If ever there was a time for managers to think about how to communicate effectively with remote teams, it’s now, for very obvious reasons. Huge numbers of people are currently working and learning from home because of lockdown. There have been meteoric rises in the use of virtual communications, from video conferencing to messaging apps, and internet traffic is currently 25-30% higher than usual.
There is a lot more noise to contend with and a lot more desire to seek out information, which increases the comms challenge for organisations and employees.
These are all challenges that managers need to respond to. A 2016 Towards Maturity In-Focus report called The Consumer Learner at Work says that managers have a key role to play in supporting workers with their learning. According to the report, almost a third (31%) of workers say support from their manager is critical to a smooth and successful online learning experience, and 40% say their managers expect them to apply learning points after their learning. However, only 21% of L&D teams equip line managers with resources to help them help their teams get the most out of online learning.
Building successful learning cultures
Managers need to be working with employees and with L&D to ensure learning is effective. Moreover, another report, How the Workforce Learns, by Degreed and Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, talks about the importance of managers working with employees to boost skills and address skills gaps. In a piece written for MIT Sloan Management Review by Kelly Palmer, chief learning officer of Degreed and co-author of The Expertise Economy, says managers have a critically important role to play in building successful learning cultures. Palmer cites several key statistics from the report:
- only 40% of workers agreed that their manager helps them to understand what skills they need to advance in their careers
- 22% say their managers do not encourage or enable learning at all
- just 17% said their managers help create a plan or set goals for developing skills
Clearly, there is much more that managers could and should be doing to improve workplace learning.
In this virtual world we’re all living and working in it’s not just learning that is being delivered entirely online. Companies are also reliant on virtual delivery of internal communications. The challenge for leaders is reaching and engaging employees through communications and learning.
The virtual communications challenge for leaders and managers
Since 2009, The Institute of Leadership and Management has been researching levels of trust in leaders and managers. The research focuses on seven dimensions of trust. They are:
- Consistency – behaving in a reliable and predictable manner
- Integrity – striving to be honest and fair in decision-making
- Openness – being receptive to ideas and opinions
- Ability – the leader’s ability to do their job
- Understanding- displaying knowledge and understanding of their employees’ roles and responsibilities
- Fairness – behaving fairly and showing concern for the welfare of employees
- Accessibility – being available to staff
The latest iteration of the research in 2018 found there was a big gulf between managers and CEOs across a number of these dimensions. For example, when it comes to understanding the role of the employees, line managers score 75 out of 100 and CEOs score 48. For accessibility, line managers score 74 and CEOs 53, while managers score 74 for openness and CEOs score 55.
Connectivity is key for virtual team communication
The authors of the research suggest that connectivity is key to building trust in organisations.
“It can be very challenging for CEOs, particularly in larger organisations, to have the connectivity with employees that engenders trust; to enable access in busy schedules and to have the openness to respond to challenge. It can also be difficult to have and to demonstrate an understanding of, colleagues’ roles who are very far removed within a hierarchy.”
If this was a challenge when most workers were office based we begin to see the scale of the challenge when managing remote teams.
In recent weeks, leaders and managers have had to act in crisis mode, responding rapidly to events as they unfold. Internal communications for most organisations are now digital, as are L&D activities. In larger organisations, the outcome has been employees communicating across a variety of channels, from Slack to MS Teams, to Whatsapp and Zoom. The virtual communications mix has become more complex and leaders and managers now grapple with being heard and being relevant. Things are changing quickly for employers and they need to be effective in their response.
Make virtual communications effective
Organisations really need to be pushing out accurate, timely and relevant information. It needs to be succinct and clear and easily accessible. Curation can really help with this.
At the same time, communication needs to be open and transparent. At a time when there is much confusion and a lot of noise, organisations need to cut through with clear, honest comms that people can trust and rely on.
For many organisations, there has been a shift in the tone of comms as a result of Covid-19. Corporate communications have become more supportive and understanding of employees’ needs.
As managers and leaders
Managing remote teams requires managers and leaders to attend to three areas: technology and tools, information and culture and expectations.
1.Technology and tools
The rapid shift to remote working meant a shift to digital communications. Some organisations were better set up than others. Many had a range of tools for communication – email, intranet, Slack, Yammer, Teams and so on. The questions for these organisations are: which tools are we using and why? These are good questions to ask because individuals and teams have different preferences. It is key that managers agree which tools they will be using and for what job.
Other organisations will be grappling with colleagues’ basic IT set up. Research by Asana shows that when employees started to work from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, 67% did not have at least one of the following: a desk to work from, PC/laptop or a reliable internet connection.
Managers need to understand the team’s IT challenges and communications preferences. This will form a basis for communicating in the most effective way. Ignore this approach and managers are in danger of making virtual team communication hard and therefore less effective. Remember, good communications are a key part of working effectively as a remote team.
Employees are hungry for information. Those who are furloughed will need to know how long that will last and what their return will look like. Others will be returning to workplaces or preparing to return whilst others might not return to their workplace if remote working becomes a permanent option. Employees will be grappling with raised levels of stress, bereavement, home schooling and a whole range of other personal challenges. On top of this, organisations will be looking at their post Covid-19 business model. Any changes to this will directly impact commercial models, operating models and how work is done.
And then there are the day-to-day needs of team members. What work needs to be done? By whom? When and how?
Managers and leaders need to understand what information colleagues need to operate effectively. As with the technology and tools, a good place to start is by asking. Simply pushing out the same old information you pushed out before the Covid-19 crisis will not cut it. Understand your team’s expectations and deliver on them.
And finally, consider the credibility of information. Research by the Reuters Institute shows that misinformation from politicians, celebrities and other prominent public figures made up just 20% of the claims but accounted for 69% of total social media engagement. We are all exposed to misinformation so think before you share. Managers and leaders have a responsibility to provide accurate information.
3. Culture and expectations
The learning and communications culture across an organisation, and within teams, is determined in large part by the actions of leaders and managers. If you want openness, transparency and collaboration then as a leader and manager you will need to role model those expected behaviours. This approach has been particularly useful for one of our clients, Hemsley Fraser.
Chief executive Todd Turner has been sharing video messages across the company every three days to help colleagues shift to remote working.
Teams also need ways to collaborate and to socialize. Managers can facilitate this by creating space to come together and chat – virtual coffees and lunches, for example. Remember, digital enables teams to be always on, which can become stressful. People need autonomy to do their work too so ensure that individuals are given the time they need to get work done. That means switching off notifications. Managers need to set expectations here.
Finally, managers must be alert to the impact change is having on their team. Don’t assume everyone will be comfortable – and competent – in using new tools. Managers must create a safe environment in which team members can try, learn and fail. Where they can ask for help and get the support they need.
Conclusion – the importance of communication
In its research report on the impact of organizational culture on leadership and governance, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development concluded that healthy organisational cultures are based on good communications and providing space for the employee voice. This is even more important to accommodate with virtual communications+_ in the present crisis.
“Positive levels of employee engagement together with evidence of good communications and support for employee voice through different channels are essential components of healthy organisational cultures.”
The report goes on to recommend that leaders “communicate in a way that involves accurate information, explanations for decisions and openness”.
This is echoed by research from EY8 that shows a manager’s ability to communicate openly and transparently is a key factor in building trust.
Managing remote teams is no simple task, especially through times of crisis. However, getting the fundamentals right around creating the right working environment, being attentive and responsive to your team’s needs and communicating effectively will start to build the trust needed to work through these rapidly changing times.