The Secret to Engaging Remote Teams: An Interview with the CEO of Toasty.ai

June 12, 2020

Last month, we got the chance to interview Kevon Cheung, CEO of Toasty. His video platform takes virtual happy hours to a whole new level to help remote teams bond. He had some incredible points on engaging remote teams and dealing with burnout during #COVID19.

Corine Tan
5 min

Kevon Cheung is Co-Founder & CEO of Toasty.ai, an early-stage startup for engaging remote teams. Since April 2019, his interactive platform has created innovative ways for teams to bond both in-person and remotely.

No alt text provided for this image

We love Toasty.ai because we have so many values in common! Both Toasty and Kona help remote teams prioritize intentional communication, trust-based leadership, and teamwide engagement. In the interview below, Kevon mentions engagement as having two-sides: team and working. Where Toasty facilitates personal relationships with fun games, Kona augments coworking relationships by documenting workstyle preferences. We love to see our fellow founders coming up with such innovative solutions to make remote work easy!

Here is our full interview, along with some awesome key takeaways:


Tell us a bit about Toasty!

Toasty.ai Screenshot

We actually had a pretty complicated journey. We started with a platform for people to meet at in-person conferences. While building, we noticed our business meetings were always so boring. A few months in, it hit me. Why not create a real-time software for meetings that brings people together and breaks them into groups for fun activities? We built Toasty.ai for a physical setting. Everyone loved how engaging it was for office meetings.

But then COVID-19 hit us. People started asking whether they could use it online. At first, we taught them how to use Toasty.ai in Zoom breakout rooms. But it was too difficult to juggle two apps. We realized we weren’t just a Q&A platform, we were about bringing people together. In the last four months, Toasty’s became its own video tool for engaging remote teams.

Quote image: "We realized we weren't just a Q&A platform, we were about bringing people together." ––Kevon Cheung, CEO of Toasty

I love Toasty.ai because it’s super interactive. With Toasty, users engage and type in guesses about each other. We’ve noticed this interactivity is hard for manual virtual happy hours on Zoom. No one talks and it's awkward because they don't know what to talk about. But Toasty.ai facilitates activities and everyone knows what to do, Toasty even guides who should talk first. Toasty provides a structure that makes people feel comfortable to bond and be themselves.


What is the biggest difference between in-person and remote work?

If you’re in the office, you can pick up on body language or facial expressions. You don’t need to ask someone to know where they are in terms of mood. But remotely, you don’t have these cues! You have their little Slack picture and that’s about it.

Quote image: "As a manger, it's your job to be intentionally personal." ––Kevon Cheung, CEO of Toasty

When remote experts talk about communication, they always say it has to be intentional. Set up a 1:1 call. Check up on your employees. These conversations should never start with work. Instead, talk about your weekend or something. It may seem awkward, but as a manager it’s your job to be intentionally personal.


How should managers go about measuring engagement while working remotelyin a remote setting?

A lot of companies measure employee engagement with surveys and happiness scores. They ask questions like, “Are you feeling challenged in the last month?” or “Are you feeling supported?” It's definitely a good measure, but you're not going to ask your team these questions every day.

Quote image: "Engagement is powerful and very easy to see." ––Kevon Cheung, CEO of Toasty

More importantly, managers can see and feel engagement. It's intangible. If your team is supporting each other on calls, if they are going out of their way to work as a team on Slack, if they're contributing actively and not just waiting for tickets, then you have an engaged team. Engagement is powerful and very easy to see.


What do remote managers get wrong when it comes to engaging their employees?

Cover photo of the book, "The Art of Gathering" by Priya Parker

Remote managers have to be really intentional about engagement. If you ignore engagement and only focus on daily tasks, engagement won’t happen. This concept drives Toasty.ai.

The idea of purposeful engagement was inspired by the book, The Art of Gathering. The book provides an example, you're hosting a birthday party and you invite guests. A lot of hosts invite people over and leave them on their own to go around, get drinks, talk to people. If you leave it to the people, the whole gathering is not purposeful. However, if the host is very intentional about a theme or conversation, if you design an experience around an objective, then people become a lot more engaged.

The same issue applies to managers and remote workers. If you design team meetings to be more purposeful, for both agenda deliverables and engagement, then the team is going to get more out of it.


What can managers do today to engage their remote teams?

With the word “engagement,” some teams take that as playing games. That's a great start. You can play Scrabble, do basic icebreakers, compete in team-wide trivia... Games are awesome for bonding.

Quote image: "When people share about themselves, that's when you go deeper and foster trust-based relationships." ––Kevon Cheung, CEO of Toasty

However, if managers want to take team engagement to the next level, they really need to look for activities that open people up. That's why the activities on Toasty.ai are designed to get people to be verbal. For example, we do Toasty’s Conversation Cards at the start of every Friday all-hands meeting. We talk about guilty pleasures, childhood stories, what we’re thankful for. We worked together for so long, yet we always discover new things we didn't know.

When people share about themselves, that's when you go deeper and foster trust-based relationships. It’s not really the games that you play.


Is engagement always games and virtual happy hours?

Well, engagement falls under two parts. One is team engagement, which is about connecting to your coworkers on a personal level. The other is working engagement. They’re very different and I don't think we should get them mixed up.

Quote image: "Engagement falls under two parts: team and working." ––Kevon Cheung, CEO of Toasty

On the team engagement side, you don't want to socialize all the time. Instead, be intentional. Set 20-30 minutes every week for your team to come together. Without an office, remote teams usually don’t connect on a personal level during day-to-day work. Weekly opportunities to learn about each other increase engagement and fosters more positive collaboration.

For working engagement, it boils down to setting clear communication guidelines and giving coworkers freedom. At Toasty, we prioritize asynchronous communication. We don’t want our team chatting on Slack all the time, it’s draining and not productive. As a manager, I’ve done my best to make certain practices clear. We use Slack for emergencies, email, or FaceCam for more thoughtful responses. However, we also give our team time to respond to messages at their own pace. A lack of structure and space makes people really burnt out.


How should managers address or prevent burnout, especially with forced work-from-home?

I experienced a burnout two weeks ago, after all, Toasty is an early-stage startup. At some point, I told my team that I needed to take 24-hours off. I removed Slack, deleted LinkedIn, and ignored my emails for 24 hours. I felt really recharged afterward and I realized how important it is to take a short break to get back on track.

Quote image: "Preventing team burnout depends on having clear, open communication on how we work best." ––Kevon Cheung, CEO of Toasty

In terms of managing a team, I got the sense that I was having too much live engagement with a teammate a while back. So I asked her how she felt about our communication over the past week. We were just being open about it, and she told me live Slack messages were disrupting her daily workflow.

Preventing coworker burnout depends on having clear, open communication about how we work best. There's no secret sauce to it. It's just being expressive and then figuring it out together.

No alt text provided for this image

When it comes to running a remote team during COVID-19, keeping your coworkers engaged is the key to staying cohesive. Whether you’re bonding over team happy hours or communicating async for a project, having authentic conversations about you and your preferences builds team trust.

For team bonding, visit Toasty.ai for a 30-day free trial of their remote meeting platform.

For in-work cohesion, access team workstyle preferences with Kona, the AI-powered Slackbot. For a 14-day free trial, email sid@sikeinsights.com.

Thank you! You'll start getting emails from us soon.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Join Our EQ Newsletter

Share

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get deep dives on leading remote teams and building EQ. Delivered to your inbox weekly.

Thank you! You'll start getting emails from us soon.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.