Michael Westland-Rose discusses why leadership skills remain important in a virtual environment
Last year, an IWG study found that globally, 70% of full time professionals are working remotely at least once a week, a figure that, according to a report from Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs, has seen growth of 115% in the past ten years.
This has all come about due to multiple factors. It’s a global jobs market, organisations tend to employ more global teams and are embracing the benefits of diversity. They want to cut the cost of running an office and help their employees to address the challenges and expense of travelling to meetings (and the office). Plus there is the wider cultural acknowledgement that employees want the flexibility of home working. People today have a much more diverse range of caring commitments at both ends of the inter generation spectrum and of course, we have very easy access to enabling technology.
Although these trends are enabling us to create lives where life can revolve around work (rather than the other way around, which has traditionally been the case), it is also creating a new set of challenges for leadership and a requirement for new communication methodologies. Managing people who work a few desks away requires a completely different set of skills and communication style than someone you might only see every six months.
For example, the 9 am team meeting will iron out those problems from the previous day, act as a check in with co-workers and give a framework to the day ahead. The social dynamics of lunch and coffee machine catch ups can be vital for team cohesion. It’s not the same when half your team is based in another country, speak a different language and the other half are working from home or using the local coffee shop as their office.
Although good communication has always been a cornerstone of organisational success, these added complexities created by remote working and our new reliance on virtual communication, often between teams that are permanently remotely based, have made it more important than ever to get right.
New leadership models for effective remote working
How do leaders build trust among teams that they might not actually see for months at a time? How can they develop a powerful communication style and get the buy in needed to be effective in a virtual business world? How do they build motivation and trust among dispersed telecommuting teams, to then realise the promised benefits of improved productivity that flexible working can deliver?
Firstly, the traditional hierarchical leadership models that emphasise developing ‘followship’ between a leader and co-workers are no longer as effective in a virtual organisation. Instead, a more distributed, collaborative style needs to be developed, whereby responsibility and accountability are shared among individuals who have a common, collective goal and a mutual understanding of what’s required.
Understanding distance within a virtual team?
Most people tend to think of communication in the sense of imparting information and the technologies to enable the physical interactions. What this view fails to acknowledge is that communication is a consensual process, undertaken with the ultimate aim of reaching a mutual understanding. When teams are forced to communicate remotely, the ‘distances’ involved mean that our normal pace of interaction can become distorted. There might be a delay between a message and the final replies, or the reply may be slightly more ‘curt’ than the sender anticipated. Whilst we all know there are probably good reasons for this, when it happens, it can jar with the normal rules for social communication and create frustration between colleagues.
When leading a remote team, it’s important to appreciate the different types of distance that team members will encounter. Obviously there is the physical distance in terms of the different people’s proximity to each other, but more significantly from a leadership perspective, there is also an affinity distance, which has a greater overall impact on the outcomes of communication. By affinity distance, we mean a difference in terms of people’s values, trust and levels of interdependency – which can have a big impact on team performance.
How to reduce ‘distance’ among virtual teams
Communications experts can help leaders become more aware of affinity gaps and how to overcome them. Here are some tried and tested ground rules to adopt.
- Invest time in building strong relationships that foster mutual trust, which can be achieved by getting to know the people you are working with personally. Understand each person’s ambitions and interests, take a genuine interest in their lives as a whole.
- Remember that you can never be too clear, but that there is always the potential to be unclear when communicating. Avoid being overly brief as this can create misunderstandings and misinterpretation. Better too much detail than too little and ensure this is a two-way process, with team members all feeling it is acceptable to ask lots of questions if needed.
- Ensure everyone is clear about expectations. On a practical level, this can be achieved by creating a ‘code’ for effective communications, so that each person understands what is expected of them and how to behave with their peers. It’s the equivalent of having social norms in the office, like asking others if they want a cup of coffee when you go out for one, or not eating strong smelling food at your desk.
- When sharing information, if an email does not need a response, state that explicitly with a No Need To Respond (NNTR) or an FYI marker, rather than create ambiguity. If a request for action is urgent, be specific, with an indicator of what is needed e.g. 4RT or 2RT (4 or 2 hour response time), rather than leave it open to interpretation with a basic ‘!!’ on the email priority level.
- Have team rituals and regular events. This is important to help retain the element of predictability that can be lacking in a virtual setting. For instance, many office-based teams have a weekly breakfast or lunch meeting. It might not be possible to share a collective bowl of porridge in the morning, but why not have a virtual equivalent catch up each week instead, when every member gets to share what their tipple that day is. By finding your own unique ways to get together around a shared moment, the team can develop greater trust and reduce the affinity distance.
- Always acknowledge good work or commitment with appreciation and thank people openly. When there are problems, rather than reverting to virtual communications, be more direct. Pick up the phone or organise a face to face meeting – it’s the best way to resolve conflict quickly and also demonstrates the seriousness of the issue.
- Ensure that the people recruited into positions that involve remote working or telecommuting are self-starters, with the motivation, resilience and self-sufficiency to thrive in such a detached working world. Working virtually also opens up opportunities for more introverted personalities – people who might be overlooked otherwise. The distance allows them to ‘shine’ because of their capabilities rather than charisma and to actively contribute to a team in a way they might not feel comfortable with in a traditional office environment.
- Use technology like instant messaging, virtual hangouts and video conferencing to reduce distance, make people feel like they are all in a shared office and encourage greater collaboration. Video calls on conferencing apps or even just with Skype and WhatsApp are an easy way to create a face to face feel during a meeting. Social media can be used to create shared space, deliver feedback and praise, celebrate collective successes and keep everyone nicely together.
Understanding the nuances of communication in a virtual world can’t be underestimated. Management experts have been extolling the role that good communication plays in effective team working and in fostering good relationships between line managers and their subordinates. The relationship between managers and their direct reports has always been critical. In a recent survey conducted by Ultimate Software, over 50% of employees said they would rather have a manager they can trust and respect, than a 10% pay-rise. Now, as day to day working moves online, this means getting things right virtually too and managers need to understand how to communicate effectively in a virtual environment.
Michael Westland-Rose is an executive coach with Aziz Corporate and specialises in communication skills development.