Dale Ludwig - Mar 10, 2020

Leading Remote Teams During Challenging Times

If your organization is like many others, you’re worried about the spread of Coronavirus and what it means to your people and your business. It’s an uncertain, disquieting time for everyone.

As we are already seeing, many organizations are making commonsense decisions to reduce travel and asking employees to work remotely. What that means, of course, is that business is being done virtually—over the phone, on conference calls, and through online meeting software.

The challenges of virtual communication in normal circumstances are well known. But when face-to-face communication is entirely suspended for a period of time, communicating effectively and efficiently is a greater challenge. Even outside of the immediate concern for their health and the health of their families, workers feel frustrated, have difficulty focusing, and live with the non-stop pressure of being isolated, whether living alone or with partners and children.

I was in a meeting this morning with the Turpin team (a virtual meeting, as it usually is). We started talking about the challenges of leading and managing virtual teams during a crisis. Much of what makes leaders effective hinges on how they make others feel. Paying attention to those feelings is a different process in virtual meetings compared to face-to-face meetings. Communicating empathy, for example, is easier in face-to-face settings because you can observe visual cues. In a virtual setting, it requires different skills.

Our conversation then turned to our recent leadership development and executive presence work. Four members of our team recently became certified executive presence coaches through Bates Communications. The Bates approach is built on a practical, observable, coachable set of characteristics (or facets) leaders need to succeed. Bates identifies fifteen facets, all of which are relevant to this discussion. I’ll focus on three, beginning with how Bates defines each.

Resonance: This facet is about connecting with others, being attentive, attuned, and responsive to feelings, motivations, and thoughts.

During a challenging time, you can demonstrate resonance by taking the time to discuss your team’s feelings and frustrations. This is especially important during a virtual meeting because it is so easy for individuals to stay silent and “hide” in the virtual space. Make this type of “How are you doing” dialog part of the agenda. Never put people on the spot, but give them space and safety when they need to talk.

Authenticity: This facet is about being real, genuine, transparent, and sincere in one’s relations with others.

Not only is it important to be attentive to what your team is feeling and thinking, but it’s also important to bring your own feelings and concerns into the conversation. Pretending that everything is running smoothly with you or assuming that expressing feelings would be a sign of weakness will not communicate authenticity or build trust. Make “Here’s what’s going on with me …” part of the virtual meetings you lead. It will make an impersonal platform feel more human.

Intentionality: Intentionality is about clarifying focus and keeping actions aligned and on track, without stifling dissent or neglecting the need to adjust course.

While it’s important to demonstrate resonance and authenticity during a crisis, it’s equally important to keep business moving forward. Doing so will give your team a badly needed sense of accomplishment. While it’s important to discuss the challenges people are facing, every meeting should also feel efficient and purposeful.  In a virtual meeting, this is especially important, because distractions, frustrations, and muted phones easily lead to disengagement. So be sure to communicate your goal and stay focused on it, keep the conversation relevant for everyone, pay attention to the clock, and set clear next steps. Taking these steps will bring clarity and comfort to stressed team members. 

I chose to focus on these three facets because they point to one of the most common tensions business communicators face in the best of times—the tension between meeting the needs of individuals and accomplishing group goals.

Stay healthy, everyone!

Written by Dale Ludwig

Dale Ludwig has a Ph.D. in Communication and, prior to Turpin, taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He founded Turpin Communication in 1992 with the mission to provide the best presentation and facilitation skills training possible. Since then he has worked to do just that. In addition to being one of Turpin’s lead instructors, he also serves as our Chief Learning Architect when tailoring learning engagements for our clients. Dale is a frequent blogger and the co-author of the book "The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined." He’s excited about his latest book, also co-authored with Greg Owen-Boger, "Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning."