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EPAM Women in STEM: How Kristina M. Smith Maximizes Productivity and Collaboration within a Remote Team

Working remote is something many of us have gotten used to this past year. As some people go back to work in an office and some remain working from home, how can we maximize our productivity and maintain a collaborative work culture? Kristina M. Smith knows from experience.

Kristina works in EPAM’s Organizational Change Management (OCM) competency as a Business Consulting Manager with 10 years of combined change management and digital strategy experience. She specializes in developing communication strategies for digital change initiatives, leveraging both internal and external communication channels to deliver consistent branding and messaging. Kristina is passionate about bridging the digital divide within organizations by taking a people-first approach to digital transformations.

Joining EPAM’s Business Consulting group six months ago, Kristina arrived with five years of experience operating and managing remote teams around the globe. As a subject matter expert in navigating virtual corporate cultures, Kristina shares with us her experience so far working remote at EPAM and some best practices for maintaining a culture of collaboration within this working environment. Let’s hear what she has to say:

(Haley Reynolds): You joined EPAM about six months ago. Welcome! Share with us what you do within your role as a Business Consulting Manager within EPAM’s OCM competency.

(Kristina M. Smith): As a Business Consulting Manager, I work with cross-functional teams on client work and internal initiatives. The Business Consulting team, and specifically the Organizational Change Management competency, operates like a start-up but within the walls of an established organization. At all stages of what we do–from developing our methodology to our go-to-market strategy–we’re building from scratch and acting as the founding members of our teams. OCM is rapidly growing, so there are a lot of opportunities to shape the team’s success for the future. What I find most exciting about my role at EPAM, is that we’re truly involved in the end-to-end tech transformation because EPAM is a true engineering company at its core. While we’re advising on the business side, EPAMers deliver transformation by building and implementing technology as well.

What was your experience like onboarding with a company that has a primary remote-working culture?

When I joined EPAM, I was really surprised at the company’s capability to perform remote operations. I realized that though I joined the team during the pandemic, EPAM’s remote work culture has been the organization’s way of working to begin with. It really puts EPAM at an advantage, especially in times like these. 

Despite not physically being together, our team stays incredibly connected through video calls and Microsoft Teams chat groups.

Given your experience managing remote teams, what is your best advice to someone who is collaborating remotely with their colleagues?

The shift to a remote or virtual work environment has many benefits, but it can also be a bit lonely, create a sense of isolation and increase the potential for miscommunication. 

The foundation of a healthy work environment can suffer from transitioning to a full remote-working culture, including:

  • The ability to build a sense of community and connectivity 
  • Ease of collaboration
  • Clarity of communication 
  • Work/life boundaries 

Here’s my best advice on how to avoid sacrificing putting these things in jeopardy:

Set digital communication norms and avoid notification overload.

Will your team use email, chat, text or video to collaborate? What are the expectations around when to communicate with one another, and more importantly, when not to? These are all important standards to set for your team at the beginning of a project. It may seem simple to send a coworker a text instead of an email but be conscious of how it may disrupt their work/life boundaries. Ensure your team isn’t being overloaded by notifications by establishing primary and secondary communication modes from the start. 

Be mindful of your digital body language.

Reading someone’s body language can be hard enough in person, but when we introduce a fully virtual environment, we lose all physical and tonal cues from our peers. Being concise is a great skill, but often brevity can create confusion when it comes to digital communication. It is important to understand what signals you are broadcasting both internally and with external clients. Do you use emojis? Exclamation points? Is it acceptable for your team to do the same? When it comes to client communications, just like in person, it is important to mirror your clients’ communication styles when appropriate.

Create a virtual sense of community.

I don’t know about you, but I have had my fair share of virtual happy hours and video catch-up calls. While this can be a great way to connect with others, beware of video fatigue. Consider various ways to establish community virtually that will appeal to different personality types. Instead of a video happy hour, consider doing an offline trivia or posting a “meme of the week” in your team group chats. This gives both introverts and extroverts a way to feel included without the pressure of constantly being camera-ready. It is important to strike a healthy balance. When meeting a new team member for the first time or welcoming someone onto a project, turning video on is a great way to build a personal connection. As a lead of a project or team, try to lead by example by turning your video on. This is even more critical for team members who are onboarding remotely and working 100% virtually. While this may be appropriate for the first couple of weeks, be sure to set clear expectations around video usage in the future.

Make all of your content digestible.

The reality of working remotely means we all constantly have multiple tabs, chats and screens open. In a world where we consume most of our information via social media, our attention spans can be short when it comes to reading information. It can be easy to miss messages and calls to action in lengthy emails or pieces of content. 

Here are some simple ways to make your digital content digestible for your audience: 

  • Bold important dates and action items. 
  • Break longer messages into sections and include section heads. For example, an email that includes both an update, questions and next steps should be broken up into sections that are either bolded or underlined.
  • Make sure any key questions you want your reader to answer quickly stand out by either bulleting, indenting or adding the proper spacing to make sure it stands out.

Finally, here are a few other quick steps you can take to put some of this advice into action: 

  • When crafting long emails or messages, always stop and ask yourself if the message is clear, concise and actionable. Bold or underline important information to make items easy to scan and review. 
  • Encourage your team to block out work time on their calendars. It can be draining to go from virtual meeting to meeting. Having no-meeting blocks can help increase your team’s productivity.
  • When scheduling meetings, clarify whether video is required by adding the terms “video optional” or “video encouraged” so your team members can be prepared. 
  • Introduce a video-free Friday or Monday to provide your team a periodic break from using video.

As many of us continue working in a digital-first environment, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for creating comfortable virtual work environments. However, these small shifts can make a big difference. Ultimately, it is important to continue evolving our communication and work styles to protect the work/life balance while enhancing collaboration.