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When all of your communication suddenly switches to digital media, it’s more than just a technology change. The very nature of collaboration changes.
Randy Herbertson describes it as a change to linear conversations. Information and exchanges must be sequenced in a way that doesn’t happen in organic, in-person collaboration.
Randy sees this in his work, particularly in the focus groups he does for clients. You must call on people more directly, and everyone waits for their turn, rather than jumping into the conversation. This retraining of our approach to conversations has made it hard when we are back in person to know if the same rules apply.
Amongst colleagues, communication is also much more linear and often transactional in a digital environment. This can lead to more efficiency of collaboration, but also doesn’t make as much space for quick communication that can lead to a new, unplanned thought or insight.
Randy also talked about the native advantages of the shift to digital. Focus groups are easier to organize, and team members don’t have to worry about a commute. It’s also helpful to see everyone’s facial reactions to a statement at one time rather than only being able to zero in on one person.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today, our guest is Randy Herbertson. He is the Principal at The Visual Brand. Hey Randy, how’s it going today?
Real good, Neil. How are you?
I’m excited. You are a very interesting person and someone I’m enjoying chatting with even as we were getting to know each other before the call. So, this is going to be a fun call. We’re going to be talking about innovation. That’s a big topic for a lot of people, thinking about where that fits now that we’re in a new digital age, how do we keep doing that? But first, let’s make sure you are a real life human. Randy, your capture question is, who is the hardest person you know to buy a gift for?
So, that would 100% be my wife.
I think it’s everyone’s answer as a husband.
Yes. First of all, I think I know what her taste is, so it’ll be the opposite. So, the classic gift certificates are always good if it’s from the right place.
Yeah. That is a very human experience. I feel the people we know the best you feel you do know them, but then they always surprise you. Right?
Exactly. That’s the good part too, right?
Yeah. A bit too much. We were coming off of Father’s Day last week and so my wife and I had this big conversation about, do you tell the other person what you want for these holidays just to make it easier on them? Or do you guess and then maybe they’re disappointed? It’s tough.
Yeah, this is by my mother. Actually, everyone would say I’m the hardest, because I’m the person who just is like if I need something, I just get it. And so, they say I’m the hardest. So, that’s all they say, ‘What do you want?’ And I would say, ‘Whatever you want.’ And so, I’m probably the hardest on everybody else’s list.
Yeah. That’s true. I love composting. It is a weird hobby of mine. So, I just went and bought a T-shirt that says ‘compost’ on it. My wife gets so upset because she’s like, I was just going to buy something like that for you and you went and bought it for yourself.
Exactly. This will be my wife’s story all the time.
Yeah. Cool. Alright. Well, let’s jump into it. Tell us a little bit about The Visual Brand. What type of services do you guys provide?
So, The Visual Brand is, and I don’t like using the ‘innovation’ word because that gets overused like marketing, but we are an innovation firm. Our core business is helping new and existing products and services either pivot or come to life.
Excellent. So typically, these are going to be physical products, services or what’s your sweet spot?
All of the above. So, like I said, we’ll work on physical products and everything from snack bars to beverages, and you name it. We’ve worked on electric vehicles. Interestingly enough, in the service area, we do a lot of work in information design, because engineers come up with great concepts that no one understands, unless they’re an engineer. So, we’ve helped them a lot to navigate and bring that to market in different ways, depending on who the audiences are. And sometimes the audience is investors, sometimes it’s governments, sometimes it’s consumers. Depends.
Tell us a little bit about your team. Who do you have working with you? How big are they? What types of roles do you have?
So, I have a team of 20. And it’s a real combination of strategic people and creative people. And so, one of my core theorems, of course which many people share, is that those two things are intermarried. They don’t live separately. And so, we have a creative team and strategic people. And they work very closely hand in hand. They’re not separate, isolated silos. So, what I find a lot is that, as many people will say, a great strategy will support great creative. And so, we find ourselves often fighting that, if that doesn’t exist for a client, we have to help them shape that. So, it helps us give them better creative export on the other side.
Well, like everyone else, you walked through this pandemic. But you guys were ahead of the curve in some ways in terms of some of your practices. So, tell us what you were doing pre-pandemic, and then how the pandemic did affect you?
Yeah, you could see it on a couple fronts. Like I said, innovation for me innovated early. One of the earliest innovations is that when I decided to reopen my business, I decided not to commute to New York City anymore, eight years ago, and I decided to be close to home, which was new. And a lot of people follow this now. Even in the town we’re in, there are 1500 new families in a town of 20,000. So, it’s been a real influx.
But from a digital standpoint, we started our client bases all over the country, and even all over the world. And we realized some time ago, probably six years ago or more, that digital conferencing, video conferencing, was going to be a really good tool. And so, we started doing that with clients and with partners. We do a fair amount of voiceover work in our business. We haven’t done a live in-person voiceover session in at least that long. Because we found a huge access to a pool of people and a real ability to have a communication without that. And so, that happened really early.
The other really interesting thing that happened is that as a piece of our strategic work, we will do focus groups certainly as we’re testing new concepts, and the physical focus groups are deadly anyways. So, quite some time ago, we said we can do this better digitally. And so, we started doing all of our focus groups digitally. And we’ve done that on Zoom and platforms that support them for quite some time. And what’s amazing about that is we get better people, and we get better responses. And we have gotten anything from 16-year-old boys to 80-year-old octogenarians to do it. So, it’s been a really great tool. And obviously, you can do it with a much more compression of time and lower cost. So yeah, that’s been a big part.
We’ve also been G chatters and we’re on the G Suite for quite some time. I will say that last year when everybody went remote, the biggest thing we learned is that everything got much more linear. Conversations were one to one, back and forth, even on Zoom. We know that is not typical. People don’t communicate as a group, which is a difference in-person. So, as someone managing people, that was challenging, to take clients plus all of my employees communicating all at once to me. I couldn’t even get up to pee. It was a constant barrage. So, that’s a learning.
And I would say that coming out of it, I do have a hybrid situation. I’ve got people who, frankly, it’s not about the pandemic anymore, they like working sometimes at home. So, our sort of new model is, some people are here full time. Some people are here two to three days a week and at home two to three days a week. But the interesting thing that I’m learning, and the in-person is great, and frankly, especially in our business, it’s great to have physical interaction, be able to communicate more fluidly as a group, but people are finding when they’re going home to work, that carries over. That in-person contact has stayed, and they’ve continued it. So far, I’m feeling pretty good about that.
It’s almost like that in-person has a little bit of a half-life that can continue on throughout the week, even if people are not together.
Yeah. And look at this. There’s a difference in a relationship with somebody in-person than with a company, frankly. I had an employee that was with us for a year who never came to the studio, and then took another job, but I never met in-person. And he was great. So, I’m on Zoom. He told us on his last day of work that, actually guys, I’m five foot six. We thought, oh, we would have had no idea. And so, that combination is really important. Because again, it’s just a different kind of interaction. We had a couple people that were reluctant to come back. And again, just because they were happy sitting at their desk or on their deck. And so, with a little prodding, they were willing to come back and try it. And they said, ‘You’re right. It’s not that big of a deal. I can work from home two or three days a week. And I like the change of pace, frankly, to come in.’
Have you arranged it to where there’s specific days when everyone needs to be at the office for some of this collaboration, or is it totally optional which days they come in?
So, my only rule right now is that they have to let me know. And it’s very new. It’s a couple of weeks old. People are gravitating towards certain days. The one other thing that has happened is that, when you don’t use desks and computers like that for 15 months, ‘Oh, that computer doesn’t work anymore.’ ‘Oh, we’ve got to change the way this is configured’. ‘We’ve added some new people’. So, we’ve had to do a little bit of dance around that. But it has worked. And we have a couple of people that are desk sharing, honestly. Because they’re here on different days. And that’s so far worked out okay.
There’s a lot of this hybrid thing I want to get into, but I want to revisit a few things you said before. First, let’s come back to the idea of focus groups. It almost seemed like you were saying that the digital focus groups were better than the in-person ones. So, I want you to unpack that a little bit more. Aside from being able to get other people, is there anything about the actual way that the focus group is run that is an advantage to do digitally?
Yeah. And the first thing I will tell you, it was complete retraining for me and my team who ran virtual focus groups. It’s just a whole different schedule because it is more linear. You have to call on people. It’s the whole way. Anybody who’s good at it, does it. So, that was a retraining. And like I said before, you’ll get people that just would never go to a focus group this sort of way. So, either wouldn’t have the time or wouldn’t have the inclination. So, that’s good. And you’ll save all that money too.
But the other thing that I really like is that people are in their chosen environment. And so, we’re finding the interactions are much more natural, and more comfortable. So, you’re not having everybody in a little room with bright lights on them feeling like they’re at a court date. So, that has been really, really great.
So, typically the other thing we could do is, we could say, ‘Hey, we can do four today, and what’s convenient for you’, rather than saying, ‘Oh, we only could be at the facility from blah, blah, blah.’ So, that’s been great. And in a period of very short time, we can have a very broad cross section of people. And also, of course, it’s all filmed too. So automatically, we’ve done things occasionally before. But for clients, they can, A, sit in the background and watch without having to sit back and eat M&Ms in dark rooms, but they also have the ability to look at it afterwards.
Yeah. And you can transcribe that, you can do a lot with it, right?
Completely. And by the way, a great little transcribing tool that we discovered maybe a year and a half ago, it’s called Temi, T-E-M-I. And it literally costs a few dollars, and it said instant transcriber. You have to do a little work on it but it’s very, very simple.
And that actually leads me to another question about what interesting tools you guys are using. Because I’m assuming Zoom is great for a lot of things, but you can only get so far in those ways, especially when you’re talking about innovative discussions and ideas. So, what are some of the other tools you have found to be useful?
So, I would say Zoom. I would tell you during the day, we probably are on G Chat more often. I will say we’re very annoyed with all the changes Google’s making and the way we can do meetings and how we have to set them up there. It’s kind of annoying, but we use that more vastly. And same thing with clients that we’re very, very busy with. That’s the more typical thing. We use Zoom. We have clients that think Zoom is an evil empire. They use Teams. Teams’ is pretty awful. It’s bad from a bandwidth standpoint. The interactions are less natural, but we do use that occasionally.
We have been experimenting with a new one called Surround, which is pretty cool. And what we like about that is that it allows you to float as bubbles and have your work screen open. And particularly when working on something collaboratively, rather than just sharing a screen, it’s a nice way to do it. Because frankly, it’s again, that human face interaction is very nice to have, rather than just looking at something where everybody’s in the background. So, we like that one so far. And the only real issue of stemming beyond the team has been to just get other people to download it. But that’s been a cool new tool.
Yeah, excellent. It seems that especially people who are trying to have these deep high-fidelity conversations, a lot of just the basic video conferencing tools are not quite enough. It gives you a sense of talking to somebody, you can see their body language a little bit, but you need something more to be able to say, ‘Oh, I want you to draw this real quick, or I want you to see this real quick.’ And something beyond just sharing just screens is important.
Yep. And the other thing to reference that, of course, being on Zoom, even more than anything else, when you’re in a meeting with a client, with that you can see all their facial reactions at once. You don’t have to turn your head. It’s amazing, actually. Because you can actually tell when you’re losing somebody, when you’re really engaging somebody. And actually, that’s true to focus groups too, by the way, is that you literally with your peripheral vision can see everybody, and you can really pull it in.
And of course, there’s the classic, ‘forget about the wearing your underwear’ on Zoom. People had to learn proper video behavior, right? ‘Don’t do like that’, ‘don’t pick your nose’, and ‘pay attention’. But I think, in general, people do that. So yeah, that’s really important. So, that’s one rule that we have. Even with our clients, we’ll say, ‘We’ll do this, but only if we all have our cameras on.’
Nice, excellent. Let’s unpack that idea of conversations switching to a linear point of view when it comes to digital workplaces. A lot of the people we interview, and especially companies that are completely virtual, that have been that way, way before the pandemic, they do tend to have a little bit more of a rigid collaboration style, I would say, where everything’s threaded in conversations, everything’s streamed. We’re going to take that one conversation to the end, which has its advantages. And it’s really nice to make sure that you follow up on things and things get completed, and everyone talks in turn. But it does. I find that tends to be the difference when people really want to be in the office, they tend to be more collaborative thinkers where it’s just like lots of ideas piled on top of each other instead of any one direction. So, tell us more about that experience in your organization.
So, another whole side conversation. I have a thing. I lecture about universities that I call, ‘What’s your creative thinking DNA’, which will be another topic. But it’s really a combination of matrices, including matrix and linear thinking, fast and slow processing. And the reality when you think about that, we all need to be a little bit matrix at times. And digital communication and words like this doesn’t really accommodate it perfectly. Because changing topics, having side conversations, all that just doesn’t really exist in this world, other than if you’re chatting on the side, which means you’re not paying attention. Right? So, it’s a challenge. And what I’ve really learned, I guess, the biggest lesson is you have to, especially if you’re leading the conversation, you have to be very inclusive. So, you just let it go and let it go because it will happen one on one.
What happens is when two people are talking, everybody’s listening. Now, listening is a good thing. But you have to encourage more people to participate. And that participation ends up being sort of a tree. It’s not homogenous, right? For that you have to pay a lot of attention as a facilitator of any conversation to allow that to happen.
And it’s funny. I literally was at a cocktail party a few months ago, and I laughed because everyone said halfway through, it’s like, we’re having a live Zoom conversation. There were eight people but there were just two people talking at a time. Two people talking at a time when everybody else was listening. I said, ‘Guys, we’re not on Zoom. We could all just have our own conversations.’ So, we are getting trained that way.
Yeah, that’s wild to think about how that goes on. And I think it’s worth noting that there’ll be people that in these full out virtual distributed offices, one thing most of them will admit is that things do move at a slower pace. It’s a little bit slower processing they go through. They feel like it’s worth it. That trade-off is there. But there are people out there that would prefer that. And they do processing slower. They like being able to slow things down. And then maybe they like linear thinking. And I think what we’re seeing now is as more and more companies explore hybrid work, as they explore how to add these things in, it may end up being the first thing that people check whenever they want to work for organizations. Like, ‘Well, are you a totally virtual company?’ knowing that okay, that’s going to give me more time. It fits my personality better, fits my lifestyle better, but also, just the way I like to collaborate and work. But you say, ‘No. We’re totally in-person, all the time, being here at the same time, overlapping hours.’ That’s not only a lifestyle thing, but it’s also a way of working as well, too.
And it’s interesting. I found, even in the last 18 months, I had a group of people that worked virtually for three months, and they couldn’t do it. Actually, I had to let go of one person who just failed miserably at that and was having some issues before. But the other people decided to come back. And so, what we did is we created a very rigorous testing protocol and all that kind of stuff. But they just were much happier being in-person and not sitting in their apartments or their homes to work. So, like you said, there are different styles.
And I really believe there’s going to be a combo, probably for most companies. My biggest concern as an employer is the connection people have to a company if you’re only virtual. I feel that we lose just a little bit of that direct human connection that you want with your employees when you’re completely virtual. Not that we don’t have it, like you said. The example I gave you of an employee who was only virtual. But I was wondering, would we have kept him if he had been in-person a little bit? Possibly.
I think that’s such an important thing to look at. We’ve had people on the show who do lead virtual teams that have been there for maybe the last six or seven years. So, it’s always interesting to hear from them. Because I haven’t had anyone come on yet that said, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with connection.’ Because when you start off totally distributed, you just assume you’re going to have to put in the work in these areas, or you’re pulling in these things. Now, a lot of them would say it’s not perfect. I wish we could do this, maybe get together a little bit more often. And definitely during the pandemic, that was a stress on them because they would rely on, maybe once in six months they’d have some kind of big retreat where they fly everybody in or something like that. But building that connection to the company, I feel especially, is difficult for people to transition from fully in-office to fully out-of-office. That’s really tough.
So, you just referenced something that I’m actually hearing more about, which I think is interesting, is companies particularly who are really downsizing their physical spaces, or those are having regular retreats, right, where people come together and you really have an agenda that’s separate from the all day long agenda at work, but the opportunity for people to collaborate on things, do things in person and create that human connection. But I think that’s early stages. Doesn’t work forever. But I’m doing that with a completely hybrid environment. Otherwise, it’ll be interesting to see what works.
Yeah, definitely. And I’m also very interested to see what companies come into. Because pre-pandemic, most companies have not tried virtual work at all. And now we’re entering into a phase where people haven’t really tried virtual or hybrid work at all. This is also a new thing that nobody knows about. So, it’s going to take us several years to really find footing on this. I think you’ll find a lot less hybrid models. Maybe in the future I think companies will start to go a little bit polarized and say, ‘Actually, we like this a lot and we’re not going to do this as much.’ But some of those will still, like you said, they’ll still have a physical component to it once in a while. And then other companies will say, ‘Look, it’s just not working for us. We got to be in-person.’
Right. And I think honestly, I would say, from an employer standpoint, the in-person is a little bit of a control freak thing, where you go, ‘I don’t really know what people are doing when they’re not here.’ Although it’s funny, I have people that tell me when they’re going to lunch. “I’m going out to walk the dog”, they literally are doing that. I don’t get how they do it. But I do think that for many companies, it is going to be a choice, just in terms of how their business model works best, frankly. And the other thing, I know people who were having a hard time finding jobs before the pandemic, and all of a sudden, they can work virtually. Where they can do it is truly opened up. They don’t have to move to Austin, Texas. They can work there virtually. So, that has been interesting.
And same thing for an employer. We can hire people in other parts of the country or whatever and that will work. So, I have a new employee who just moved from being very closeby to about an hour and a half away. But she’s realized that, A, she’s okay to find a way to be in-person a couple days a week, but she’s been very used to working remotely. So, it works. Throughout it was like, ‘She’s great, but it won’t work because she’s moving.’ We can make it work.
Yeah. And that’s honestly where a lot of companies, I think, experimented with remote work earlier, was in that exact situation. They had somebody who was there in the office. Maybe they or a spouse got the opportunity to move somewhere else. They say, ‘Hey, we don’t want to end this. We still like you so let’s make it work.’ And so, it’s interesting that talent and people were the impetus to say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be tough to find somebody just like you. So, how can we make this work?’ And applying that to the rest of our business, too.
Yeah. And honestly, for a lot of employers and I certainly have had a few people like that in the past. You forget that was their transition out. That’s exactly what I experienced. People sort of did it and they go, ‘Oh, now we live in Boston. And I’m eventually going to take a job in Boston.’ And it’s different now. So, you don’t sort of assume that. Again, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to look for that.
Yeah, I’m very excited, like you said, to see what the next five years holds, because we are not going back to anything that we had before. We’re all looking out to a new horizon that we haven’t been to before. It’s going to be exciting to see. Randy, my last question for you is going to be about, let’s talk about work life balance, if that’s the right term for you. You’ve talked before about the fact that you have a lot of clients that are out there. As a team internally, you have to think about, okay, what are our boundaries about when we can talk to people, and we can send messages? What’s that flexible work time? But then you also have clients that are on you. What’s been that experience for you?
So, it’s been interesting, particularly in the last year, because clients, just like us, have had the blur of work life balances. And so, they’re getting to things at different times. And my general term has always been, ‘Our general work hours are 8:30 to 6:30.’ That’s generally when we’re working, working. Obviously, sometimes people work later, sometimes a little bit earlier. But the part that we try to avoid is getting into those G chat conversations at 9 o’clock at night, if we could all avoid it. Unless it’s a crisis, then of course, we’ll try to help. But during the day, actually it’s more pickup, like, ‘We didn’t schedule a meeting, but hey, can we have a quick chat about X?’ Sometimes that’s great. Sometimes that’s absolutely great and yeah, you can resolve something, and you don’t have to set up a meeting on the calendar, and that’s good.
Other times, you’re like, ‘I can’t. I’m doing three other things over here that you can’t see, because we’re not in the meeting.’ So, I think in general, the access is good. But you’ve got to manage it. And also, again, the after-hours stuff, the same thing. I sort of feel part of me wants to be responsive immediately when somebody sends something to me at 10 o’clock at night. But part of me says, ‘You know what? They need to know that we’re going to do this first thing tomorrow morning, but I’m not going to do it tonight unless it’s a crisis.’
Yeah. That’s really important to look at and to be able to set those boundaries. Because I’ve even noticed it myself like if I’m just fiddling on my phone and I have to keep all those shots in a separate application, right, because they’re mixed in with everything else, then okay, ‘Did I reply to that, or am I leaving that for tomorrow?’ That’s important. But then also if I reply at 10 o’clock, it shows that it’s open. Fair again for anyone to comment on that.
As soon as you do that, they open it. Actually, one of the funniest good things that I just did, because like you, I get hundreds of emails a day. Hundreds and hundreds. And I was finding that just again, in the whole day you would lose things. So, I set my settings now so only unopened ones are at the top. And it’s been a great discipline for me. A, I am not missing things, but B, I’m really finding myself ploughing through it better, and staying on top of it. Because I would say, ‘Oh, I emailed you four days ago.’ But you did it at 10 o’clock at night and that already wasn’t in my stream. There’s 200 ahead of you.
I think that’s going to be interesting too to see how individuals respond to that right? Because everyone’s going to have a different system. Everyone’s going to have a different way that works for them. And to be able to come to a good working agreement with your team and with your clients and people you go to. I think it’s going to take a long time to find any kind of equilibrium with that, but I’m eager. Hopefully, we can find that.
The biggest balance for that, Neil, is that I do think people want quicker responses, in general. So, honestly, it’s not like they get cranky about it. But if it’s the expectation, that’s because it’s back to doing instant messaging or anything else. And I actually have told this a lot to my team saying if someone says something, at least reply back and go, ‘Heard you. Working on it.’ You do not have the answer, but just say let them know, okay, I didn’t lose that. And I think that’s typically in the virtual world what people would like to see.
That’s true. A lot of it, like we’ve seen in other places, it’s impacted by the other people’s interactions with delivery dates getting shorter, or with chat bots that are instantly able to be there. We get those expectations from other parts of technology, which maybe we should do, right? I should have an automated response that comes from a chat, or an email that says, ‘I got this. You can just click a button. I got it. I’ll just reply later.’
And that’s great. And I’ve never allowed that. As a project manager I wouldn’t recommend it. I’d say, ‘But that means that you didn’t actually see it.’ Because ultimately, it’s great to respond but you actually have to do something with that too.
Yeah, that’s true. Good. Well, Randy, we appreciate you coming on and sharing your experiences in leading into the digital workplace. Where can people go to learn more about you, your thoughts, and your company?
Well, we will make sure to have all those show links in the show notes. And this has been great, Randy. Thanks for coming on. We look forward to interacting with you again, bringing you on for other conversations and hearing more about how you guys are leading the way in innovation and digital workplaces.
Right. Thank you, Neil. Appreciate the opportunity.
Randy is a recognized brand strategist, conceptor and creative director with over twenty years of marketing and innovation experience in the client, agency and media worlds, from entrepreneurial to corporate environments. Randy has worked in the WPP and Omnicom agency networks, Conde Nast Publications, Allied Domecq and E&J Gallo. He also spent several years in the digital start up world in during the height of the dotcom boom. Most recently, Randy has worked in the boutique agency world, owning and operating two firms, including The Visual Brand, founded in 2013. He has a strong expertise in social media, digital innovation, packaging, industrial and environmental design.
Randy has balanced his training and experience to play a key role in a number of product innovations and corporate transformations. He has worked with a diverse range of companies industries that include retail, financial, professional services, technology, and entertainment, pharmaceutical, automotive and consumer packaged goods.
He has spoken on numerous industry panels, and is a corporate mentor to a number of emerging companies and individuals.