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In a time of social distancing, most managers are now leading remotely and even those with prior experience may be seeing a big increase in the number of staff working from home. Getting it right is not automatic. It requires thought – about sarcasm, length of meetings, coffee together, and other things.

Communications consultant Nick Morgan, who researched virtual communications for a book two years ago, says the first thing you need to understand is that your communications, especially if text-based, will be fundamentally different from face-to-face in one important way: The difficulty of conveying emotions and intent. Moreover, often intention is viewed cynically – 60 per cent of the time you say “nice job!” in an e-mail the message is assumed to be sarcastic. “So use emojis. Read your texts out loud in a sarcastic tone. If that makes sense, that’s probably the way they will be received. Add emotional language that removes the ambiguity. Make your intent clear,” he writes on his blog.

Text-based communications are the most common form of virtual communication but are also the most likely to be misunderstood. Indeed, research suggests a message is understood only 50 per cent of the time, no better than chance. Audio calls and conferencing are better because participants have the opportunity to follow up and ask questions. “So when you have something to communicate where the intent behind the communication matters, pick up the phone. And ask, once you’ve finished your thought, ‘How did what I just say make you feel?’ This has two advantages. First, you may actually learn how the other person feels. And second, you show the other person respect and vulnerability,” he suggests.

Video is the best form of communication because it offers the benefit of seeing and being seen. But in his book Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect With People in a Virtual World he noted that more than 60 per cent of the participants are doing something else during the session, so even simple exchanges of overt information are often missed or misunderstood. To compensate he recommends shortening the time of the virtual meeting. Get what you can from people and then get out. Try 10 minutes or less, increasing the odds they will be engaged for that period. Echoing that, consultants Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny recommend in Harvard Business Review never going longer than five minutes in a meeting without giving the group another problem to solve, or otherwise people will retreat into being mere observers.

At the same time, beware of brief communications. Consultant Erica Dhawan and business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic warn in striving for efficiency we can conflate brief communications and clear communications. Your team might waste time trying to understand your message or get it wrong. “Spend the time to communicate with the intention of being ultra-clear, no matter the medium,” they advise in Harvard Business Review. Don’t bombard your team with messages; it’s too easy at a distance to send repeat messages checking if the previous one was received. They suggest establishing communications norms, like companies that might use the acronym 4HR for an expected four-hour response time or NNTR for no need to respond.

Kurtis Morrison, chief growth officer of Bunch.ai, a technology company working in leadership development, suggests on its website holding a virtual stand-up meeting every day to keep track of what’s happening on your team. Everyone should quickly share updates on what they completed yesterday, are working on today, and feel they are blocked on.

He also urges you to make sure your team feels a sense of connection. One technique is random virtual coffees: Pair up team members each week to meet for a virtual coffee in which they can chat informally and share what they’re working on. Mr. Morgan in his book notes team meetings are a chance for socializing and bonding but if you leave the socializing to the first five minutes, when everyone is beeping in, it will be fairly useless. Instead, deliberately set aside some other time – at the end of the meeting, or on another special call – for this important sharing. Consultant Don Pontefract suggests in Forbes you may also want to consider virtual Open Office Hours – Friday after lunch is a good time – when you are accessible to all on a conference line or video-sharing platform with no agenda, allowing questions to be asked, ideas shared, and issues raised.

“They need you to lead, not disappear,” he says – not bad advice for everything you do in this unusual period.

Cannonballs

  • Not only your staff is at home. So are their kids in many cases. Consider that if you contemplate holding team huddles or other compulsory daily virtual events.
  • Good managers are empathetic. This is a good time to keep that front of mind. It’s not a weakness; it’s a strength.
  • Direct reports with poor time management skills might need some extra help when working remotely.

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