For two decades, digital communications have caused leaders and their teams some challenges, with the digital world not always providing the right context for message conveyance and interpretation. Not hearing the tone behind the words written within an email, or being able to pick up on the non-verbal cues that accompany face-to-face communication, can lead to a deep misunderstanding and a lack of trust in the ‘author’.
Sharpening communication skills for use in the digital world has been an imperative action for some time, but the arrival of Covid-19 and the remote operation of teams under ‘working from home’ requirements has exacerbated some issues and created new ones. A re-injection of emotion into working relationships and communications methods is required.
How teams communicate in the real world
In ‘normal times’, face-to-face conversation is accompanied by non-verbal cues. Think about expressions, smiles, body language, tactile actions and demeanour. Hearing the words somebody speaks is just half of the process. Seeing how they are delivered, when softened by the ‘packaging’ that goes around them is the other. This helps quell confusion and misunderstanding. It also helps enrich our communications at an emotional level. It assists our trust-building.
Issues with digital teams communication
When this type of one-to-one encounter is replaced by any form of digital communication, there is an issue. We cannot see verbal cues during a phone call or when reading an e-mail. We may feel bombarded by numerous emails landing in the inbox, which actually would have just constituted a 10-minute conversation held face-to-face. We may obsess over the fact that two exclamation marks appear at the end of a sentence, when even the use of one would have led us to question why. There is no real intimacy between team members in this environment and that makes it easier to treat each other with less respect and empathy.
Although Forbes notes that business travel has plummeted globally during the pandemic[i], many exporters are desperate to meet in person once again. Where different cultures and time zones are involved, purely digital communication can make the trust that business relationships require even more difficult to establish.
Is video communication the answer?
Video-call communications, e.g. Microsoft Teams and Zoom, have become part of the day-to-day schedule for many teams and do enable team members to see each other, pick up on some visual clues within the course of a conversation and establish more rapport than is possible with an email or even a phone call. In trying to triage problems within team communication, however, leaders and managers should not view video calls as the panacea and then stop scanning for issues the moment a video platform is hooked up. Drawbacks are still prevalent. We still need to “shorten the affinity distance”[ii] within even this form of digital communication.
Teams fail when they have unclear missions, a lack of bonding and common identity and purpose, role confusion and an ebb and flow of membership. All of these problems can be heightened when using video technology as the ‘glue’ for the team, through scenarios such as:
- the virtual void and lack of emotional connection
- lack of clear agendas and structure within video calls
- failure to communicate purpose, goals and reasons for actions
- meeting attendees talking over each other
- confusing hierarchies and team structures
- problems with video connections
- listening and chatting rather than actively taking action notes and minutes
- too much visual ‘people content’ and too little document-based content
- visual distractions on screen and curiosity about other people’s ‘backgrounds’
- lack of confidence on screen and personal embarrassment
- inconsistencies as to who is invited to meetings
- video fatigue and resulting low morale
The issues with video calls and conferencing and how to tackle them
The lack of emotional connection is a big issue with video communications. One way in which experts suggest tackling this is through storytelling and using the sorts of words that would occur in conversations around the water cooler – injecting a bit of every-day office normality into talk between colleagues and not just jumping straight into the reason for the call.
Another technique, suggested by UCL[iii], is to look straight into the camera when speaking, as this creates the illusion of direct eye contact. Using front-face lighting, so that non-verbal cues are easier to detect, is another tactic leaders could employ.
Having a reason for a call is key but many meetings are held without agendas or any clear structure. Video calls are frequently being used as a way to reassemble the office in virtual space but are not replacing the traditional office meetings and the way those would be conducted. Planning a meeting before holding one is important and can help define team roles more clearly, as well as clarifying the company or project mission.
The team leader almost needs to become a discussion group facilitator, helping to control when team members speak and red-carding those speaking over others. Speak-time needs to be apportioned correctly and all views solicited, even from the most timid and those most nervous about being viewed on screen whilst speaking.
Attendees should be encouraged to take notes and not just listen. In a Wundamail survey conducted amongst 20,000 remote workers within SME businesses in the US and UK during April 2020, 42% said they dialled into meetings and contributed nothing and 59% said they were interrupted by colleagues whilst speaking. Respondents were three times more likely to deliver on actions agreed in writing, rather than by video and 30% did not complete their agreed video call actions.[iv] Sharing written notes after a virtual meeting is key to the process.
Breaking up the people content by injecting the use of slides, documents and presentations into a video meeting can also help sharpen focus and add variety – something also recommended by UCL. It adds the normality of a regular meeting and can boost productivity.
Delays within video communication can have psychological impacts on those speaking. Our brain works in such a way as to anticipate responses to our words within a certain timeframe. A 2014 study found that even delays of two seconds lead a speaker to perceive responders to their words as less friendly and focused. Conversely, during in-person conversations, a silence is appreciated as being a pause in which thinking time is taking place. When silence occurs on a video call, however, we can become anxious about the lack of feedback.
Not all team members enjoy being ‘watched’ and can become very self-conscious, affecting perceptions of their performance and allowing possibly unjustifiable opinions to form with regard to it. Leaders should consider making it optional to have a camera on, not just for this reason, but because audio-only meetings can potentially help improve concentration and, as has been shown in studies, help reduce speaker interruptions.[v]
Being fair about who is invited to meetings and being consistent as to when and how team members are invited is not just about building team morale but also about preventing claims of unfair treatment or discrimination. Be very clear about your invitee rationale and make sure the timing of your meetings is not deemed unfair to employees who regularly have commitments at certain times.
A Way to Keep Your Team Bursting With Energy?
During the pandemic, the energy-draining impacts of video meetings has come to the fore, with team members being said to have been sapped by the constant effort of holding meetings full of all of the pressures we have noted.
One solution is to limit the number of video meetings being staged and to make those that are scheduled more productive, in the ways we have described. A Harvard Business Review article, How to Collaborate Effectively if Your Team is Remote’, written by Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, in February 2018, talks of the need to choose your “digital volume” carefully, even with emails. It advises creating a clear personal etiquette, deciding whether to opt for one lengthy email every so often, or shorter emails that can perhaps be coded through the use of acronyms, according to how the recipient is expected to respond.
When it comes to video, the authors also highlight that we should not be too brief with the words we use on screen. If we are, part of the interpretation process will see team members wasting time and energy trying to interpret them and fill in gaps, then opening up the possibility of misconstruing messaging.
More recently in HBR (October 2020), authors Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley have suggested a different way to generate ideas, keep team energies focused and achieve closure on specific questions. Their suggestion is to use bursts of rapid-fire communications and then longer periods of silence in between, as this methodology is the hallmark of successful teams, according to research studies. The authors suggest that leaders find times when a team can be “bursty” together, focusing attention on one particular topic and collaborating in full, with silences in-between then dedicated to “deep work”.
Given this suggestion, perhaps 2021 is the year in which to be intentionally bursty? Continually draining your team’s energies with regular meetings, on run-of-the-mill or too wide a range of topics could be reducing productivity levels and be lowering your team’s morale. Zoom in on the latest thinking, switch things up and recognise the drawbacks of video meetings and you could recharge everyone’s batteries.
We are delighted to say that we will be sharing more words of wisdom and deep expertise at Space2BE on how to transform your virtual spaces into something to be proud of and highly effective. Gwen Stirling-Wilkie, Senior Consultant recently achieved the number one spot for business books at Amazon with her newly published book Physical Place to Virtual Space: How to Design and Host Transformative Spaces which describes the insights and conclusions of a highly experienced Dialogic Organisation Development practitioner bringing her skills to a new client, all online. We are running webinars and 1:1 coaching sessions for leaders who want to hear more so feel free to get in touch at: email@example.com or call 020 8720 6991 to register your interest.
[ii] ‘How to Collaborate Effectively if Your Team is Remote’, by Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Harvard Business Review, February 27, 2018
[v] ‘Successful Remove Teams Communicate in Bursts’, by Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley, Harvard Business Revies, October 28, 2020.