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Six Tips From Eastman Chemical on Managing a Distributed Team

May 31, 2016
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The Eastman Innovation Lab is a strategic program that connects the material scientists of Eastman Chemical, a $9.5 billion global specialty chemicals company, with the industrial design community. It exists both to ensure that our materials and technology portfolio support the future needs of the market, and as a way to educate designers about the possibilities and constraints of the materials Eastman produces, from fibers to films to polymers.

The Lab itself does not exist in one physical place, but instead leverages the talents and capabilities of both the design community and the world-class technology experts who work for Eastman.

It also exists in digital form, using storytelling to inspire the design community to understand why materials matter. Last year, we re-launched the Eastman Innovation Lab website and began leveraging its content across social as well as traditional media channels with the objective of stimulating a conversation around why #materialsmatter.

The website itself, below, is a repository of case studies highlighting collaborations and applications born from new designs and innovations. These case studies link to a robust materials library, helping designers understand what materials were used and why they were chosen. The Lab then uses a robust digital content strategy to actively engage the design community and stimulate new collaborations where designs are enabled by material science. But this content takes a team to build and deploy.

My career started off as a collegiate rowing coach, helping to select and manage a team of over 60 athletes. Then, I married a collegiate soccer coach and my career took a turn into marketing and brand management. My philosophy in team-building is founded in athletics, and as a result, I am always looking for the right player for the right role. As we kicked off the new content strategy for the Eastman Innovation Lab, I knew I needed a small but robust team that had a passion for design and were individually high performers. I also knew that because the nature of the job was digital communications, they all didn’t have to sit at HQ. In fact, none of us do.

Managing a remote team — ours fluctuates between five and nine people — comes with its own set of challenges. Below are six tips and tools I use to manage our team for the Eastman Innovation Lab.

1. Hire the Best for the Job

Eastman is headquartered in Kingsport, Tenn.; I live in Miami (though I worked at HQ for over 6 years.) We also have team members in South Carolina, London, New York, and Virginia. The reason I hired from such a diverse group of locations is the same reason Eastman kept me on when my family needed to move to Miami—you work with the best for the job. Our publicity team has to be in New York, where most of the media lives. Our production and web team (who brings our stories to life through computer-generated graphics, case study videos, and a beautifully-designed website) happen to be in London, and we have had a long-standing relationship with them. Our social content strategists were hired based on previous relationships and serendipitous timing. I don’t think the “right” location should be a pre-requisite to being hired. Instead, the candidate’s exceptional skill set and values need to align with the mission of the organization. In our case, my team is dedicated to inspiring the design community to understand why #materialsmatter through brilliant storytelling.

2. Playbook

The first thing we created was a Playbook to keep us all on track. First and foremost in our playbook are the team rules. We all have a role to play and talents that we bring. Staying true to these will allow us to work efficiently and leverage each other to get the job done. We also have documented the Eastman Innovation Lab’s tone for content, its look and feel, projected user personas as well as notes on how we want to engage with them, overall yearly objectives, strategies we will utilize to achieve success, and goals we will measure ourselves against. We spent a good month refining our playbook to make sure it would be there for us consistently when we had questions.

3. Weekly Check-In Calls

Because we can’t pop into our neighbor’s cubicle, we need weekly check-ins to make sure each teammate knows what’s hot on their plate (or maybe so they can tell me what’s hot on mine!) It’s also a great time to give feedback and refocus the direction of our tasks at hand. Every other week, we have a full team call so the left hand always knows what the right is up to. It can be easy to become a lone wolf; these calls make sure we’re functioning like a finely-tuned pack.

4. Texting, Texting, Texting

We are all busy people and things are bound to slip through the cracks. Generally, offices shun texting, but, surprisingly, for our team it is a true lifesaver. Everyone our team uses texting to give nudges about something they are waiting for, or schedule phone calls between themselves. I routinely communicate with direct teammates as well as the larger Eastman and design communities from my phone—and a quick response could be as easy as a thumb-up emoji. A remote team means we are all on the go. We have time differences and inundated in-boxes to deal with, so being able to text with each other keeps us connected in a friendly, yet efficient way.

5. Outlook Calendar

One of the tools we rely on more than anything else is our Outlook calendar. It syncs across everyone’s calendar and keeps our numerous meetings and calls in order. When a call is scheduled, we instantly book it through our calendar app, and everyone gets invited. Call-in numbers are right there, along with meeting talking topics. It gives us structure where we need it most. We can also use it to put reminders of due dates for content being produced, or to keep up with teammates being out of the office. I use my calendar (which, thank god, syncs with my phone) to get quick snapshots of days, weeks, and even months. It’s a great tool to use to keep the team organized and proactively plan for busy clusters of activity.

6. Get Together in Person

Even though we have weekly calls, and constant communication through texting and email, I’ve found it’s really important to make time for face time. About once a quarter we all fly to once place to brainstorm and figure out next steps. (We’ve done this in Miami and Kingsport, Tenn., usually for about two days.)

At these gatherings, I am a strong believer in discussion guides. For me, what this means is having an outline of how we are going to use our time together – the meeting’s objective, and then what the desired outcome will be. Because we have such limited time together, I want to be as efficient as possible. I am a creative and work with creatives – we like to chase shiny things! Discussion guides allow us to have the flexibility of conversations in a more deliberate workshop environment that ensures that we leave the get-together accomplishing what we set out to do and knowing what we actions we have in front of us.

One last important thing: we socialize together. Making sure we maintain good team chemistry keeps the directness of phone calls and emails from being misinterpreted. I find these meetings create the space for us to talk about our personal lives and goals, make jokes, or share a meal that can carry over to the beginning of a call when we are working remotely. For me, working together is not just business, it’s a relationship — and when you spend more than half your life at work, you should enjoy the folks you work with!

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