17 Apr The Distributed Teams Support Series Part IV – Responding to Communication Challenges
In the words of business strategist Tony Robbins, “To effectively communicate, we must realise that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others”. This is especially relevant at the moment. Not only because everyone does experience the world differently, but everyone is currently having a unique experience during our shared situation. This is the top thing to keep in mind when you are communicating with your people right now, especially when working as part of a distributed team and calls for you to be intuitive in your approach.
There are certain challenges that you face as a people leader during this time when it comes to communication, especially if you are predominantly used to face-to-face time with your people. Let’s explore what they are and how best to respond.
What are the Challenges?
1. Being Out of Sync
If your people are used to working in an office together and now suddenly everyone is working remotely, consider it the equivalent of having a container full of marbles, and then dropping them all over the floor. People were used to occupying a certain space, physically, which supported them professionally and now they find themselves having to find their place again, individually and as part of a team.
This upsets your communication processes. Perhaps some of your team are located in other countries, while others might have to readjust their working hours to accommodate children. The environment they are trying to settle in will have other factors to consider. Your people are out of sync which is a liability for communication. It also hinders workflow so you’ll need to get them back into it which requires greater communication from you.
2. Loss Of In-Person Signals
The most notable challenges to your company’s communication by not having everyone in one place at the one time is signal loss. You are now missing out on all of the in-person signals we usually take for granted but heavily rely on to communicate effectively.
From someone’s physical stance to casual in the moment conversations like walking back to your desks after a meeting and all the subtleties in between, these communication actions that usually fill in the gaps no longer exist.
Instead, they have been replaced by lots of digital faces staring at one another, forced comfortability with awkward silences, waiting patiently and fearing to misjudge the right time to speak. There is a far greater chance of things being misinterpreted or falling through the cracks when relying solely on digital means of communication.
3. Impact On Operations
As everyone is suddenly displaced, it means that their workflow is too. People are used to working as a team in-house to get things over the line. They might rely on the person next to them if they need clarification on something for example or even how a new project is usually presented and followed through for delivery – these are all likely impacted. In the same way as the in-person signals, there are many of these that we may not realise until we are all working remotely we rely on for communicating at work.
How Do You Respond?
Acknowledgement – Start with acknowledging how strange this all is because it is. Then acknowledge the efforts you know people are making for this to work. Being part of a distributed team, as well as working from home is unprecedented, new, and abrupt for many people. There is an adjustment period. Tell your people. Express how you are finding it yourself. The personal is more relevant at the moment and will help you connect better as a team. Deepening relationships improves communication.
Set The Tone – As a people leader, you need to set the tone. What kind of communicator are you? Does your approach need to be altered to respond to the needs of a distributed team? This might include making your approach more empathetic as people adapt. It might require you to be a bit more motivational as they are struggling to find inspiration. It might mean both. If you know your team, you’ll know what works best, and they will be looking for you to lead here.
Pick A Platform – Choose a digital connection tool that works best for you and your people. It must be one that is easy to use, especially if it’s new, everyone is on board with, clear on how it works as well as be an active participant on it. The aim of this is to facilitate collaboration, transparency, encourage deep work and support asynchronous communications.
The main overall goal with your platform is to streamline your communication by centralizing it. This will bring order and flow to your process. People don’t need to be bombarded with notifications from various mediums and have disjointed communication on projects. Keep it focused.
Strike A Balance – Your communications strategy with your people needs to be a balanced one. You’ll need to find the equilibrium between the types of communication you have with your people. Lean emails about work need to be counterbalanced with communication about how the person is getting on and offering support.
Video Calls – On that note, when it comes to communicating with your people during this time, we favour video calls for clarity and communication over phone calls. It’s more personal. The exception to this is if a poor internet connection gravely hampers the flow of communication. Then follow up with a phone call.
This doesn’t mean replacing all interactions with video calls or everyone will be exhausted but do for the key meetings. If a conversation merits video use then go for it but for a quick opinion on something, don’t hesitate to use a short call. Use your judgement and find the balance. You’ll soon see what works for your people.
Emails are fine too, but they need to be secondary and support or follow on from main video meetings. Our advice is to operate your video calls similarly to the in-person meetings in terms of ensuring you schedule them, regularly for both team meetings as well as 1:1s. We’ll cover how to effectively run these kinds of meetings in next week’s article.
If we put the challenges aside for a moment, you need to get your people to be on board with the solution. Get to know them and what works for them. Include them in the process. Following their feedback, choose your communication process, build your structure and stick with it for a provisional period. As time passes and your people’s relationship with their new communication process evolve, it might require changes, so be flexible in your approach and be consistent in checking with your people. You’ll soon figure out what works best. It will be reflected in your people’s opinions about it as well as everyone’s workflow.
At times like this, we think it’s most important we come together as a community and look after our people.
If there’s anything we at Frankli can do to support you, whether you are an existing customer or not, please get in touch. We are here to help.