Leading in a digital void

“You need to unmute!”

My client had uttered those words four times in the hour-long strategy call with his team. This group of high-powered executives was working remotely for a company that allowed employees to choose between a hybrid or work-from-home arrangement.

Because their business was global, some team members had been on calls since 4 a.m. and were now shoving down breakfast and slurping coffee as they poured over financial projections for the impending quarter’s close.

As I watched the team interact, I felt the most sympathy for the finance leader who was trying desperately to get the rest of the team to follow along as she reviewed a complicated slide of projections that she’d spent a week preparing. Everyone on the team seemed to have an opinion and were talking over one another throughout her presentation.

I concluded that they weren’t intentionally rude, they just couldn’t tell when the person speaking before them was truly finished talking. Life on Zoom offered the ability to see each other’s face, but the clarity of someone’s body language wasn’t as apparent as it had been when the team met in person.

And it’s no wonder. A significant component of face-to-face communication depends on nonverbal cues, which just weren’t translating across the screen during the call. As it turns out, the finance leader later voiced frustration about the team’s behavior and felt her colleagues had discounted her work.

“I’ve had it,” she told me. “I’m trying to help the team understand what we need to do to meet goals, and there’s a lot riding on this quarter. Meanwhile, Jim is firing questions at me that I’m going to answer on the next slide. Margaret is blowing up the chat box with comments to the group that are taking the conversation in a totally different direction, and I’m just trying to get to the third bullet point. They’re not reading me, and I’m not reading them.”

In a year in which employees’ most consistent relationship has been with their computer screen, it’s not surprising that the subtle, but important, signals from in-person communication are translated in a woefully inadequate way via platforms like Zoom and Teams. In her recent book, “Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection No Matter the Distance,” Erica Dhawan offers an important observation: we waste four hours per week (10%) on poor digital communication because we miss what would normally be perceived during in-person interaction.

A year of remote work, she asserts, has created a “cue-less” workplace culture, resulting in confusion and frustration.

Shifting this reality will require more attention to how we show up and how we communicate when working remotely. As if a global pandemic isn’t enough, yet another set of challenges for leaders. In order to offset the lack of nonverbal cues present when conducting in-person meetings, Dhawan suggests that our digital work world demands that leaders are more prepared, observant and careful when conducting meetings.

To better lead in our new digital reality:

1. Learn the patterns of your employee’s digital presence

What do they look like when they’re engaged and involved in the discussion? When those patterns seem “off,” make an extra effort to re-engage them in the conversation, or follow up with a personal call after the meeting to check on their well-being.

2. Prepare in advance for the flow of the meeting

Leave sufficient time for everyone to give input to issues of importance to the team or to the success of a project. Stuffing the agenda only results in some items being glossed over or others being left unaddressed — and the person responsible for them left frustrated.

3. Recognize simple decisions are now more complex

The casual decisions of the past may now have a profound impact on a member of your team. Imagine there is a person behind an agenda item that you just tabled for discussion until next week. He or she spent hours preparing for the meeting and feels unrecognized for their effort.

If they were in the same room with you, it might be easy to notice and address their disappointment. Navigating a digital communications void demands that leaders more frequently acknowledge and thank employees for their efforts to prevent them from feeling undervalued.

4. Appreciate that people yearn to be seen for the whole of who they are

Operating in a digital environment may leave employees anxious for a chance to be recognized and heard. They no longer have access to hallway discussions, casual office visits or a chat over lunch.

Take time at least once a quarter to really “see” your team. Schedule a team “pulse check” where you devote a meeting to catching up on a personal level. No business discussions allowed, just the real work of understanding each other’s journey and current reality. When you schedule these during the workday it sends a powerful message to employees: “You matter, as much as getting results matters.”

5. Ask for input

You are the leader, but you’re not alone in navigating the challenges of remote communication. Ask your team what works for them and what doesn’t. Be open to changing how you schedule interactions and create more opportunities for informal conversations. You might consider blocking time on your calendar for weekly office hours outside of your normal one-to-one meetings, during which team members can touch base, ask questions or socialize.

Emojis and chat functions may never compete with in-person interactions, but as a leader, you have the power to minimize the communications divide in our digital work world.

Use it.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, May 2021.

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