily we didn’t have any of those things blow up in a big way. But an example might be that, you know, people have a laptop and a security pass, things like that, that they need to return to the organization. Now that is very hard to do physically when you are located on the other side of the world. But having the right support network and communicating with people on the ground. So not, not all hundred people, but having a leadership team or some key support people on the ground locally who can help with some of that stuff, who have just enough information to be able to support and execute without having, eons of detail about everything, which may be irrelevant for them. I think it’s really important to find that balance.

Gerry

Now you mentioned that you had a Plan A, a plan B and Plan C for your Internet access. Did your team have to install any new technology or was it all just the pre-existing stuff they already had?

Michelle

No, it was all existing stuff. And the key here is this was my and my family’s move. This was us doing this for us. And we really, coming back to your earlier question around influencing leadership and having support and all of that, it was really around not disrupting other people’s lives too much in a way that negatively impacted them in terms of the amount of work that they were going to have to do on top of their day jobs to support something that someone else wanted to do. So it was very much planning, based on existing tool sets. So we didn’t have to, I didn’t have a laundry list of, say, 10 things that I imposed on the broader team. It was using the existing tools and processes that we had to make their lives easier as well. And look if, if one of those things turned out not to work, you know, because this was a bit of a test and learn thing as well. So, you know, after a few days or a few months, if it turned out that one tool was actually working better than the other, then, you know, we had that conversation and we made changes if we needed to.

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Gerry

So, obviously it’s a very trailblazing thing to do. It. Has it had an impact on how the team operates? Now I’m going to know you’re no longer working with that same company, but did the team change the way that it saw presence and how people work?

Michelle

Absolutely. I think, most people were advocates and they were on board. They just didn’t understand how this was actually going to work. Um, but because I had built up relationships with most people, they placed faith in me that it was going to work. And if for some reason we got to the other side of the world and something wasn’t working, they had full faith that I would sort it out. Which is a great position to be in and I will be forever thankful to everyone for having that trust in me to be able to do this. And I think, you know, it wasn’t long before people started realizing, hey, you know, even though Michelle’s normally based in Melbourne and we’re in Sydney, we actually don’t have access to her, you know, 24/7 anyway. So now that she’s in the Netherlands, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference. She’s still accessible. It just happens to be a little bit later in the day. But that was still the case when I was based in Melbourne, you know, I couldn’t sort of drop everything all of the time and help give access to everyone for everything all of the time. So, I think through practice and just doing it, we all just realized, hey, this is, this is actually doable and this is doable for a longer period of time than just the six months. And this is doable across multiple time zones because, you know, although most of the team was based in Australia and then, some in India of course, I was regularly having conversations with people that were in other time zones as well, that had an indirect, impact on, on the role that I was having or when it came to recruitment. Like we had people that were applying for jobs in our team for example, that were based in the UK or the US. So I had sort of peripheral, I had to peripheral, what’s the word, sort of a view of what their situation was in terms of the time zones. And I had to be conscious of that and how was I going to make that work and how are they going to make it work. So just being open, and I think having that mindset and that attitude to just testing stuff, learning from it. And if it’s not working well, we’ll just try something else. I think that was absolutely key. And for the most part, I would say we had that at Telstra at the time. And there are a few people that didn’t really get it. But just through doing it, it was all fine and it was a nonissue. Wasn’t always easy mind you like, and if you’ve read the blog posts, you know, super, super honest and more about how it was actually going four months in and we had some really, really tough times. Just, you know, there were a hundred things going on and it wasn’t, you know, much of it wasn’t even related to work. It was just, you know, you’re uplifting a family of five, of which our kids are really young, and you’re moving them to the other side of the world. And that’s not, you know, that’s not necessarily for the fainthearted, but what a phenomenal challenge.

Gerry

You had a very entertaining all the stressful at the time story about one of your kids being injured I think within a few days of your arrival.

Michelle

Oh. And it happened to be on a public holiday, which is Koningsdag,
which means King’s Day in the Netherlands. It’s a public holiday, major festivities going on. So there’s no Ubers, there’s no taxis. They’re really hard to get on that particular day. So, hospital, doctors, access all of that really difficult as well. And yeah, one of my kids, because the Dutch staircases, particularly in the olden houses are extremely steep, they go straight up pretty much and they have no handrail and they’re slippery because they’re polished. And you know, him being I think five or six at the time, he was running up the stairs, down the stairs and you want to use the stairs because we don’t have a staircase in our home in Australia. And he fell from the top of the staircase onto the tiles on the floor and yep, that landed, we landed in hospital over that one and that didn’t help with the stress levels, but thankfully, I mean, he had a fracture, a bit of a fractured nose. But he was otherwise fine. And within a few days, you couldn’t even tell that anything had happened physically with him. But yeah, things like that and you know, you have 15 of those things pile up and you just think, oh my goodness, what have we done? Are we crazy? But then you get over it and then you think, actually we might be able to do this again some time.

Gerry

Why did you terminate it after six months? That was your planed stay-away, period, right?

Michelle

Yup. That was always the plan. Six months. And we never deviated from that. I had a lot of people and, I think my husband had a lot of people as well say to us, you know, you’ll get there and you know, you won’t be coming back. You’ll get another job. You know, you’re saying it’s six months, but you know, we won’t see you again for a while. And I said, look, it’s being very honest and I really want to respect the support and the opportunity that is presenting itself. We’re doing all the hard work mind you because we took that on as part of, of us doing this. But yeah, our intention was to stay for six months and there were various reasons why it was six months and not nine months or 12 months or two years. Which I don’t need to go into unless you want to know. But it was, yeah, six months and we decided to come back and that was that and it all worked really well.

Gerry

Now, how likely would you be to recommend this experience to your friends and family on a scale of zero to 10?

Michelle

Look, I think, if I had to give a sort of yes or no answer, I would say yes, absolutely do it. But I think it’s not for everyone. Um, you know, upheaving a family to the other side of the world is not for everyone, full stop. Remote working is not for everyone, full stop. And you need to have an enormous amount of discipline, trust and good communication skills to be able to do this. And you need to have a support netork. So, although, you know, I’ve got family members in the Netherlands or you know, a bunch of reasons why we picked the Netherlands, but you know, they weren’t just sort of next door to us that we couldn’t rely on them on a daily basis. But you do need to have, if you, if you’re partnered for example, you need to have a really good support system in your partner because there are times where it’s really going to go pear shaped and you need to rely on one another and find solace in one another when it really takes a turn. And you know, on the flip side when things are going really, really well, you want to be able to celebrate that too. So if you don’t have a few of those key things lined up, you know, you probably need to question whether moving to the other side of the world to do this is what you want to do. Or do you potentially move interstate or three hours up the road instead? Because working in the same time zone has a lot of benefits, different time zone comes with, with other challenges.

Gerry

What surprised you most about the whole experience?

Michelle

How doable it was.

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Gerry

And what benefits did you and your employer get from the arrangement?

Michelle

I think an understanding or a better or deeper understanding of digital and customer experiences, in Europe in this case, how other companies are doing things. Accessibility to information as well. Although we’re pretty good with sharing in Australia, but like a lot of the conferences in Europe, they’re just, you know, half an hour down the road or a two hour flight, whereas in Australia, obviously you kind of have to travel 12 hours to get anywhere, to an international conference. But having the access to that sort of global mindset, from Europe was really key. And I could bring that back to Australia and say, you know what, this is how a bunch of other companies are doing things and this is how, you know, based on my experience, I think Telstra’s rating, and this is how we as a digital organization, our rating against what’s happening in Europe. And sometimes we’re above the bar and sometimes we were below the bar. So getting that sort of external knowledge, if you like, in that global knowledge in to measure where we’re at is priceless.

Gerry

Were there any disbenefits or, I don’t know what the right word is, but you know, were there any things that were detrimental to the company as a result of you doing this work remotely?

Michelle

Look, it’s probably more a question for the company really to answer, but we did debrief about how well this went, when I came back and, there was a real appetite to share the story. I never intended to write about it or anything, but there were so many questions coming my way, not just from Telstra, but beyond that, around how on earth did you do this? Like how did you get it together? What was your process? What was it like? And it got to a point where I felt I would be doing the world or the community a disservice if I didn’t document it and share it. And so there was that appetite for the organization to be able to share that and to, to really showcase it as a story of what it can be like when you push the boundaries of something. And believing in borderless workplaces, that it’s a thing, it’s a thing and you know, you need to just test it out to understand how it can work and how it can benefit both employees and employers at the same time.

Gerry

Well, we’ll, we’ll include the link to the blog post at uxpod.com along with a transcript of this episode of course. Do you want to tell us what the URL is that people could go and read up more on this?

Michelle

Uh, yeah, that would be great if I had it in front of me, but I don’t, but I can absolutely forward it to you. It’s on my LinkedIn profile, Michelle Spencer, and it is public as well, so you should be able to see it if you go to my profile. [Here it is – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-its-really-going-remote-working-corporate-digital-spencer/]

Gerry

Okay. What would you do differently?

Michelle

What would I do differently? Um, don’t know. Interesting question. I think I would like to make new mistakes. So I don’t regret any of the things that were really hard because we learned enormously from that experience. So everything, every tiny thing, big thing, whatever, that went pear shaped, you know, added to the experience in a strange way, and we learned from it. And, I think if we did this again, whatever the mistakes are or the learnings they need to be new, so I wouldn’t change anything per se. But whatever we do learn and whatever direction we take, let’s get new experiences.

Gerry

Cool. Michelle Spencer, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Michelle

No worries. Thanks everyone, and thanks for having me, Gerry.

Gerry GaffneyThe boss is away: An interview with Michelle Spencer

Comments 2

  1. Smita

    Great podcast. Thanks for this 🙂 Have been following Michelle from the UX psychology group. She is absolutely practical and a super solid leader!

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