Three Ways to Add Depth to Virtual Communications
Videoconferencing, emails, and chat messages fall flat by their very nature. Leaders must take intentional steps to replicate the important connections and informal interactions of the in-person office in a remote workplace.
Last fall at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told the group, “Video meetings are more transactional.” Nadella would know—Microsoft watched their Teams virtual communication platform explode in 2020, seeing a four-fold increase in active users. Instead, Nadella says, “Work happens before [and] after meetings,” highlighting the value of unstructured, informal workplace interactions that take place in an in-person environment. Consider how often in the pre-COVID environment you experienced meaningful conversations with coworkers in the hallway, at the coffee pot, over lunch, or at the door of an office or a cubicle. While a weekly team meeting can still take place online, these casual interactions are more difficult to replicate in the virtual world.
Coupled with the demands of a typical workday, Zoom fatigue (or Teams fatigue, in deference to Nadella) causes many virtual interactions to become one-dimensional, narrowly focused on practical details. As a result, the qualitative aspects of organizational culture and employee development are often overlooked, with unintended long-term consequences. For most companies, remote work will continue in some form after the pandemic, so it’s incredibly important that we learn to overcome the flat, factual nature of virtual communications. Here are three tips to try.
Refresh your culture and vision
Your organizational culture is built on your team’s shared experiences and is perpetuated by the stories you tell about those experiences. That storytelling takes place in formal and informal contexts, both at company-wide meetings and around the water cooler. Both settings are essential. If you made a wide-scale shift to remote work, it might seem like you have to put cultural development on hold—but don’t make that mistake. Organizational culture is just as important, if not more so, now that we’re not physically together.
Maintain your culture by recalling pre-pandemic stories and experiences. More importantly, gather new stories to reinforce or even reshape your culture during this pandemic. Seek out examples of team members who overcame significant obstacles to provide exceptional client or customer service. Identify employees who went the extra mile to serve their colleagues. Find humorous accounts of video meetings gone bad, unique work-from-home set-ups, or virtual resources used creatively.
Don’t neglect your greater vision for your organization despite the crisis at hand. Keep the big picture in front of your team. Now is a great time to work on plans to realize that long-term vision after we return to “normal.” Otherwise, your team may get stuck in crisis mode and have trouble moving forward into the upcoming post-pandemic world.
In the meantime, toggle between your long-term vision and the narrower view of what’s crucial today. In my adjunct faculty work for North Park University, I am continually reminded by our president of our two highest priorities during this season: protecting the campus community’s health and safety and ensuring students’ successful educational progress. Create a similar simple, memorable statement to use as a bridge between current circumstances and your desired future to remind your team what you’re all working towards.
Prioritize developmental conversations
The shift to remote work revealed the extent to which professional development takes place during informal conversations. You may need to find new ways to facilitate the kind of on-the-job training interactions that once occurred spontaneously across a conference table or at a team member’s desk. One manager I know opens a Zoom room during scheduled time blocks to allow team members to pop in if they have questions on current projects.
Career planning is another facet of development that used to happen in unstructured conversations. Whether a casual discussion following a meeting, or a coffee or lunch chat, these conversations are pivotal to future advancement opportunities. You can replicate these communications by scheduling virtual meetings with a career focus—but make sure to diffuse potential awkwardness by acknowledging that you now have to schedule conversations that used to be more informal.
You should also seek out new ways for your team members to connect with leaders from other departments and levels in the organization now that they no longer or rarely bump into them in elevators, break rooms, and between meetings. Again, you should take the lead in setting up these meetings as intentional scheduling is now necessary to replace chance encounters. Provide exposure for emerging leaders to help them expand their internal networks, and foster diversity and inclusion for underrepresented groups by ensuring they enjoy these opportunities as well. Company leaders also benefit from these interactions as they can gain a new perspective and answer questions from employees across the organization.
Check in regularly—and meaningfully
Mental health challenges are on the rise, with over 50 percent of adults in one survey reporting negative mental health impacts from the pandemic. Similarly, over 50 percent of mental health providers have experienced an increased demand for services, and many practitioners had to shift their caseloads to a virtual format. (As a side note, if your mental health struggles stretch beyond normal stress levels into feelings of despair and depression, seek help from a trained therapist. There is no shame in doing so for you or your team members.)
Even as employees express a desire to continue working remotely after the pandemic, they say they are lonely. One study found that for 20 percent of people working from home, feelings of loneliness were debilitating at times. Early-career workers (i.e., millennials and Gen Zers) struggle more with these challenges than their older counterparts. New employees and those who have recently relocated or changed roles are also at greater risk for feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Practice supportive leadership by regularly checking in with your team members. That means not just asking for progress updates on work assignments, but also checking on how they are doing. You can simply ask, “How are you doing?” But be ready with follow-up questions specific to them. For example, if a team member had to cancel a long-awaited family vacation due to travel restrictions, ask how their family responded to the cancellation or what their alternate plans include.
Keep in mind that your team members will remember your leadership during these tough times long after the pandemic subsides. It’s time to find new ways to go beyond the transactional nature of virtual communication to foster connection and let your team know you genuinely care.
This article was first published in my Leadership Matters column for the Illinois Society of CPAs Insight magazine.