eFileCabinet’s CMO Michael Plante Discusses Hybrid Teams and More

Startup employees chat over coffee at work

MP recently sat down with Michael Plante, CMO at eFileCabinet. Plante oversees eFileCabinet’s global marketing organization and leads the development and execution of the company’s brand and go-to-market strategies to support revenue growth and successful customer outcomes. Plante previously served in a variety of marketing leadership roles ranging from very early stage startups like Shape Security, InsideSales.com, and PowerQuest, to large public companies like Symantec, Citrix, and F5.

MP: What is eFileCabinet, and why is it unique?

Plante: eFileCabinet is a SaaS-based company that transforms how companies get work by modernizing how they work with documents and content and by automating processes and workflows. Our flagship solution, Rubex, enables businesses to reduce overhead, simplify compliance, enhance remote work, and eliminate inefficient tasks for team members and external stakeholders anywhere — with the ultimate goal of empowering individuals, teams, and businesses to focus on the work that matters most…no matter where they work.

How should startups approach protecting sensitive information, and why?

At some point, every business will hold sensitive customer and employee data that needs to be safeguarded and defended as if our businesses depended upon it, because they often do. Brands, valuations, and balance sheets can be all destroyed by careless or inadequate data protection. Instead of being an afterthought, or something we prioritize as we get ready to launch businesses in Europe, it needs to be something that’s part of our startup DNA from the first meeting of the eventual founders through exit and beyond.

Here are five tips from my career, but I’m not an attorney; please get counsel suitable for your legal jurisdiction and the markets in which you collect customer, employee, or partner data.

  1. Figure out where the potentially sensitive data exists in your organization. CRM. Marketing automation. Google Analytics. Billing and subscription platforms. Email attachments. Application tracking systems. Customer service platforms. Sales cadence tools. It’s already seeping across your entire organization. Assign one exec to identify every system where it might reside.
  2. Restrict access to just those who need to have access. One challenge in startups is that we all wear multiple hats, and so a laissez-faire culture of open access to all team members to all systems is common. That’s a data protection nightmare.
  3. Train people continuously on how you expect sensitive data to be defended and protected. This is not a once-and-done mission but requires continuous attention.
  4. Delete data you no longer need. Find ways to prioritize properly disposing of data you don’t need anymore, or that’s expired, or that’s beyond the legal retention policy (e.g., tax records).
  5. Understand the laws of the geographies you operate in. Every country, and in the USA, even different states, has unique laws that govern data protection and privacy. You have to invest in learning the laws of the markets where you do business and where you have employees so you can comply with the laws that govern the data you have for those people and accounts.

At eFileCabinet, we know a fair bit about helping startups and small businesses get their arms around data security, privacy, governance, and compliance issues. We help thousands of early- and mid-stage companies collect and manage content in a single environment, fully encrypted, with robust access controls and automated governance and compliance.

What is a hybrid team, and why is it important?

There can be many definitions for what exactly a hybrid team is, but in broad terms, it’s a work environment that breaks from the traditional 9 to 5, Monday through Friday office schedule many of us have grown accustomed to. Entirely remote work environments have been shown to be possible, but different work cultures and dynamics still work better on location, even if it’s only part-time. Hybrid teams don’t only mean a part-time remote environment — it means having the right technology and best practices so that your teams are able to collaborate and remain effective, regardless of where those team members are operating from. In our efforts to follow best health and safety practices but remain productive as a business, we’ve been able to discover the benefits of hybrid teams that we plan on keeping regardless of the status of the pandemic.

I believe hybrid team structures are vital for several reasons.

  1. Employee satisfaction. It has been my experience across my career that flexible, hybrid team structures, with leaders who understand how to lead in a hybrid environment, consistently deliver higher employee satisfaction through stronger bonds of trust, a better sense of autonomy and self-determination for employees, and a focus on outcomes, not time-on-task.
  2. Business productivity. I have found that with proper performance management and measuring frameworks, we actually get greater business outcomes out of hybrid teams.
  3. Employee retention and talent acquisition. The flexibility of hybrid team models better meets the needs of many team members today and helps recruit new team members as the organization grows.
  4. Diversity and inclusion. Hybrid teams allow us to attract and benefit from a much broader array of talent and experiences from literally anywhere in the world.

How has the hybrid team environment changed this?

In 2022, after about two years of redefining how we work thanks to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, businesses shifted to remote models whenever possible out of necessity. As businesses move forward in still uncertain times, they quickly realize that a hybrid model has more benefits than they realized. Whereas some may have thought an immediate shift would result in a loss in productivity and detriments to communication, those same businesses are taking the positive lessons learned throughout the pandemic and applying them to their routines. Benefits discovered from this shift addressed certain tensions that were already there, such as burnout and work-life balance — the pandemic simply accelerated finding the solutions to those issues.

Protecting sensitive information can, in some ways, result in decreased morale. How can startups maintain morale while doing so?

It’s true that some data protection practices involve restricted access or tedious workflows. I have found that I can achieve our compliance and data protection needs without negatively impacting employee morale or satisfaction by using technology to automate data protection practices where possible. One example: a core data protection practice is to appropriately dispose of data after its governance expiration date. Instead of asking someone on the team to evaluate all our sensitive data based on the date it was collected or generated and manually delete it when it’s past its due date, it’s pretty easy to deploy automation technology to do this task for us. I don’t believe we have to choose between protecting sensitive information and employee morale or satisfaction… We must deliver both.

In addition, I’ve found that helping employees understand the context for the existential need to protect sensitive information helps. All too often, data protection policies and programs are handed down from the proverbial mountaintop, without an answer for our team members “why this matters to each of us.” I have found it essential – even when working in some of the largest data protection and cybersecurity businesses in the world – to remind all employees of the business impacts that security breaches bring to organizations. Not only are there material business consequences, but mishandling sensitive information can ruin others’ lives and livelihoods.

How has the hybrid team environment altered startup company culture?

I think some vital aspects of startup culture are just as they always have. For example, the startups I’m familiar with still have cultures characterized by intense collaboration and the fact that early team members need to wear multiple – or maybe every – hats from time to time.

What I think has changed is how we collaborate and when. Clearly, collaboration and communication technology has extended both ad hoc and scheduled collaboration to anyone anywhere in the world at any time. You can jump on a Slack conversation or a Teams meeting or a Monday.com project conversation whether you’re in the office or not. In addition, whereas I think the classic start-up culture stereotype portrayed six or seven founders around a folding table in the garage, I do think startups today are learning to collaborate and innovate more asynchronously than they did in the past. With a hybrid team environment, not every member of the team is working the same 12 to 15 hours schedules at the same time. It may be too early to tell, but this kind of asynchronous collaboration and work may erode the stereotype that startups require superhuman days, seven days a week.

What steps can startups take to proactively build a positive company culture with a hybrid team, and why?

  1. Prioritize a culture of communication. Even though team members are split between the office, their homes and even their local coffee shop, keeping clear lines of communication available and open are required if team collaboration is key to success. Giving the team the right tools as well as the understanding that they’re still working toward a common goal will enhance hybrid work culture.
  2. Keep teams reminded of company goals. Ensuring that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the organization’s mission will help the hybrid team succeed. Different members of the hybrid team work in different ways, but everyone should be united and clear on what the company’s goals will keep everyone driven toward achieving them.
  3. Allow hybrid teams the autonomy to work the way they need to. Hybrid team members have different reasons for why they prefer to work in one environment or another. Remote workers often enjoy the freedom that comes with being able to balance daily work and life responsibilities at the same time. Remote workers may have family members to take care of throughout the day, so giving them the freedom to step away from the computer occasionally to handle those kinds of tasks goes a long way to improving work-life balance and job satisfaction. Other team members may prefer a mix of both in-office and remote work, so allowing them the flexibility to choose where they work on given days also improves that work-life balance.
Working as team. Group of young modern people in smart casual wear discussing something and smiling while working in the creative office

What are five mistakes startup leaders make when trying to build a culture with a hybrid team, and how can these mistakes be avoided?

  1. Believing that a hybrid team structure can’t work from my startup. This is simply not true. And as much as we each think our startup is a unicorn, hybrid team structures can and would work. I have led and managed hybrid teams of every imaginable configuration, and we have tackled every imaginable business problem. I think that startup leaders need to have an open mind, and apply the same amazing creativity they use to come up with better mousetraps to changing their approaches to building, managing and leading teams to be effective – even more effective – in hybrid environments.
  2. Continuing with my old ways of managing teams works in a hybrid environment. Managing hybrid teams to deliver equivalent (or preferably, more) business impact requires modernized approaches to managing people. I’ve found two changes that have helped a lot: over-rotating on being available across all channels of communication and focusing on performance measurement frameworks that don’t rely on visually monitoring time on task. I try to be maniacal about regular one-on-ones, team meetings, and ad hoc interactions…just trying to over-rotate on being present IRL and the various online channels. It’s challenging but I think it’s crucial. And for each team – hybrid or not – I try to develop measurement and performance frameworks that don’t rely on being able to visibly see our employees on task; instead, I look for ways to measure business outcomes. I’m not even super focused on measuring activity. But it is 2022, not 1902 – I hope nobody is still managing their employees exclusively by walking around anymore in any environment.
  3. Relying on outdated leadership skills that are ineffective in a hybrid environment. For the same reasons that we must modernize our people management approach in a hybrid environment, we have to actually develop a new approach to leadership. Inspiring and motivating teams, setting vision, leading teams to deliver against audacious goals – those things are still vital and, in many respects, require even MORE purposeful focus when leading hybrid teams because some team members can start to feel disconnected if we only rely on our old tools. Figuring out how to inspire and motivate, how to deliver our vision digitally and asynchronously, and how to celebrate achievement and success when teams aren’t all in the same room are vital. One particularly effective global sales leader I know records little video snippets of his leadership in action every week no matter where he is in the world and shares those video snippets across multiple channels and asynchronously as well as in meetings…again, working to be omnipresent and not exclusively just “in the office and on Zoom.”
  4. Falling into the trap of subconsciously building culture for those in the office or close by. People who are not in the office part time – or ever – can feel left out if too much business or too much social happens in the office, or with the team members in one particular city, but not for everyone on the team. It takes extra calories, but it is so important to treat everyone across the team the same, and over-rotate to make sure meetings, events, activities, and culture work for everyone, in the office or not. I think folks are getting better at the physical stuff: if it’s a lunch-and-learn, send food delivery service coupons to attendees who will be remote a couple of days in advance. If the in-person attendees to an event get swag, ship the same swag to the remote attendees. But I still see lots of failures in not proactively drawing remote participants into the discussion, pausing and inviting or even demanding participation.
  5. Not turning on our webcams. Every single time. In every single synchronous interaction. Earlier in my career, I ran worldwide product marketing for one of the largest virtual meeting platforms. We conducted a lot of research on the impact of everyone showing their faces in meetings and during collaboration. It’s profound and measurable in terms of both business outcomes (yes, even sales) and in terms of building and enhancing team culture. As humans, we are visual beings and get so much of communication and understanding – the underpinnings of culture – visually. I ask people across my team to turn on their webcams when we’re meeting or collaborating because I think it’s that important to vibrant culture.

What advice can share when it comes to hybrid teams?

  1. Establish clear guidelines for employees that work remotely. It’s important to give remote workers freedom, but not at the expense of productivity. Making sure they have an open line of communication with all other team members should be required.
  2. Use the right technology. There are countless options for software to keep your hybrid team in communication and productive. Your team should be in sync when it comes to what kind of platforms they prefer and how you cohesively use them to accomplish your team’s goals.
  3. Make sure your team members are heard. Remote workers can sometimes be silent about their status when it comes to workload and burnout. As a leader, go beyond being available and go proactive with each team member to gauge how they are handling their work environment, remote or in-office.
  4. Keep employees engaged, even though they’re away. Traditional in-office work environments often come with benefits you can only experience on location. Things like lunches, occasional activities, and even simple water-cooler talk. Think of creative ways to engage employees who are remote so that they still feel connected to the company culture. One example from our team is a monthly book club meeting that all members can join in, whether remotely or in the office.
  5. Develop a clear onboarding process that supports the hybrid work model. Onboarding is more than just filing new employee paperwork. It’s a long-term process meant to train and acclimate new hires to your organization’s culture. Yours may be the first hybrid work environment they’ve experienced, so consider revamping your onboarding process.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think some of us believe that the current focus on hybrid teams is a byproduct of today’s global pandemic, and in some future post-pandemic world, we are all returning to the office Monday through Friday, 8 AM to 5 PM. I don’t believe that world actually ever existed for large chunks of our global economy. And I honestly believe that genie is out of the bag even for smaller or more local teams. Managers, leaders, entrepreneurs, and founders everywhere will get an additional competitive edge by leaning into hybrid team models because this is the future of work and it’s here today.