Having effective and productive conversations with your team is an essential role of leadership.  How we replace face-to-face communication successfully in a digital workspace, is what we are going to focus upon here.  With remote working becoming the ‘new normal’ for the majority, many leaders are struggling to make their online conversations as impactful as they would like them to be. 

The benefits to this new way of working are many; multiple locations, spanning time zones, less time travelling, more time for family/friends, etc.  Important conversations can be held anytime, anywhere and with the use of webcams, without losing the crucial aspects of engagement through eye-contact and body language.  Instead of spending hours planning space for your next business trip, then the hours spent commuting, means theoretically you have more time to focus on those important conversations, as well as looking having more time to look after your health and well-being.

Let’s assume that you are already appreciating some or all of the benefits above and what would help is some thoughts on how to strengthen and improve your virtual meetings and conversations.  The key to successful virtual conversations is preparation, commitment to action and attention.

Preparation is Key

Identifying with clarity the intention and the purpose of the call/meeting.  Once you know what you want the focus to be; prepare an agenda to share beforehand with the person you are going to be speaking to and invite them for their input.  This way you are saying to them ‘Your thoughts matter’ A shared intention creates buy-in from both parties before the call even starts. Set expectations regarding the length of the meeting, whether there will be breaks after a certain time etc. Be sure to stick to these arrangements by keeping an eye on the time or setting a timer. Agree in advance how you will work together. If there are several of you agreeing to make use of the ‘chat’ function, the hands clapping or thumbs up tools will all help you share the conversational space.  Notice if anyone is struggling to access these or indeed may still be struggling with the online platform logistics.  If you are using IT platforms what use will you make of the cameras?  Do you keep this as an optional choice, do you insist on your preference.? In these changing times, many people who may have preferred using a camera may not be so keen, especially if children are around, or their space they have set up for home working is far from ideal.  Coming to an agreement on this and being respectful of each other’s decision is what is important. What might be helpful to the content of the meeting?  Can this be ready on your desktop to be screen shared or is there something you could both usefully read beforehand, what pre-preparation are you expecting or wanting and has this been made clear by you in advance.   There may be other considerations as well depending on your specific context what is important is this ‘priming’ for the conversation that will be taking place.

Commitment to action in the conversational space

How safe and how welcoming have you made this space?   How will you start your meeting what would be your equivalent of a handshake, an invitation to take a seat, have a coffee?  What do you need to agree about the possibility of distractions, loss of connection etc?  How will you make sure that the focus of the meeting, remains the focus and if you do veer away from that, how will you either put yourselves back on course or agree to follow a different course?   Being able to recognise and pick up on cues like silences, hesitations and word choices in the absence of the camera is important. Being an ‘active’ listener allowing others to share their ideas, contribute to the conversation without interruptions will help them offer you their best thinking.

Don’t Shy Away from the Tough Conversations

The bigger conversations simply cannot wait until in-person meetings are possible.  Leaving things to fester will do more harm than having these tough talks remotely.  As Cameron Yarbrough, Chairman of Well Clinic says; ‘When communication norms are being challenged, it’s even more important that leaders stay calm and focus on making difficult conversations as healthy as possible.’  

Attention to the detail

There is no denying that communicating with remote employees can be more of a challenge, particularly if you are not used to it.  Maintaining those good relationships is key.  Checking in regularly, informally as well as setting up focused more strategic type meetings.  Ensuring everyone has a voice, involving them all in shared conversations. Setting up breakout rooms to undertake small group tasks.  Not speaking to/at them for more than 10 minutes.  Keeping them engaged and challenged through a series of blended approaches and tasks.  Set up opportunities for them to bring the latest updates, ideas, challenges they are facing, quick wins they have experienced, to share with others or you the meeting. Whatever the environment people need to know you care, need to feel that their thoughts and opinions are being heard and that they can contribute to the whole. Your job is to enable them in every way, not by doing things for them, but by creating the opportunities for you and them to function at the highest levels. Being prepared, sharing the tasks, keeping track of progress, making the resources available, and providing the social space where people can flourish will enable the conversations to be even more effective, productive and enjoyable!

If you’d like to know more please contact me at sue@open2change.org.uk.