COVID-19 has fast-forwarded the practice of working from home and collaborating virtually with colleagues. What would have taken years to become common practice in large corporations has happened overnight. Rather than relying on meeting in person, millions of workers are turning to a variety of technological solutions to stay connected.
The current experience is making us realize that when it comes to virtual collaboration, much more is possible than we thought just weeks ago. This has positive implications, for example, cross-border working practices have been refined, whilst we have also seen a reduced need for CO2 intensive travel.
But it also brings significant challenges. First and foremost, remote workers can feel left out. This is even more true in times of crisis, emotional distress and extreme uncertainty. Signs of this are already becoming apparent only a week into the strict imposition of social distancing measures in Europe and the U.S.
So, what can leaders do from a distance? What strategies can they adopt to support their teams and help them stay united in working towards a common goal?
Here are our top five pragmatic tips from a communications perspective:
Certain emotional signals are not easily transmitted via technology. Hence, take extra care to understand what is on your team’s hearts and minds. Speak to people as much as possible, as things can easily get lost in written form. Listen actively. Transfer lunch and coffee meetings into the virtual space. In addition, use internal ‘pulse checks’, external surveys and data to get a more aggregated and comprehensive picture of what makes your organization tick.
Videoconferencing is great - there is no doubt about that. But it can be more difficult to bring your points across with this medium: it is harder to develop a sense of how points made resonate with the group, there are often technical challenges, and attention spans are shorter. So, when communicating virtually, it is even more important to focus on your key messages. Be clear, short and concise. But be empathetic at the same time. Be mindful of how much your audience is able to digest at any given time. And form should follow function when choosing the right channels.
Maintaining trust, connection, and mutual purpose among a workforce must be a shared task. This holds true for any type of organization, but the larger it is, the more important an effective amplification approach is. Enabling managers to stay connected to their teams will be vital. Do not assume that they will know automatically how to lead via technology. Make sure they are up to the task by offering trainings and hands-on support.
The required messaging per employee group can vary, as can their digital equipment. The reality in many manufacturing businesses is that communications with blue-collar audiences does still rely very much on analogue cascading. This is proving difficult to change overnight. With established communications channels, such as factory meetings or blackboard announcements, becoming more difficult or impossible to maintain, professional cascade management, with a key role for blue-collar managers, will be essential.
The current situation will increase an organization’s need for external and internal communications. There will not only be further announcements related directly to health and safety, but possibly further developments outside of your control that will require a response, such as business disruptions or a change in ownership structure. Companies should be prepared to reach key stakeholders in all relevant scenarios, keeping in mind that the absence of established communications channels might require you to do things differently.