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Being A Leader In The Wireless Workplace
April 13, 2020
It wasn't a long call - just a check in - but from her home office setup, she was able to provide a great deal of confidence.
Diane was leading a team of user experience developers scattered across the US, Japan and Singapore. Her boss had her on a Zoom call just before she was about to put a roast chicken in the oven for dinner.
After an enthusiastic, collaborative brainstorming conversation, she reassured Kevin by saying, "OK, I'll get the team on board with that idea and come back with our next 5 steps and who's doing what. Anything else I should tell them?"
Consider how this dialog might go in person vs. via phone, Skype or Zoom.
Kevin didn't know what to say - there were so many possible acknowledgements.
Yes," he thought..."Tell them to hurry up, we're falling behind...No that's not the right message.
Tell them to be safe and stay away from trouble. That's very heavy-handed and paranoid, but it's not unimportant to convey.
Tell everyone they are doing a great job and we appreciate everything they're doing to stay in the game. That's a nice message, but we wouldn't want them to get too complacent."
Communication is communication. The choices are nearly the same, aren't they? However, people are getting concerned for good reason with the sudden need for more virtual communication and fewer face-to-face meetings.
There are differences to be aware of when collaborating virtually. Because a virtual team does not have the same social structure as a team that meets in person, it has been shown that leaders must take intentional steps to bring team members together around a common goal.1
In addition, something as simple as eye contact - which is more difficult to maintain in digital communication because of distractions and the pure fact that the screen and camera are not exactly in the same place - makes a substantial difference in the tone and effectiveness of a meeting. In many parts of the world, sustaining eye contact for at least four to five seconds is interpreted as caring or being truly interested in the topic of conversation. Conversely, lack of eye contact can signal that the listener is rude, disinterested, or even dishonest.2
Many people have done a fair amount of work from home or on the road - I've worked with clients via phone, Skype and Zoom for over 21 years myself - but the increase in the reliance on digital communication today is making a sea change in teamwork, relationships and leadership.
In speaking remotely with dozens of clients weekly, many of whom also lead geographically dispersed teams, I can say that there are a few key ingredients to successful "wireless" communication.
5 Key ingredients to successful "wireless" communication
- Make sure you have good lighting and a professional looking or at least a neat background. Take your home workplace seriously - just because you are at home doesn't mean everyone needs to see your laundry, your receipts or your Led Zeppelin posters. Make sure, too, that people you live with know that you are going "on screen" and do not disturb you. Imagine that at any time, you could be asked to be on live television sharing your expertise. You may not want to have it look like this.
A highly professional presentation will boost your confidence and the confidence of those interacting with you, and both sides of that equation are important.
- Expect digital glitches and distractions. When you're in a closed-door, conference room on a regular basis, it's unlikely that there would be any distractions, but when working remotely, anything is possible. It is also important to realize that not everyone is comfortable with communicating via video; be patient with people as they adjust themselves and their use of technology to make their way into smooth communication. If you see that someone is distracted or struggling, hold off on speaking about your key points until they are ready to listen.
Prepare yourself in advance for "screen-sharing" as part of your visual communication or send documents that will help make your point. Google Docs or other document sharing technology will help you be productive in collaborations as sometimes it's easier to see and show things rather than just tell about them.
This may take more time than just printing a document and walking down the hall with it, hoping you'll make notes in the margins and move to the next draft. Instead, you may need to get or provide instructions and guidance to make sure you and the people you meet with are on the same platform and can edit whatever documents you work on to drive your business.3
Be patient with those teammates who need extra support and be clear and unashamed to ask for and get the support they need for this new load of digital communication to be successful and smooth. It's your responsibility to rise above any obstacles to your successful fulfillment of your role.
- Get good at looking at the camera and the images on screen alternatively. If you're only looking at the screen, you'll never create what looks like eye contact on the other side. According to studies at University of Leuven in Belgium and King's College, London, holding eye contact is strongly associated with confidence, self-esteem, and leadership ability.4 In communicating with my clients, I have found them go from uncomfortable to confident with this kind of practice, and it does take practice. However, when you get good at it, you can really create a sense of personal connection, communication and confidence in the person or people you're conversing with.
- Always be asking yourself, how can I "reach through" the phone or screen and continue to enhance relationships, inspiration and caring? With sensitivity and attention to each person you interact with, go a little "over the top" with your energy and enthusiasm to create interpersonal connection, caring and fun. The energy you create will keep your teammates engaged and feeling personally connected. Be aware of the fact that some people are more extroverted and others are more introverted. Some people love being able to hide with video off and voice only, and some people are going a little stir crazy in being required to practice "social distancing”. You've worked hard to create the social culture you and your team have put attention into building. Consider being responsible for keeping it alive via video teleconferencing.
Don't give up. Transitioning from meetings that are held face-to-face to those that are held virtually is a skill that takes practice. It requires shifting your perspective and learning to lead in a new context. If you get frustrated, take a break, take a walk, give your eyes and mind a rest. Come back ready to explore, learn and grow at the next opportunity for your new leadership style to blossom in the new age.
- Sher, Robert. "Making Virtual Teams Feel Like They're in the Same Room: The AppNeta Approach." Forbes, October 2, 2019.
- Kinsey-Goman, Carol, PhD. "The Impact of Eye Contact." Forbes, November 3, 2011.
- Ferrazzi, Keith. "How to Run a Great Virtual Meeting." Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2015.
- Noel, Katherine. "A body-language expert reveals the No. 1 indicator of confidence and how you can cultivate it." Business Insider, April 26, 2016.
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