44 min read

#2 - Psychological Safety with Yen Tan of Kona

#2 - Psychological Safety with Yen Tan of Kona

Kona recently published their 2022 Remote Manager Report featuring insights from 350 managers across some of the top remote companies in tech.

In this episode, we speak with one of the masterminds behind this report, Kona co-founder Yen Tan. Yen co-founded Kona just before the pandemic. Kona has since grown to be a staple wellbeing platform for remote teams. Kona plugs into Slack and allows team members to report out a quick green/yellow/red 🚦 check-in that gets teams connecting at a deeper level, building trust, and psychological safety.

Yen shares how discovery interviews with remote managers helped shape their product and discussed the insights gleaned over literally thousands of conversations. We dug in particularly deep on the topic of psychological safety, how to measure it, and how to build it within your culture.

(Note: Yen changed their name after we first published this episode. We've updated the show notes and transcript, but you'll hear us use Yen's former name in the audio.)

Where to listen:


Niko: [00:00:00] Welcome to episode two of The People Everywhere Show hosted by me, Niko Skievaski and my co-conspirator Andy Kitson. I am so pumped for you to listen to today's episode. We really get a two for one with Yen Tan on the show. Yen co-founded Kona. heykona.com just before the pandemic and has been growing their team remotely.

Plus Kona's product is focused on creating psychological safety within remote teams. So with Yen, we not only get Kona's story, but also the amazing insight they've pulled out of hundreds of conversations with remote managers at some of the biggest and most successful tech companies around.

Kona puts out a great gift to the community each year, the remote manager report. This is an amalgamation, an accumulation of the trends that they're seeing in remote work, best practices that may be emerging and some insight into how the new norm is evolving. [00:01:00] We got to dive into this report with Yen and went deep on psychological safety, as this has been found to be the most important aspect of successful teams.

So what is it? How do you know if you have it and how can you build it within your teams? Well, let's get into it. Welcome to the People Everywhere Show.

Enter Yen!

Andy: Yen, welcome to the podcast.

Yen: Thank you so much for having me.

Andy: Yeah. We're delighted to have you. So to start out, like, we'd just love to hear your story and you know, like what are you interested today? How'd you become interested in that? Yeah, take us on the journey.

Yen: Yeah, definitely. So I have the benefit of being the child of two entrepreneurs.

Back then they used to buy a bunch of flowers from local grocery stores and sell 'em on the side of the road. And my dad almost quit college to do that full time. And so it was one of those things where entrepreneurship really was in my bones from the day I was born. They started a staffing recruiting firm, right when I was born.

And so I just saw, I looked up to them so much. I saw them constantly being like really great parents available for me, 24 7. They literally [00:02:00] got off work at 3:00 PM. My dad would wake up at five and it was just one of those things where like, working for myself, made sense. I wanted that. I wanted to work remotely like they did too.

And I wanted to figure out a job that could. And so I knew that I loved writing. That was my primary kind of skill set. And I knew that I wanted to major in English, but that doesn't necessarily lend itself to a big kind of entrepreneurial degree. So my mom also suggested that I do an entrepre minor while at UCLA.

And that was in retrospect, really, really great advice. I kind of like gritted my teeth and just kind of shrugged my shoulders and said yes at the time. But it allowed me to have the skills that when I finally had the opportunity, when I was doing this kind of like, I first came into UCLA to do film. And that really was not the, the vibe I read into film egos folks at 19 years old saying like, I should have been first PA for this kind of role.

Like how dare you not give me this position? And such, I ran into folks that thought that Quin Tarantino was like the best filmmaker ever. I have plenty of other film recommendations that can go against that [00:03:00] theory. But I, I just couldn't stand the culture of the film industry and such. And so when tech presented itself, when I actually ran into this hackathon group on campus, I, I suddenly was like, maybe this is it.

Maybe this is where I can apply the kind of entrepreneurial spirit and also my love for culture. And I ran into Andrew. I ran into him as we, he was basically my co-marketing person, and we were leading basically one social media account together. And , we just agreed that like, okay, work could be a lot better.

He's currently working for the startup. Would I be down to write for them? I didn't know what that meant, but I knew I could write. So I was like, sure, like I can work on marketing, whatever the heck that is. And we took off and that's Sid was running the company and we were making these work with me guides that were a little creepy at the time, decided to do a full pivot cuz nobody wanted the idea.

We started interviewing remote managers. This was back in October, 2019 and it was eyeopening. What happens when you actually start talking to customers and they're able to point you towards exactly where you need to go. And yeah, the rest is kind of history. [00:04:00]

Niko: That's awesome. Can you, can you just give us the quick overview of what Kona is?

Yen: Yeah. Kona is the wellbeing platform for remote teams. Essentially. It's a slack app that slots right into your workflow. Themes can check in with a quick red, yellow, green emoji. Green is great. Red is terrible yellow somewhere in between. They can mark yellow, anxious and talk about how they're worried about the current kind of macroeconomic situation.

They can talk about red shitty and talk about how they stepped into dog shit. Or they can just talk about like green celebratory and share what just made them smile. The entire team can see this it's a non-anonymous check-in and it allows teams to basically bond and build psychological safety together.

Niko: Amazing. Yeah. And, and just to, to add, we use this at redox, we love it. People feel closer together. People check in with each other, like, you know, see a red and then slide it into the DMS and, and be like, Hey, is, is everything going well? I found it to be awesome. But it's not just redox that is using you guys.

The company has grown a bunch, like talk about your customer growth and the team growth. Since when you started it back in, in 20, [00:05:00] 19, 20, 20.

Yen: Yeah. So I'm really glad of the way that we started this company. We started with just a bunch of user interviews and not knowing anything about sales that just kind of blended itself really naturally into a sales cycle.

We were qualifying folks without even realizing we were qualifying. So at the time to date, we've talked about 900 remote managers since that first starting point in January, 2020. So we've talked to basically everybody that works in tech, working remotely, that's been open to talk to us as a result. Now we have clients at masterclass, Canada.

It's just been amazing. So being able to have that huge client base, literally those were just conversations from our first initial user interviews that eventually turned into actual customers and clients. And the company's now at 15 people, which is really, really wild to say we've raised our pre preceded and such.

And yeah, it's just been really, really awesome.

Niko: That's so cool. I, I find the story fascinating in that, like for a lot of people, I, I work with a lot of founders and it's typical for people to start companies to solve problems that they've dealt with [00:06:00] on a day to day basis. And it's fascinating that, you know, three student founders who have never really kind of had had the, a, a job start start a company that focuses on remote culture.

Do you think that having that fresh mindset is an advantage to creating a product in this space? Or do you find yourself trying to keep up with learning and, and figuring out, like, what is, what is remote work and how was it before remote and all of

Yen: that? I think we hit it at the just perfect time when it came to our own previous experience.

I had one previous job before Kona, and that was tutoring these kids in China. They wanted to learn English and such, and their parents would assign. Very very advanced readings. We're talking like George Orwell, like animal farm in 1984 taught to like a six year old. So that was its own thing to unpack.

But my, the managers there just had a horr culture, high turnover. They just could not keep their tutors around because everything was threatening and fear based, et cetera. For Andrew, he worked in a super, he worked at apple. He worked in, at other startups [00:07:00] as well, completely remotely, but a lot of his experience, there was very isolating as an engineer.

He was given pass. He coded them and that he sent it somewhere and that was his entire kind of relationship with the business. And then for Sid, he actually had a previous startup that failed because he had developers in India that he couldn't get to tie to the mission at all and such. And so we all had a taste of where remote work goes wrong.

And I think that was enough of a seed for us to really develop a curiosity, but you're completely right. We don't have the typical experience that a lot of really seasoned founders have. And so I think that gave us a lot of humility which is. Rare and also extremely necessary. I would say for building a startup to know that you don't know anything is the first crucial step.

Having been burned by our previous kind of attempt at this startup, we knew that we just needed to follow our customers into oblivion and that they would lead us to exactly what this product needed to be. And I also think that it was just really fortunate. We started, we launched our first test trial MVP in January, 2020.

So by the time March came around, nobody knew how remote work worked. We were all kind of fresh students of this new world of working. And we were [00:08:00] able to kind of dive right in and be had the most open eyes to whatever we needed to learn. And we were determined to learn it as fast as we could.

Andy: So you mentioned having conversations with 900 some remote managers, what are those conversations like? And I love also like, hear just like in the beginning, like what were you asking about when you didn't have like all this context yet? And then how has that evolved over time?

Yen: You'd be surprised to hear that it hasn't evolved that much.

We would go on LinkedIn and DM, these poor folks just saying like, hi, we're students.

Would you like to talk to us? That format hasn't changed that much? Every single one of those 900 conversations has come from some LinkedIn connection request where somebody took a chance on us and was open enough to give us 15 minutes of their time. So that hasn't changed at all the actual conversations themselves.

At the very beginning, we get so excited about showing them what we are working on. That we would start with the demo first, we would say, Hey, thanks for hopping on call. This is what we're building. What do you think of it? And without any context of what their wants and needs were, what their intent was like, what they were trying to learn about and what they were trying to [00:09:00] accomplish.

Those conversations really didn't get anywhere. So after the first. 25 of doing it the wrong way. And having a gentle mentor, just kind of point us into, Hey, just do customer discovery. Just ask about the most basic things. That's what, that's the format we've taken into even our sales calls today, that format hasn't changed that much.

So we don't talk about the demo whatsoever. We purposely don't lift the veil and we just ask them, what does your team structure look like? What are you currently sitting on? Do you have any skip levels? How does that kind of relate to the best rest of the company? Then we ask what is your biggest struggle?

And folks will go into whatever is top of mind. And you'll be surprised how many folks we've talked to now that we can literally what is ventriloquist dummy out? What they're gonna potentially say. I could say word for word, what they're probably gonna. and we also just asked, what is, what's the situation?

Are you globally distributed remote first? How has that affected other aspects of the business? What are, what are you, what keeps you up at night and such? So these basic questions they've been incorporated into every single step of the business and involved with us, but they haven't really came, which is super [00:10:00] interesting.

Andy: Well, are, are there particular, like types of remote managers that kinda over the course, this you've developed, like maybe like different way to ask is who, who are your afraid Quis dumies like that you're able to, like what, what, what are those personas?

Yen: I would say the first persona is one of my favorite managers to talk to.

We just naturally kind of turn them into our deal customer profile because they're the friendly managers. I see two of them that I'm talking to right now, but the folks that are very personable that really truly care that lead with empathy that immediately like, notice something in your background and start a conversation just to figure out.

When they ask you, how are you doing? They actually mean it. How are you doing? How are you feeling? How can I help you? And those folks really truly care about relationship, building belonging in the culture aspect of their team. It doesn't matter if they're leading a team of three or a team of 15 or entire department of engineers.

They just wanna make sure that their people come first, that they're taken care of, et cetera. And those are our primary customers. I look forward to all those calls. Anytime I'm always crossing my fingers. The second persona I'd say is a lot more Lafa [00:11:00] they're saying, oh, like, I don't necessarily want to get to involved with my culture.

I wanna be like, make sure that my teammates are unblocked, but I wanna make sure that they just can do what they want. And they're mostly figure they're mostly concerned about worrying, about communication, worrying about miscommunication in particular, allowing certain processes and documentation to be set in place and making sure that folks are able to know exactly what they need to do when they need to do it.

Being able to delegate properly is kind of like their biggest kind of thing. And the third are folks that I would say are a little bit more of the prickly pairs. , that's probably the nicest way to put it in such, but they, they are very kind of, they may be newer managers or they may be managers with trauma.

If we're, if, to say it politely and stuff, folks who aren't quite. Prioritizing culture because they haven't been prioritized in the past. And those folks are typically worried about whether or not folks are working on the right things or worried about whether or not folks are actually like being able to show up and do the right thing and worried about whether or not they need to be on meetings constantly and such.

So we have these different types of managers that appear as we're talking to them.

Andy: And, and you [00:12:00] got to it a little bit in like this, this last one, about what each struggles with. But for the, the first two, like, like how would you describe like, what's, what's their like, challenge with remote or the, the thing that they need help with?

Yen: Persona number one, the super squishy, empathetic first manager. They really struggle with making sure that they can create belonging and create this psychological safety with the entire team. How do you do that when you can't have office happy hours when you can't like tap somebody on their shoulder, notice when somebody's crying at their desk?

Like, how can you, how do you create that sort of. Interpersonal connection when you don't have an actual office based affair. So that's the first problem for the persona number two, where it's a little bit more, Hey, I wanna be Lez fair. I wanna make sure that I'm not getting in folks' way. It's usually zoom fatigue and trying to make sure, like, how do I avoid meetings, focus a lot more on async documentation and such, how do I make sure I have remote work done properly?

So then we can actually all be doing our work. I think all the types of personas that we run into are very valid and such in particular, though, I'm super interested in the first one, just because I wanna [00:13:00] learn to, I wanna be a manager like them. I wanna learn how to lead like them. I I've seen how their teams will run through a wall for these people.

Niko: Nice. So I, I would love to dig into this remote manager report that Kona puts out. It, it, it sounds, sounds like it's the third year you've put out this report. Can you just give us an overview of, of where this data comes from, why you put it together?

And then, then we're gonna ask you some specific questions about insights from the report.

Yen: Definitely. So when we were doing tech stars, we graduated in about October, 2020. We realized that we had like several hundred remote manager interviews, and I remember the MD of Texas at the time. And at barber, he was just like, Hey, like, why don't you create a report?

Like that's a really valuable piece of content. You've learned a. The whole kind of building in public and being transparent. That was something we always saw from all these companies. So it was kind of like a no brainer moment of like, oh, dub. We should totally compile all the data that we've had. So it's become tradition every single year to release a report from all of the previous interviews that had happened the year prior or up until that point.

And this was a pretty fat one of our [00:14:00] fattest reports I'd say, and such a lot of it's handmade and stuff. So I designed the entire thing and wrote out all the copy and such. We had an intern come in and help us with the data, but it was all very, very handmade and took a, took a while to make this report includes 350 manager interviews from 175 companies.

Some of those companies you'll probably recognize like calm, Figma, air Callis, Vimeo, Corra Lyft, medium Gusto, Pinterest, like all the kind of help. Household names that we know for basically the best in culture and the way that we gather this data is very, very manual. It's every single interview that we've done that year.

So again, we're reaching out on LinkedIn asking if folks wanna give us some time to learn about this remote work, remote management and their experience with it. We spend 15 minutes with them with just asking basic questions. We always start with team structure. We go into struggles and problems. And then from there we just kind of investigate further based off what they've shared.

And we do ask a few like we do do a few surveys just to gather a little bit more kind of across the, across the set questions [00:15:00] and get getting answers from that and such, but overall it's just very manual and just a representation of all the hours spent that year.

Andy: That, that, that sounds. Intense and also super informative. It's fun. So, so one of the, the themes that runs throughout the report is psychological safety. I'd love to just hear you talk a bit about, like, what is it, why is it important? And like, how does it show up in these conversations?

Yen: Definitely. So when we were first starting to do a bunch of remote manager interviews very quickly, that persona number one started appearing. And we started recognizing like, this is a great manager, but they all have something in common that we can't quite quantify. And then we started working with some really, really great executive coaches both from tech stars and also kind of like our partnerships outside of it.

We work very closely with Evolution Coaching. They not only coach us, but they coach some. Some awesome clients, including Snapchat and slack and Glassdoor, et cetera. And so we started asking them like, Hey, we, we noticed this kind of thing. And they're like, oh, that's psychological safety. And we're like, what's psychological safety.

Well, by definition. And it's coined by [00:16:00] Amy Edmondson, who is basically a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. It's the ability to speak and share ideas freely without the fear of being admonished, of being attacked or being punished for the ideas that you bring up. And it seems very kind of like straightforward.

Oh, I should be able to say what I'm thinking, but at work it's incredibly scary and oftentimes that's not how we've been operating for the last 50 years or so you're actually. Oftentimes people assume that professionalism means that I should be agreeable, that I shouldn't bring up new ideas and that I should just kind of go with the flow to make sure I don't get fired.

And so now recognizing that psychological safety is important, having studied at Edmonds and discovered that it's one of the key factors that unlocks innovation and unlocks diversity and unlocks like team performance and excellence and such. And so when you have this kind of squishy, but also studyable quantifiable metric of sex safety, you're unlocking team excellence in a bottle basically.

And a lot of remote managers are all the ones that are [00:17:00] inside that first persona really, really prioritize achieving that. And it's interesting. It's almost like product market fit. It's the big kind of like elephant in the room. How do you achieve it, especially in a remote setting

Andy: and what is it. You described these executive coaches that they were able to say, oh, like that's psychological safety.

I think they were like, just really helpful for people who are like, kind of grappling with this thing that is kinda like amorphous and soft and squishy and like hard to put words on to like, just hear like what, what words for the words that you used

Yen: I was describing like, these managers all seem to really priorit.

Transparency and the ability to kind of drive accountability and idea generation. And they're always trying to, like, they're really trying to focus on trust and they're really trying to focus on like allowing teammates to like appear with their whole selves at work. We always hear this phrase, like I want my team to feel like they can bring their whole self to work.

And we were asking like, what, what are they trying to achieve in doing that? And like, is there something that's been studied? And it was very clear, like my executive coach is like [00:18:00] quick as a whip, her name's benne. And I love her very much. I hope she's listening. But yeah, that, it was just an instant kind of like psych safety is what you're looking for.

You should, that is very clearly also a goal that Ko should align itself with if you're targeting these folks.

Yeah. If we can help folks.

Achieve psychological safety, then I think we've done our job and we do acknowledge that one kind of exercise is not gonna do it. We're hoping to build eventually an entire library of exercises to make best, the best of team management of a habit that everybody can basically develop over time remotely.

And so everybody can have that awesome manager that they look forward to working with. Cool. And

Andy: as a manager, like how do you know how you're doing,

Yen: I think it's something that like, how do you know that you've achieved product market fit?

I think there's signals you can survey and definitely look out for ask particular questions to know that you're on the right track, but there's some sort of like intangible aspects, some sort of like culture with the team where everybody. Gels. And they, we can think of the best teams that we've ever worked for.

Right? Like they, they just, everybody not [00:19:00] only seems to read each other's minds, but you can have free unmitigated discourse and not worry about like saying the wrong thing. There's like this fundamental trust that my team has my back. And so we're, we're definitely trying to go for like you can survey and you can measure.

And we're definitely trying to quantify a lot of that, but a lot of it's also, it's a squishy problem, so it's gonna have a squishy solution.

Andy: Cool. So, so you understand if you've achieved it, if like, if you feel it basically

Yen: you feel it. I do think that there are definitely like surveys and stuff that you can put out and such.

Yeah. But it's truly like, can you, can you ask your direct reports honestly, like, do you feel like you can bring up problems? Do you feel like you're gonna be punished? And if they are able to answer you honestly and also have like high results for yeah. I feel like I can share. I feel like I can show up.

I feel like I can make mistakes without being punished in such. I think you have it.

Andy: Cool. And, and if you're falling short, like, is there a framework or a toolkit or, or something to like, get you

Yen: there? I think first off is [00:20:00] recognizing that you're falling short and recognizing that it is incredibly difficult.

We actually named something called the remote paradox, insider a report. And so what you notice with the remote paradox is that psychological safety is the utmost important metric to be facing after you need trust in order to function properly in a remote team. But at the same time, psychological safety is incredibly difficult.

If not the most difficult thing to build in a remote team, simply because you're not able to meet up face to face you miss out on that kind of body language and all the interpersonal things that we're looking for when we're interacting with other humans and you really miss out on the emotional context that could possibly help you get closer to building that for us and having those vulnerable moments.

Kona is one solution for it, but definitely not the only one. And we're definitely trying to work with executive coaches and trying to work with the best of the best to try to figure out how we can get teams closer to that.

Andy: Yeah. So like more important and also harder.

Yen: Yeah. More important, but also harder is a great way to say it.

Andy: Another theme that was like running through the report was trust. how would you like describe the relationship [00:21:00] between psychological safety and trust?

Yen: Yeah, I think it's super interesting because oftentimes they're used interchangeably. We think of trust as psychological safety or at least a means of getting there.

I think it's important to kind of divide the two. So trust is something that I have in a relationship I have, it's almost like an interpersonal factor. Psychological safety is a group facet. And so it's something that I have with the entire group. So you can almost think of trust as little building log, the little Lincoln logs that you need to build the house of psychological safety.

I need trust with every single individual on the team, with my manager, with my company, with the mission of the company, in order to have psychological safety at scale, and you can't have one without the other. And so I would start if I were trying to explore, how do I build psychological safety with my team?

I would start with trust. I would start with team building exercises and moments of vulnerability and open discussions and the ability to kind of like create this fundamental, vulnerable trust feedback loop. And eventually you start to build up to the foundation. You need to build psychological.[00:22:00]

Niko: I often think about when I used to work in an office and like just seeing people in person, like walking down the hall with them, grabbing lunch, those sorts of things that we do in a, in an in-person setting are. Or can be trust building activities, like what is different in a remote setting and, and what do we have to do differently to help build, to help gather those Lincoln logs to build the, the tower of psychological safety?

Yen: I love that. So yeah, the tower I'm gonna use the Lincoln log thing. I came up with it on the spot, but it's it's as far as like building trust remotely, I feel like a lot of. Immediately just think of the Zoom happy hour, because that's what we were relegated to. You all hop on zoom, you play among us.

You grab, I guess, alcohol from your fridge. And that is what trust building means for a lot of teams. But I think what's misunderstood is that trust is something that's built from every single point of the employee experience from the moment that you are interviewing this person to the moment that they have their exit interview.

And so what do I mean by that? I mean, like when you're doing the interview being very [00:23:00] transparent about next steps, being very transparent about what's expected of the interviewee when you're actually onboarding the person, being able to give them an onboarding buddy, being able to give them very clear instructions and a foundation with which they can succeed with and in their day to day job.

Really relying on one on ones, but also really relying on just team bonding and every single moment, just optimizing for trust all the way to their last moment with the business and such. And so trust is something, unfortunately, you can't rely on the shoulder cap for when you're in a virtual environment, you need to be super intentional that every single step, every single interaction you have with this employee is maximizing trust anywhere you can and maximizing trust.

I'm throwing out that word. You should take a shot every single time. I say trust now, but basically it's, it's one of those things where like, it's, it's another squishy problem. We need to kind of maximize vulnerability. We need to make sure that folks feel heard and cared for. And we also need to make sure that as a leader, you're not only competent in your job, but also reliable as a leader that you have your door [00:24:00] open and that you're able to kind of, that they can come to you with problems and that you can not just fix them, but also teach them how to fix it for themselves.

Andy: A hundred percent.

Yes .

So there are a couple specific insights in the report. We'd love to hear, hear a bit more about, so one is that there are two kinds of managers and their struggles are pretty different. Do you like elaborate a bit on that who are these managers and what are their struggles?

Yen: Yeah, so as we were interviewing a bunch of remote leaders and such, we, we would ask and look for LinkedIn for their kind of, how long have you been managing and for the folks who had just been promoted for the very first time during COVID. We noticed a stark difference in those, that kind of cohort versus folks who had been managing prior to COVID.

And so specifically with folks who had been managing during COVID and such, they basically could, they were easier an easier time with the kind of softer skill element, because remote work was already a foundation for them. That was kind of like their training ground for remote leadership. So they were struggling with soft skills, like building [00:25:00] relationships, onboarding, motivation, hiring burnout, things that you don't necessarily need a remote office to become problems.

That's just management problems. But with folks who are, were actually more experienced with leading in an office beforehand, they really, really struggled with remote adaptation. They struggled with zoom, fatigue, time zones, information, fairing, gathering a team pulse things that were a lot more related to the actual remote work aspect of remote work. what you would think is like a person who is super super experienced with managing would be able to manage across all different types of management, remote, distributed, hybrid. What have you, it made sense in retrospect that like you do need to learn your remote elementary school ABCs before you're able to kind of operate as, as you would as work for normal in a remote environment.

But I had no idea how much certain habits that you have in an office are like how hard those are to translate in a remote environment and how folks will really struggle because of their extra experience. Basically.

Niko: Another insight from the report. The quote is the hardest [00:26:00] part of remote work is soft skill related. Can you expand on that? How, how is that? How is that the case?

Yen: Yeah. So overall, when I started saying like, I could ventriloquist dummy these answers from folks that answer was almost always building relationships or something related to it such.

And when you, it was weird. I didn't expect at first, when we were interviewing these managers for that to be the key thing, I was expecting zoom fatigue, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when we just kept on seeing those zoom fatigue articles of like turn off your camera and pretend everything's okay.

But building relationships was a thing that folks really struggled with. And at the end of the day, it makes sense if trust and psychological safety is the most important thing to be prioritizing in a team for team functionality and excellence, then you need to build relationships. But if you can't build relationships out of this two or three inch screen on zoom, then what?

And so it was really interesting to see that like softer, skilled things, soft skill things, the kind of things that we associate with leadership and EQ and [00:27:00] all these different things. Those were the things that folks were struggling with.

Niko: Yeah, this, this is something that I struggle with a lot. When I think about how to build trust in a remote setting, I feel like in a remote world, we have to kind of overemphasize it because we're not gonna get the, the sort of magical moments that just happen walking to the water cooler or whatever it might be.

And one thing that, that I've tried to focus on is how do, how can we build more vulnerability into the conversations that people have in the workplace? Some of the feedback I've gotten is that that can feel forced or it can feel not, you know, not genuine because, you know, we're asking people to be vulnerable and, and, you know, the way that I've done it is like put a, prompt up a vulnerable question and, and break out into groups and have people talk it through like how in a remote setting, how do you strike that balance?

And what are ways that we can actually use vulnerability to build trust you know, build more empathy between between people who are having these vulnerable conversations in a way that doesn't feel so artificial. [00:28:00]

Yen: Yeah. When we first started this podcast, or maybe right before we started recording Nico, you pointed out Brene brown.

And so I'm definitely gonna have to cite the goddess herself in this vulnerability. And trust is like this kind of two handed thing where you, you can't have one without the other. If you're gonna have vulnerability, you need trust in order to start being vulnerable. But if you are going to be vulnerable, you need to trust the people that you're being vulnerable with.

My answer to all of that is like, we need our leaders to step up and show the way first. We can't have leaders expecting their employees to just be vulnerable, like go be vulnerable. because that's potentially dangerous for a lot of folks. And depending on folks, if they're people of color or non cisgender gender nonconforming, if they're queer in any sort of way, like not being vulnerable can often put you in danger depending on your state or what you kind of exist in and such.

And so we need leaders to show what vulnerability means and what's allowed at the business. I think the reason we love Kona and the reason why we've built it, the way that it is is cuz [00:29:00] managers are incredibly involved with the emotional kind of vulnerability exercise that Kona is bringing forth every single morning.

The manager's job is also check in with themselves and their team. How are you actually feeling? And it, if a manager is just constantly expressing toxic positivity, just saying, everything's fine, you should be fine too. Like, we're all good. Everything green here. You're not gonna get honest responses from your teammates.

But the moment we see a manager saying red, I am super concerned. My kid is showing COVID symptoms. They're not vaccinated yet. And this is really stressing me out. I'm gonna like let which call take over my task for the day, but just know I'm dealing with this. The moment that humanity comes out, especially in a global pandemic where everybody's struggling and we can't pretend that we're not taking a zoom call from our kitchens.

That's the moment where we actually start to see team vulnerability, really shine because teammates realize this manager that I'm working with, this team that I'm working with. Has my back. They're also human and we all get it. We all get that. It's, it's kind of shitty to be human right now.

Niko: Yeah. Yeah. And I think this, this was something that I had struggled [00:30:00] with as a leader, as a founder in that I have a lot more influence and power than I'm necessarily comfortable with.

And, but what that means is I can actually use that for good. I can actually by, by being vulnerable, by bringing my personal life into work by sharing my concerns and what, what I'm afraid of it normalizes it and it makes it okay for everyone else to to talk about it and to, to be okay with it. And, and even it like a quick example on, on my zoom right now, I have, I have my pronouns listed, he him, and for the longest time I thought, I don't really need to list those because people know I'm, I'm a CI male.

Like it's. It's obvious, but, but it was explained to me that if I do that, it normalizes the behavior for everybody and for people who, who have pronouns that might not be as obvious, it makes it a little easier for them to put it out there and not as weird to do that. And I was like, oh wow. I never thought of it that way.

And it's a way for me to use my power and influence to, to actually make it a [00:31:00] little more comfortable for people to to, to be more safe in their skin. And so I, I love the way that you describe that.

Yen: Absolutely. And I think it's just as somebody with weird pronouns of, I definitely think that it's, it's one of those things where like, as I was exploring gender actually as a co-founder, I, there was a moment where I thought maybe I should just keep this stuff to myself.

Like maybe I shouldn't open up with the fact that I need to go to therapy and the fact that I've been really struggling with this thing and the fact that it's starting. Distract me from calls and what I should be doing as a good co-founder. And I realize like, no, like my, my team wants to know that I'm okay.

But they also wanna know when I'm not okay. And how they can support me through this. And so there was long streaks over the past few months where it's just been yellows and red days and where I've just said like, Hey, like do not disturb in therapy. Like we're just dealing with stuff or, Hey, like today I'm gonna test out they them pronouns and see if that works and such given that I was vulnerable.

It didn't, it didn't feel weird to be vulnerable again. And to know that I would be held with open arms from the rest of my [00:32:00] team. Yeah.

Andy: Were, were there any like specific things that your, your co-founders the rest of the team did to like, make that feel okay.

Yen: Absolutely. First off, like if there was ever any sort of yellow or red day that we shared in Kona, they would immediately say like, Hey DM, you just checking in or, Hey, do you need anything?

I had my our content strategy manager sent me like Instacart when she saw that I was having a red day with like two lips and like ice cream. And it was one of those things where I didn't even know how she got my address, cuz we don't share that super, super clearly. But she probably asked it or something, but yeah, it was just one of those moments where it's like, wow, when you open yourself up to your team and you do respect their boundaries, I'm not saying like tell everybody when you have a bikini wax, it's not necessarily there is work and non-work appropriate, but when you are able to be vulnerable, it's amazing how much you open yourself also up to love and like caring and kindness and all the great things that we are on this earth for.

Andy: That's beautiful.

so, Hey, I might actually be a good segue [00:33:00] into like. You've talked to a bunch of remote managers. How is your remote culture at Kona different maybe than your typical remote company?

Yen: I love this question because I think it reveals the fact that like, just because it works for a super large thousand, multi thousand, that's not the word for it. Company at scale and such that's completely distributed doesn't necessarily work for a team of seven or 15. So the first thing that we tried to really dip into was like, ay, and that was one of the kind of key, fundamental tenants of remote work for a lot of really awesome remote first companies like GitLab dos, et cetera.

And we kind of just struggled given that it was co-founders and like a handful of key, first hires and such, there were so many strategy changes that were happening day to day that. It was just really difficult for us to operate completely. Ay, I don't think that that's completely out the window just yet, but we do rely a lot on tandem and synchronous communication for our day to day right now.

And I think that it just works for us as it, as it so happens as we've [00:34:00] hired in Europe and stuff. We've definitely incorporated kind of an ay sync process where we have a lot of stuff documented, but still a lot of decision making when things do happen in these tandem rooms and these video chats and these kind of calls and such.

And so I, I think that was the key thing where I'm like, ah, man, we haven't, we haven't quite hit remote excellence just yet. We're definitely still in the starter areas and such, but knowing that there's a roadmap for all of this, knowing that there are almost places where you evolve and can start to adopt best practices.

And also knowing that we kind of have been, we've become remote experts just by studying all the best practices out there. I think we have a pretty good roadmap for what's to come.

Andy: Yeah. I I've always wondered if the async. When in the company's history, like, do they start doing that? And does it become a thing that is, is really viable?

Cause I, I think definitely in the early days of REDX we did not do async and it was like, there's such, yeah, there was a change going on all the time. And it was also a thing that I think I personally felt some anguish over about like there [00:35:00] there's this thing that we should be doing and we're not.

And like what's

Niko: Yeah.

Andy: Like, like how, how, how do we bridge that gap?

Yen: Definitely I'd also think that it's by the nature of the people that you bring in. And I think that's just a applicable statement for all of culture who you bring in is going to directly influence your culture. Yeah. There's a reason why when we're hiring, we look for culture ad and not fit fit is just kind of like, do they join the boys club?

I think ad is very much like how can they take us to the next step for culture? And so when it comes to culture ad we're when we hire in Europe, we're, we're basically committing to now we're gonna start taking steps into Aing processes and making sure that folks in alternate time zones outside of the United States can adapt to ours.

And I think whenever you make hires and stuff, culture decisions come hand in hand with like necessity and timing basically.

Niko: Mm. I love that concept of culture ad. One, one of the things that I think about ay, a lot is when, if you have a fully asynchronous process for working, that means you don't have, you don't, you don't actually have to talk to people you work with potentially.

And if you're not talking to them, [00:36:00] then can you build trust? And can you build a vulnerable relationship where, where we, you can create psychological safety and, and that's not, that's something I still, I'm not sure if that's true. How do you think about that?

Yen: I think a lot of what we've learned about AYQ is that it's not all or nothing. There's always gonna be nuance in adaptations that you pick up.

And when you pick it up, I think is really important. We definitely study GI labs, playlist playbook, playlist, I guess they could have a really fire playlist. we study GI labs, remote playbook, a lot. We study dos and buffer these kind of remote giants who have demonstrated that regardless of scale, there are asynchronous and remote first policies that need to be in place for remote excellence.

And so I think we've been using them as like gold stars for like what we should eventually start to implement. And specifically when it comes to like team building, I think they're, they've done it. They have excellent cultures and they're asynchronous and they're able to kind of prioritize multiple time zones.

I think they've just done it differently [00:37:00] than how we personally like interpret team building. They are talking to each other. Doist has renowned for its kind of They always have these company retreats and on sites that they do either quarterly or biannually, I can't remember, but they're always prioritizing face to face time and they have it down to a science of like how you should organize these retreats, how you should maximize this kind of team building opportunity and such.

And they need to have it often enough where you do have these moments where you can be in person and have that interpersonal relationship at the same time of working a synchronous, wherever you are in the world. I think GitLab also has excellent kind of strategies. Like I know that they use, they really dip into their values and they not only create like specialized slack channels and rewards for value based kind of achievements and accomplishment on teams.

But they even have like a specific emoji set for just like their different values and what shows off GitLab values. There are plenty of ways to build teams and trust and psychological safety while remote. It's just gonna look different than how it looks in person.

Niko: So [00:38:00] remote, in general, is it's, it's fairly new as far as like a lot of companies are trying to figure out how to do it remote. What do you think still needs to develop looking into the future? Like what are the critical open questions that you see.

Yen: oh my God, this could be a whole podcast in itself. I think we definitely, I mean, head of remote is a new role that literally just started opening up in the last two years. And so that's how new this is. We truly are living in the future of work. And I remember I can quote Darren on, or I I'll probably misquote Darren on this and stuff, but he did mention in one of his interviews that like this sway into the pandemic has accelerated remote work by 10 years in an instant.

So suddenly we're way further into the future than we expected inside. Naturally, a lot of things are gonna need to adapt. So I think first off. Hiring being able to hire remotely, adjust to all the kinds of different international kinds of requisites and stuff. There are awesome companies like oyster right now solving that problem, but it's definitely something that needs to continually [00:39:00] be addressed.

Cause I think when we're talking about hiring, we're not just talking about people, we're talking about equity and being able to actually be like open up hiring and diversity across bounds that we've never seen before. And then when we're also thinking about remote work, of course, we're thinking about culture and how that actually works, but how that works in all sorts of different formats and stuff.

Of course sync and ay, that's always a debate and such and a sync seems to be the preference for a lot of remote first orgs, but there needs to be some sort of optionality for synchronous corporations who have been distributed in some format and such. And I don't know if we have a perfect solution for them too.

So what does culture look like when you scale it that vastly across that many orgs and you don't necessarily have a super well bound playbook? Is it possible to make the leap and what gets lost when you're trying to make that transition? I think those are hard questions and hard answers that we're starting to explore now, but it's, it's not gonna be an easy path forward.

And the last thing I wanna say is like hybrid. I feel like everybody is throwing out the word hybrid as kind of like a patch all solution. [00:40:00] But if you talk to any remote expert about hybrid, it's a nightmare situation, cuz suddenly you have two sec of the business, one that's constantly in person and creating their own kind of click and one that's completely remote first, perhaps feeling isolated as a satellite office almost.

And so how do you harmonize those two? And is it always gonna be. Yeah. I don't know. Big questions.

Niko: Yeah, totally. Yeah. And that, that hybrid situation, you know, redox is fully remote and whenever people ask me about hybrid stuff, I'm just like, that sounds rough. And I also feel like it's gonna be more common than fully remote or fully in person, because it's easier to be like, yeah, we have an office come in if you want.

And we also, you can be remote. So yeah, I think that's a, that's a really big open one that, you know, maybe we'll have to spend some time grappling with in the coming podcast episodes.

Yen: Yeah. And just to give you an idea after just our small kind of sample size and stuff, 51% of folks said that they were dedicated to remote first for the notable time forward, but [00:41:00] 41%, the other kind of major majority was hybrid.

And that was their solution for the, the time being and such office first was only 6.6%. So it's a very, very small sliver of folks saying yes, office office, always office forever.

Andy: It'll, it'll be fascinating. Exciting to see how it plays out. definitely. So we have some rapid fire questions These are questions that we ask all of our guests and it's okay. If they're not rapid, like you can speak at your normal pace.

Yen: So here we go. I'll definitely talk fast.

So I've been trying to talk as slow as possible for understanding sake. Yeah.

Andy: All right. So first one, what's a story that illustrates what culture means to you personally, in your own career.

Yen: A lot of different examples come to mind. But I think I'm gonna go with an example that isn't so lollipops and rainbows, and I think culture for me means you can give feedback and have hard conversations and still know that you're gonna be okay afterwards. I feel like, especially with a small founding theme, sometimes [00:42:00] these hard conversations can feel so difficult that you wonder if they're gonna cause a rift in not only your working relationship as the founders, but also the business itself fundamentally.

Most recently, and such Sid had to give me some hard feedback about my own working style and that's never really a fun conversation to have, but it was regarding just my own perfectionism and not, not being able to kind of communicate when stuff was going wrong.

What I was seeing when growth, if the current problems needing to kind of have this like lone ranger mentality that I definitely kind of go into and such. And so when I feel stressed even more so when I feel stressed, my S is to withdraw and I'll just kind of go into my own little cave and try to solve the problems on my own because I feel personally responsible for them.

So it called me out for that. And it was not an easy conversation. There was crying involved. I cry. I'm not afraid to admit. And it was one of those things where it's for other types of groups, if I didn't trust that Sid had my best interest in mind and that we had this working relationship and a trust, a trust based culture where transparency is key, and that you would only be bringing this up.[00:43:00]

If the business needed to kind of address it in such, I may have taken that so personally that I could have just been like, well, I quit, or I don't wanna work with you or co-founder relationships. The breakage of them are almost always the killer of early stage startups and stuff. So for me, culture is truly make or break it's the ability to actually have those card conversations that will elevate the business.

And after that conversation, we've actually been able to kind of like iterate off of that because we're able to have that culture and that foundation of psychological safety, he's bringing it up, I'm addressing it, we're improving because of it. And we are able to move forward as a better business in totality.


Niko: I love that. And I think it describes the, the virtuous cycle that can come about from. Having a difficult and vulnerable conversation with someone you work with and especially between founders in this case and how you also mentioned how it could have gone another way, if it was done differently, if you didn't have the relationship, it could have been a cycle that, that made you not as [00:44:00] interested or not as motivated or, or, yeah.

So, so I think, I think in every single relationship you have to go, go into it. Understanding what is the trust dynamic that's there? How much vulnerability, how much critical feedback can this relationship withstand in order to make sure that we're on a virtuous cycle and not on a, a, a spiral that can bring.

Someone the other way. So I, I love that example cause I think it, it illustrates that pretty well.

Yen: Yeah. And something else I notice is like, if we had like a ruinously empathetic culture, if you're not watching me on the recording right now, I'm pointing to Kim Scott's awesome book, radical candor. But if we had like a ruinous empathy culture, maybe Sid wouldn't even have brought it up.

And suddenly I'm just kind of doing my repeat of this task that annoys him, causes resentment and also hurts the business. And I don't know any better and he's not willing to kind of share it in such. And so suddenly we tank for a completely different reason, not because we split up as founders, but because we just didn't make any changes and drove ourself into the ground.

And that's not just for founders that's for any sort of team [00:45:00] period, you need to be able to have honest, uncomfortable discussions. And that's only gonna happen if you have a foundation of.

Niko: Gotcha. Gotcha. I'm gonna, I'm gonna actually skip ahead to a different rapid fire question cuz you brought up a book and we have a, a question about books.

So what book do you want everyone on your team to have read?

Yen: I'm gonna just say the easy one dare to lead by Brene brown because I have made them read it. We had a book club just specifically for this one book. Because it's just so important. I feel like it's like the manager Bible for not only how to lead with empathy and how to prioritize people and how to understand what gets in the way of that, but also just how to be a good human being and how to know that like your traumas and everything that you've experienced will show its ugly head in your leadership style and how to be self aware enough to start to mitigate for those different things.

And so I think regardless of your manager experience, you should be reading BNE brown. She is fantastic.

Niko: I'm a huge bene fan fan as well. Andy knows that.

Yen: [00:46:00] great. I wanna read outlets of the heart. That's definitely. That's the second book I'd recommend.

Andy: All right. Next one. What do leaders too often underemphasize or overemphasize when it comes to remote company culture?

Yen: Do you mind being a little bit more specific? Are we talking about people ops managers or like managers? Oh, cause I feel like it's different at different levels.

Andy: That's a good question. Let's just say managers

Yen: oftentimes managers under they often overemphasize people's. I think they overemphasize on communication as kind of like the overall problem that they should be working on. Not recognizing that there's a root issue, blocking positive communication. So oftentimes when a manager is saying, oh, like we need to improve communication on the team.

They'll either look at the fact that they're remote and say, we need more meetings. And then they overwork their team on meetings and everybody gets zoom fatigue, or they say, oh, there's too much like miscommunication happening on slack. So we need to, like, I'm constantly [00:47:00] fighting fires. We need to stop having so many disagreements.

I need you to overcommunicate. And then you have slack fatigue. And so I think both of those communication problems are occurring. One because of improper documentation or just sync versus acing practices, things that haven't been communicated properly or written down or two, because of fundamental lack of trust and not being able to understand are, does everybody feel comfortable with asking questions when they don't understand something like at the most basic level.

And then as far as like what's underrated, I think truly like who you, who you bring onto the team is extremely underrated. I feel like oftentimes when folks talk about culture, they think of what happens after you hire, but not during and the kinds of team that you're truly trying to build from the get go.

Who are you adding to the team? What are they bringing forth? Are they going to be like actually benefiting culture? Or are we only focusing on the technical ad that they have and such, and it needs to be both.

Andy: Totally

Niko: So this question we, we came up with because a lot of the people we [00:48:00] talked to have been working at their companies for a long time, but your company was a pandemic company.

Like really when you started was when the pandemic started. So I'll ask it anyways, because you might have some interesting insight on how the pandemic affected the company, but what work changes have you made since the pandemic started that you planned to carry forward?

Yen: Pre pandemic full transparency.

We were students at UCLA and technically we were fully synced because it was just the three of us. And we were working out of like a co-working space at UCLA. So we went remote first and I would never wanna go back. I don't think I ever want an office. We've had some, we have one engineer living in a van.

We have another engineer or Andrew has been like traveling for like the last eight months, just nonstop in different cities and such the amount of flexibility that we've been able to have and still be able to maintain our team and maintain our work ethic is transformative and just allows folks to live their lives.

And I don't ever wanna get in the way of that. So that would be my answer remote first.

Andy: So this next one is a, a special bonus [00:49:00] and bespoke question just for you. So, so how does your background in film influence how you

Yen: lead? Super interesting and also something that I've never really thought about.

So I might need a second.

I think it taught me a lot about what is good management and what is not good management before, when I was like directing films and really trying to like be the head face of everything. I thought that good management was telling people what to do and making sure that they did it. And as a result, there was a huge control aspect.

There, there was a lot of like expectation, ego, all these different things of like, how do I make sure that these folks are actually gonna do what I tell them to do, et cetera. I think picking that, looking back at it now, good management is actually, how do I trust that you know exactly where you need to go.

I will give you some guidance, but you know, best cuz you are the lowest level person here. Lowest level as I like able to see exactly what needs to be executed and how do I unblock you and how do I get the clear the path so you can really achieve and accomplish everything that you're looking to achieve.

And knowing that like leadership should be [00:50:00] like a team. Project. It's not that I sit on top of you and tell you what to do, but truly that we're in this together. And I am your, like, I'm here to be a team player and here to just clear the road for you. That's been huge. Another thing is like, I think the positive that a background in film gave me is I think I'm just a better storyteller because of it, I think very visually, but I also am just a storyteller at heart.

So being able to write and communicate ideas, being able to like dip into like appeal to pathos and really just know exactly what the emotional elements of the story I'm trying to tell. That's crucial founder behavior. And so I have filmed the think for that.

Niko: nice. And people, people often talk about how col culture is really carried through stories, the stories that people tell.

And so if you have someone. Making the stories memorable, making them impactful, then those stories might survive longer, might be to passed along further. So I can totally see how that would be a, a big influencer.

Yen: Definitely.

Andy: that brings us to the end of our questions. Yen is, is there anything else you'd like to share?

Yen: Please [00:51:00] vote.

Yeah, that's what I'm gonna share. Please vote if you're able to vote. If you're not able to find somebody who can and drive them to a voting place. Yes.

Andy: That's a great place to wrap, please vote.

Andy: All right. That was our episode with Yen from Kona. It was a delight to talk with Yen. The resources they mentioned are listed in our website at peopleeverywhereshow.com.

Niko: And while you're on the website, make sure to sign up for our mailing list so you can stay up to date with all the new episodes that are coming out. And if you listen on apple podcast, leave us a review. It helps out a ton.

If you have feedback for us, you know, we are entrepreneurs at heart. We love feedback. Please send us an email. It is hi@peopleeverywhereshow.com. You'll also find that on the website. And we'll take that feedback to heart. We wanna know what types of topics you're interested in, how we're doing. If you think the episode formats is good, stuff like that.

It's all fair game. So thank you very much for, for tuning in. [00:52:00] And we're excited to share this with you and we'll continue doing it in episodes to come. .