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On-Demand: WFH | Leading a Remote Team

Apr 28, 2020

This webinar shares best practices to help leaders engage with their teams, inspire commitment and help remote workers continue to connect with EisnerAmper's mission and metrics. We share a number of techniques you can employ immediately to make a difference, instill confidence and connect with employees in a way that is helpful, encouraging and well-received.


Natalie McVeigh:Hi everyone. We're going to spend some time today talking about leading a remote team as that's what we're all doing at this moment. Those of you who are on the call, you're manager of teams, and there are just some ways that we behave that are different remotely than what we're used to in the office. So I'm going to go through some best practices and some research and then we're going to have a Q&A at the end, and this deck and recording will be available for you. There may be some sides that are similar to a larger presentation I did recently, but we're really expounding on one section of that presentation. We're going to have some different dialogue around it and go a little more in depth.

Natalie McVeigh:So the first thing to note about leadership in a crisis is that this is really about individual and organizational resilience. Resilience is how we prepare for, recover from, and adapt to stress, challenges or adversity. We didn't necessarily get to prepare as much as we would have liked to for this COVID situation, however, how we're going to adapt and change during and recover from this is really a measure of resilience that we're looking at. And resilience shows up during stress. Even before COVID happened, what we had learned is that the largest health crisis that was going on in the 21st century was stress. So there was already so much stress, in general, happening and now that COVID has happened, it's amplified.

So I like to open with quotes sometimes and this one is, "Really, our philosophy is not best expressed in words, it's expressed in the choices one makes. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility." How we're leading now is really as stimulus happens, so leaders are making decisions as new information is coming towards them. We're not really sitting in the strategy and the best laid plans that we've had normally because they just don't apply today.

You've heard the phrase that I'm tired of hearing is, "It's the new normal. We're in the new normal." So what we thought of Q4 last year isn't applicable. Even earlier, Q1, this year isn't, and we influence our people just by showing up each day. It's important for us to understand how much of an impact we have on people. There's some research that says within 15 minutes, a group emotionally harmonizes. So you can be the emotional contagion for your group. You can really lower the stress or increase the stress of your employees. And how you behave is going to have a direct impact on their own productivity.

We're going to talk a little bit about, today, how everyone's experience of working from home and physical distancing is very different. So what works for you may not work for them, but there are some things that we've seen backed by research that you can help share with your teams.

So there's some research about working from home specifically relative to COVID that we're going to talk about today. This isn't the working from home research that used to be the case. This is studying the time that people have been from home across the globe. And there are other countries who have been doing this a bit longer than we have. So remote work is very good for solo work, but it falls short in some areas for collaboration. And in the last decade, the time spent by employees and managers in collaboration that enhances our productivity has ballooned by 50%, so there's really a gap here that we're trying to solve for around how do we make collaboration effective in a work from home scenario.

And interestingly enough, the survey showed that the technological side is not what's failing people. There may be some people on your team that are still having some technical troubles, but overall the technology seems to be working very well. What's really going on is there are some challenges in the organization and how employees feel supported. We've seen that during this work from home crisis at this time, 40% of people in this global study from INSEAD believe that they're more productive than they used to be, 23% noticed a decline and 37% really haven't seen that much of a difference. So productivity overall from the experience of the individuals doesn't seem to be as impacted. It doesn't mean that they're not more stressed out, that they're not handling more, they absolutely are. So it's great to hear that there's productivity and the biggest obstacle for most employees, about 37%, is loneliness.

And we don't necessarily have to be alone when we're working from home, we are, however, isolated and the difference between isolation and loneliness is how connected we feel. And you, as a manager, really get to impact that feeling for your employees. The challenge with isolation, loneliness, specifically is it creates this self-reifying loop. So the more lonely I feel, the more I withdraw. So it's really important that we help make sure isolation doesn't turn into loneliness for our employees.

And then there's a new survey that just came out recently that specifically talked about family relationships. This will be a different webinar in our series. We will talk about those family relationships, but I do want to bring that up for you all to understand some of the challenges that your employees might be facing right now. 29% of people agree that their family relationships are having a negative impact today. And 24% believe that there's positivity in there. And then you have this large kind of bell curve in the middle where there isn't that much of a change. So these are really the stressors that are facing your employees today. And so there are two areas I want to focus on is, one, how do we bring inclusion and belonging to combat loneliness and, two, how do we find ways to collaborate so that we don't miss that 50% of efficacy that we've been able to gather in the last couple decades.

So we're going to focus a little bit on what's happening to you because this stress is physiological, it's psychological and it's cognitive. Those are the three areas. It's our emotions, it's our mind and it's our body and they're actually one and the same from a neuroscience perspective. So you can't just say, "Think positively and it'll be better." Yes, there is some aspects of thinking positively that might shape your body. But our body is doing something and our body, when it's under stress, does some very specific things. And this is specifically around trust because trusts are going to be the most important way we can engage with employees throughout this process. Trust is a way in which we feel a bonding chemical. So let me just explain this graph. You don't need to know it at the end. If it's interesting, we can do a whole section on the neuroscience of trust, but we're not doing that today.

So stress and distrust increase cortisol, testosterone and norepinephrine. They're fast responses. They impact that back part of your brain, the more reactive part of our brain, where fight, flight and freeze exists. And cortisol has what we call, a very technical term, a cortisol hangover. It's a 26 hour shelf life. So when you impact cortisol, there's 26 hours it stays in your system. And that is for every new incident. So there's a compounding effect as well. And then there's the trust side of our brain, the side where we feel really connected, we feel like we belong. In fact, the word we is really important here.

Some other aspects that help people increase this more positive side are including, appreciating, sharing, celebrating, transparency, and having a shared vision as well as understanding. So those aspects, we're really going to talk about how to increase that today and they increase oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin have a very short shelf life in our brain. They go away pretty quickly whereas oxytocin is actually stronger than cortisol and it allows us to think with the prefrontal cortex. It's that front part of our brain. It's our decision making part of our brain that doesn't really exist in our teenage children. So we think our teens are crazy, they actually are.

There's another chemical that our heart releases called DHEA, that is another antidote to cortisol. In some of the other webinars that you can access online, we did have a sheet where we talk about meditation and mindfulness techniques and how to really increase oxytocin and DHEA. We're not going to talk about that today, but it is important that you, as a leader, create your own practice to find your center, to find your calm because if you come with cortisol, you're definitely going to share that with your employees.

So we're going to jump right into leadership. These are tips for leadership is to really put on your oxygen mask first, to take care of yourself is going to make you the best leader. And there's some aspects of taking care of yourself that have to do with being vulnerable and being genuine and to ensure that you are able to have your infrastructure in place that makes you feel secure, that makes you come from your place of power.

Some of that might be your own social systems. Some of that might be your own practice of taking care of yourself. Absolutely, sleep hygiene. It's interesting that I hear from many leaders that they need less than five hours of sleep. That is not true. Depending on the study, it's one to 3% of the population needs less than five hours of sleep. And everyone else, having less than five hours of sleep is like having three drinks. Only the inhibition section is there, the inebriated part, not necessarily the fun part. So statistically it's impossible that everyone on this call needs less sleep.

And then understand that this is where we are today. There's a lot to say about hope. There's some research that really speaks about hope being very useful. And hope is to say that this situation is specific and it's acute. It's not permanent and pervasive. So really acknowledge to your employees, this situation is acute and specific. It is COVID and, at some point in time, COVID will end. We don't know what that future is. But also be clear that today is the reality. Our brain handles uncertainty much worse than the bad news. So I often pick a date in the future of when I think physical distancing will end. My date is quite long because I'm quite a conservative person. But I would suggest you pick a date that's at least three months out so that your brain isn't using energy trying to solve the uncertainty issue. In a couple of the other webinars, we've talked about our beta and theta brainwaves. Our theta brainwaves are the ones that really spend time trying to solve things. So when you can give yourself a date, you free up that theta brainwaves.

And then over communicate. We learn a lot through informal communication and we're completely losing that right now. In fact, there's some studies that say up to 97% of our communication is nonverbal. Now we get about 35% of that. We get tone and inflection when we use video or we use the telephone. But if we're just using email, we're only getting 7% of that communication. So we really want to find things out, and part of that is so that your employees aren't spending their theta brainwaves trying to figure out what's going on. So if you haven't told them something but they've heard rumblings in the organization that something is happening, they're left wondering, and our brain makes up stories that are negative four to seven times more likely. So the most information you can give your employees as quickly as you can that is accurate, the better it is for them.

And then be really flexible. There are going to be some ways in which we find ourselves being very successful at work and we really want to share those with our employees because we like being right. That's the thing with dopamine. We're literally addicted to being right. So if I tell you something and some of you will, it has happened after the emails, you'll email me and you'll say, "Oh, that was so great." And then I get a dopamine hit and that's really exciting. What you want to try to find with your employees is that cortisol, that how we together solve something, that I don't need to be the owner of your success and then try not to over control. We're all trying to find ways to create control during this situation that isn't very controlling and it makes sense that we'd like to control our employees.

And it's not to say that we can't put accountability metrics in place. We absolutely will. That is what part of this presentation is today, is to find out how to be accountable, but I don't need to dictate how they do something. That goes into micromanaging.

And we say that words create worlds and neuroscience. There's some words that our brain and heart find so beautiful that it genuinely slows down our heart rate. And so being very careful about the words that you say, that's not to rethink everything you do, but understand the impact that this is having on your employees and your own self. What would cause you to have stress? And in fact, one of the best ways to do this is to read aloud all of your communications because then you'll actually have an experience of hearing it versus just in your head.

So this is a model for accountable leadership. There are four characteristics right next to the model we'll talk about. But the model I want to talk about beforehand and this model is really that accountability has three parts and it's very heavy front loaded. And some of this for your employees, depending on how long you've had the team, you might have already done some of this front loading, but because the situation has changed, it feels different and we're going to ask you to really front load this process again.

So accountability is really about trying to be clear about what I desire and what you desire. And understanding that and setting it up too often in the workplace, and honestly even in family relationships, accountability is punitive. It's a punishment for when you didn't do something right. I'm trying to catch you out and that's not what we want to do because that increases that cortisol and that stress.

So we want to start with assertiveness and assertiveness is really not hemming and hawing and being very clear about the behavior I'm looking to see. And it's not personal, it's not about you. It's not that Natalie's a slacker. It's really that Natalie, it's very helpful for me, in working with you to get these projects right before the deadline. That would be the most useful. And so it's being open, it's being direct. It's also assuming that what you think and feel belongs to you and what someone else thinks and feels belongs to them. Now that's not to say that everyone owns their own response and I don't have a responsibility to share with them, but when I'm being clear in what I'm articulating with boundaries that people can understand, we're going to be on the same page. We're going to use the same language.

There's a lot of questioning here. We call it double clicking in neuroscience. It's how you double click on the right side of your keyboard to look up the definition of a word. We do the same thing here. So when someone says something like, "I would like you to be timely." Well, what does timely mean for you? And that's where you can say, "These are the moments at which I want this. I want it a day before. I want it exactly when it's due. And if you're having trouble, I would like to know that 48 hours beforehand." So being very clear, being very granular about what those things mean are very helpful to not get sideways with one another.

And then there's compassion. Compassion literally means to suffer together. And emotional researchers have understood and found out that when we have compassion, we have genuine resonance for someone. So that compassion is, if a deadline is missed, "What happened? What's going on? What do I know about you and how do I support you in the future that we make sure that that doesn't happen." So really saying, "This is an incredibly stressful time, everyone understands this. Everyone's having their own experience. How do I help you be successful?" And in that, compassion doesn't necessarily mean that you can't still be assertive. You can still hold that truth of, "Natalie, this was 15 minutes late and I had a meeting and because I had that meeting, I couldn't proofread this and it went out to a client and it didn't look great. I understand you're incredibly stressed, I absolutely get this, but how do we solve together, what we can find?" And compassion isn't necessarily fixing the other person's experience. It's understanding how to meet them there, honor their own experience and see it.

And then this third part of assertiveness is really relationship. Relationship means being together, celebrating differences and enjoying the parts of us that are so unique and wonderful. And this relationship during physical distancing is going to change with one another. It's getting more personal. And if it hasn't already gotten more personal, you're going to see some tips as to why we're encouraging it to become more personal, is because knowing someone as a person really helps make that dynamic, makes you have that bonding hormone and allows you to have some elasticity when things don't go right. When it's completely about the work product, there's a little bit of stagnation there. And so there's some tips and tricks about how to make this more personal in a way that's useful and it allows you to have an argument that is about the subject and not the person. They don't get intertwined. It doesn't negate the individuality.

So the four things you want to do is hold people accountable, talk through tough issues and difficult conversations. And I genuinely mean talk them through. If you're emailing someone about a challenge or feedback, it's not going to work very well. We lack the context, we lack the tone, and people can ruminate. What happens when we're stressed is we tend to ruminate. That's having those thoughts over and over again. So you don't want to give that to them. And we don't want them to mishear the language. And then communicate the strategy. We find out that when people can make meaning and attached to an idea bigger than themselves, they're much more effective. And research shows that we need to communicate our mission and vision 10 times more likely than we think we do. We believe people know it and people hear it and they don't actually.

And then ask for feedback and you are going to be modeling for them that feedback is okay. That it's really useful, that it's absolutely something we do here as a culture and you're just as open to it as they should be. And not just ask for feedback. Then I do do something with the feedback because if you keep getting feedback that you're not doing anything about, that's not modeling exactly what can happen.

 I want to just touch on this briefly. This was talked about in different webinars. We will not spend the most time on it but there are varying pain points for your employees around introversion and extroversion. Extroversion is usually energy from a lot of people. It's literally where I get my energy from. So a lot of extroverts are not having a great time at home and they're not having a great time at home because either they're just with their family who they know and they love most days. But today there's not enough variants. They're not getting enough different energy, and/or extroverts might be home alone and there's no one there to get that from.

And then there's introversion, which is really getting your energy alone. And they may also not be having a great time at home, partly because they may have roommates or family members so they're not getting true alone time. And both introverts and extroverts may not know that they're introverted or extroverted because they're outgoing introverts and there are reserved extroverts. And so behaviorally, our opinion about who is extroverted or introverted, your belief of your teammates might be very different. So believe it or not, introverts might actually like the large happy hours where they don't have to say a lot, but they get the experience of being around people. Whereas extroverts might really rely on the one on one conversations.

There are some studies that say when people are highly connected, where they know each other well, there's an information exchange between your ideas and my ideas and it'll resonate in our brain as though we're together with one another, even as though we're watching the same show as only one person is watching it. So this is a good model for you to think about. This may be the first time in people's life that they're realizing where they get their energy from and it's really costing them in different ways. At one of the other webinars we did talks about emotional energy and we're not going into that here, but it might be very useful for you to find out some of those techniques for your employees.

Now, there are several different types of communication in meetings in general in the workplace. There's high bandwidth communication, that really is in person where you find 100% of communication, 7% verbal, 93% nonverbal, 55% is body language, and 38% is really that tone and that context.

So high bandwidth communication isn't happening that much right now. Video is the next best proxy for high bandwidth communication. It's different though. There are some lag times. Even here, there's probably a lag between where my mouth is moving and the words you're hearing, so virtual communication has a lag time. It also has our neurochemistry being very different. Interpersonal neurobiology happens within 10 feet of one another. There's something called empathy where I feel you and you feel me, and we actually do something called synchronizing. They've studied this in physicians and coaches and psychotherapists with their clients. When there's a high degree of connection, we'll mirror each other. But that doesn't happen, there's no physiological response via video.

And then there's low bandwidth communication styles, that's over the phone and that's email where we're really not getting that body language. We're not hearing those other pieces and, honestly, we're not usually paying attention in some of those communications. They're fast, they're efficient.

 And then there's synchronous communication. It's what's happening, well, it will be happening in a few minutes when we do our Q&A, where you and I are having a dialogue, we're thinking through something together. Research shows that when we have dialogue together that collaboration happens, those new ideas, those third alternatives that I would have never thought without you in the room with me, happen.

And then there's asynchronous communication, which is a lot of that email, the instant messaging, and those kinds of things that I deal with it in my own time. And so, we really want to balance these four types of communications as best as we can because there is a place for asynchronous communication. There's a place for someone like myself who's extrovert, who's going to think and pour over my research to really figure something out and send it to you.

But there's also a place for you and me to dialogue around it so that I get the best thinking of both of us. It's called collective intelligence. When people listen to each other in high trust groups, they are 10 times smarter than the smartest person in the room.

nd then there are scheduled and unscheduled communication. So scheduled communication might be weekly team meetings or every Friday happy hour. And these are really useful because we know what to expect. They bring in consistency. They really help me understand things, but they also give a message to employees that we might want to hold our ideas until that next meeting. So what can happen? A negative side effect of the scheduled communication is we're not getting that in the office, the kind of, "I just have one quick question. Do you mind?" So really finding ways where you set up unscheduled communication that's responsive to the employee that you know.

So, I know on our team, a lot of times we'll just send a quick text, "Does a call work for you now?" And then we have a call or we don't have a call. I know some other teams use their instant messaging system, but find a way and a responsiveness that your employees have to you where you get that unscheduled communication so you're not losing that information where they might've pulled you in 15 minutes after an email in the office to really get clarification, so you don't lose a lot of that time to be productive.

So we're going to go into virtual communication tips because that's really the only thing we have now. We don't have physical communication even before COVID, virtual meetings were consistently rated the most ineffective, non-engaging and challenging. So one of the things we want to do is give you some tips to try to make your virtual communications useful. One is just to create an informal communication mechanism, have these virtual happy hours, virtual coffees, virtual lunches that aren't overly scheduled, that may not even have an agenda. We're just checking in. We're sharing about each other. Everyone brings their pet or their favorite sports team jersey, just so we see a different side of each other. Don't over invite. The effectiveness of the meeting has a complete inverse relationship to the number of people in attendance. And that's partly because it's hard to contribute, it's hard to see that everyone's there and there's the talking over each other and the long silences with everyone being polite. We don't know each other as well.

Don't overly schedule to an agenda. Let's check in with people where they are emotionally, what's distracting them today from paying attention? Are there any warnings we need? Will there be a kid or a dog barking in the background, so we all acknowledge it? Do send the agenda in advance though and try to have questions so that we know we've actually accomplished the agenda items list. So the question might be, "What are our goals for this week? Where are we around these deliverables?" But these agenda items, people can answer the question. It also primes them for a way to contribute so that they're actually going to be doing the speaking. One of the things that happens on virtual meetings is we believe people being quiet is they agree and so, in most cases, people are quiet because we don't yet know how to engage in meetings.

And so there's a lot of you talking through your agenda. If your meeting agenda sounds anything like what's happening today, it's not going well. And then give time back because, don't give time back. It is important that you slow down, you take the time to say, "We're here, it's valuable. We want to be together." And find ways for all people to be heard. You can use the chat function or polls liberally. There's even a software called poll anywhere. They're going to be side conversations in the chat. Why not make those side conversations part of the dialogue that's happening. It also allows introverts and extroverts to contribute in a meaningful way. You might want to have a lieutenant in your meeting who's checking the chat function. And acknowledge and validate the comments. We really want to not just nod like this, but we want people to feel as though there's follow-up. These are called supportive statements, "So I hear what you're saying." And then you can say, "Is there more with that? What else would be useful to understand?"

And then you're going to want to facilitate actively. You want to draw the attendees in. You want to be dramatic, you want to tell a story, you want to be a little silly so that there's a tension there and then call on people. And I even have an actual checklist next to me when I facilitate meetings of who has contributed and who hasn't contributed and I try to understand knowing them and ask them questions. And then leave with your own experience, funny anecdotes, your struggles, your triumphs. There's a part of our brain, the temporoparietal juncture that links up when we share things. We get more attentive around personal things, it's very interesting to us. So you start modeling that and people will share that.

And then really getting more frequent one-on-ones. These could be scheduled or unscheduled. These could be long or these could be short, but really about how people are doing and not just sharing what's going wrong, but what's going well. There's a word in the English language I love called appreciate and partly it's because it's saying thank you, but too it's growing in value. It's growing our relationships and values. Be very specific about the thing that your employees are doing well so that they can repeat it, that it has a self-reinforcing loop of it being good. Don't just say, "I appreciate you. You are great."

Be clear on voice and vote. When we start doing these meetings and we're thinking together and then I go off and I make a decision that doesn't reflect everyone's opinions, people might make meaning of that. So share your thinking about all the things you thought about and why we got to here. It's also going to help them develop as employees to understand.

And then close well. Get to key takeaways. Who's responsible for what? By when? What is the summary? What did we learn? When are we going to meet again? And then I would encourage you to have a gratefulness close where people can practice gratitude as a group. Gratitude is a social emotion and it's going to be really helpful for people to be creative. One of the things we've seen is gratitude and generosity increase creativity.

I'm not going to read this slide. I do think it's an important slide for you all to have, but this is a way in which we can start changing our four styles of communication to be a little more effective as we're at in the workplace. So one of the things I really want to focus on is around video and telephone. Prepare for those as if they're in real life. I know you've all been on a phone call or someone has responded a little later than they were, or just said something like, "Oh, good idea.", probably because we were doing something else. So these are our only modes of communication. We are not trying to multi-task. When you're on the phone and when you are on video, I would also encourage you to close down your email. There's some studies that show just having our email out or our mobiles in the vicinity, lower our IQ. They just distract us. So we're not doing our best thinking.

So I'll go to our best practices, but I would print this out if I were you just to look at this for some of these tips and tricks. So our best practices are find a way to collaborate a two to five hour window where your team can work synchronously. We can't lose that asynchronous work time. But I mean find it as an ask, it can't just be the best for you. It has to really work for your team and that allows them to work individually and it also set some expectations. And create small successes with your team. Proactively create touch points, just not around the things that aren't working. I would, in fact, institute an email train at the end of every day that says the one accomplishment we're most proud of. There's some Harvard research that says when employees can find just one thing that they feel like they've accomplished, that they're very proud of, they're much more productive, they're much more energized, they're much more thoughtful in the way that they accomplish their tasks in the future.

And then consistency. What are the things that you did that you're still going to now? If you were a little bit silly, how do you stay silly? All those things that actually feel consistent for your employees and then switch off. Studies show that working longer hours do not increase the risk of burnout. In fact, people who work the same amount of hours, there are people who get burnt out and there are people who don't. It's really about their ability to turn off. And there are three types of rest I just want to talk about briefly. There's a micro rest. That's the rest we should take every few minutes or every few hours, just even for eye fatigue. It's literally every 20 seconds, you want to look away. But research shows that people are less productive after 60 or 90 minutes of continual focus. So finding a micro rest for them.

And then there's mezzo rest. That's really that sleep at night, taking a break on holidays or weekends. And then there's the macro rest, which is long weekends or a week off, those kinds of things. But studies show that for anti-fatigue, it's really not about how hard we work, it's about how well we rest.

So I think we're now at Q&A and I'll open up the chat. Please clarify what do not give time back means? Do not give time back means if I set a meeting for an hour, we're going to use that hour. We're going to start with check-ins. We're going to make sure there's a close at the end where there's a round robin. We're clear on deliverables. But if I am too busy to honor time with you, you're going to interpret that. One of the challenges that people feel like they can't reach out because everyone's stressed and busy and we just are objectively, you're probably more stressed than ever has been in human history. But my job as a leader is not to be too busy for you. It's to be accessible to you.

Someone just shared that they believe in some ways they're more productive and in some ways they're less productive. Yes. There's a fascinating study that I read last night, I didn't have time to incorporate in this webinar because it was last night and this is today, that really talked about, so I'm going to go back to the slide to illustrate it for a minute. The slide around stress. Although cortisol is quite challenging, this testosterone and norepinephrine, those are hormones that really show up in an emergency, when you hear the stories about the mother lifting a car or something like that or we just get really jazzed. So our stress response for some of us, especially at the beginning of this, might have been more energetic. It might have been let's distract ourselves. It depends on our coping mechanism and how we use that.

So there are probably some things we're going to be very productive at and then there are others in which we're not going to hit that same level of productivity. So right now, that's the other thing to keep in mind for your employees, is we're actually hitting a part in which there's probably going to be a little bit more of a downturn. And that's a conversation to have with your employees. "Where are you excelling right now and how do we take some of those same techniques and behaviors and bring them to these areas that are much more challenging for you." That'd be a great conversation for your employees.

Hope this was helpful and look forward to seeing you all in the next series.

Transcribed by

What's on Your Mind?

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Natalie M. McVeigh

Natalie McVeigh is a Managing Director in the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance and the Center for Family Business Excellence Group within the Private Client Services Group and has more than 10 years of experience as a consultant and coach.

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