Remote working has been on the rise for some time with people asking for more flexible employment options - and with the current lockdown forcing most of us to become acquainted with virtual communication - many businesses are dealing with the realities of having a remote workforce with little preparation.
The great news is that working remotely has never been easier. With advances in technology we can easily remain connected and coordinated, and there are now many companies, such as Smartbug, with an entirely remote team.
But there are areas that remain a challenge. The rules of communication, for example, are still the same - and the need for connection remains imperative.
For one thing, humans are social beings and interaction with other people impacts heavily on our wellbeing. But we also work better when we’re operating in sync with others, when we’re connected in the pursuit of a shared goal. We can encourage and motivate each other, help each other avoid mistakes
As Mark Mortensen writes in the Harvard Business Review, “A global virtual team is first and foremost a team — just because yours is distributed doesn’t mean you should discard the prevailing wisdom about how the most effective teams operate.”
Some issues are even exacerbated by the distance. Remote working is not without issue. In an R&D study of 43 teams from a large multinational company, Pamela Hind found that “the distributed teams reported more task and interpersonal conflict,” than co-located teams.
Remote teams can slip into unnecessary conflict. But as Smartbug demonstrate, that is not the last word. If you prioritise connection, your team can be better connected than any non-remote team. It’s all about what you value and the steps you take.
Like many other companies, we adopted flexible working at LSW some time ago. Our team of coaches are all freelance and work at set times to suit them; our head office team often take the opportunity to get things done away from the distraction of the office. Between cutting the costs of commuting and creating a better work-life balance, it is far more constructive than locking everyone into an office between nine and five.
But we’ve found some perimeters to be helpful, so that we can keep team connection levels high.
In normal circumstances (we are all obviously at home at the moment) - everyone schedules to be together in the office the same two days each week. And no matter where we are at 9:15am each day, we all dial in for a morning huddle, sharing our top priorities for the day before we go out to conquer the world.
Shared status documents are helpful to ensure we are all – literally – on the same page. While daily and weekly reports help to clarify what everyone has been up to – and how the work each person is doing fits into the whole.
All of these procedures mean that fortunately here at LSW we are well-equipped to work together virtually during the current lockdown, but we’ve still put in further measures to ensure everyone feels connected and included - more group calls, more check-ins (to discuss both work and personal situations), more brainstorming sessions to source feedback from each team-member on how they are managing their day-to-day. Putting in this time for each other not only helps to align our goals, but keeps feelings of isolation at bay.
How to create connection in the virtual conversation
The problem with communicating virtually is that you lose a lot of the cues that help us draw meaning from conversation. An email might relay information but it doesn’t go much beyond that. There are still ways to create connection without talking face to face though.
1 - Choose phone over email: when there is physical distance between you and a team member, it is easy to default to email. But it is here that disconnect and misunderstanding can slip in, undetected. So it’s important to pick up the phone regularly. Just hearing the voice of another team member can go a long way to helping you feel connected.
2 - Prioritise meetings and catch-ups: Don’t leave real conversation until the moment when something needs sorting out. Scheduling regular meetings and catch-ups - whether by phone or email - means you’ll get opportunities to touch base and connect as people, even if there isn’t anything pressing to discuss. This is important for keeping team relationships running smoothly.
3 - Build rapport with small talk: Rapport is often slower to build when you are remote. Something about the technology between us makes us forget our need to be human. Conversation can turn quickly to business and we can forget the importance of small talk. If small talk feels forced, beginning with a genuine nicety can help to soften the ground.
4 - Use verbal cues on the phone: When you can see the person you’re talking to, you can show you’re listening through things like nodding and eye contact. This isn’t possible on a voice call so make an effort, when you would usually smile or nod along, to put your agreement into words so that the other person feels heard.
5 - Encourage sharing with questions: In our morning team meeting we have found that scheduling in specific personal questions helps us feel comfortable sharing on a more personal level. We ask ‘What are you excited about?’ ‘What are you struggling with?’ ‘What do you need support with?’ When we are intentional about connecting, we can be closer than if we were in the same room.
The little things really matter
Just because phone screens – and potentially several thousand miles – are between you and your team, doesn’t mean we become any less intuitive in our conversations.
If it’s an audio call, people will still hear if you’re slouching, unanimated and frowning. All of these invisible details affect the sound of our voice. So it’s important to carry yourself exactly as you would if you were in the room with the other person. Pay attention to your expression next time you are on the phone and see how your voice changes.
When you engage your entire self, the listener on the other end might not consciously think about it, but subconsciously they will know you are present, engaged and enthused by the conversation.
Good teamwork is essential for every business and as the society in which we operates changes, so teamwork does too. But the fundamentals of communication remain the same, we just need to adjust to how we use them.
Keep communication channels open, opt for voice calls over emails and other written text, and make sure there’s a place for human connection and small talk. Your team will feel the benefits - and so will your business.
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