The global pandemic turned organizations into virtual workplaces overnight. Companies that once resisted allowing employees to work from home have been forced to pivot rapidly to leverage video and web-conferencing so they can continue to meet, coach, solve problems, manage performance and build teamwork. At first, it seemed as if the push to isolate and work remotely might be no more than a short-term challenge. Now, it is clear remote work may be here to stay, even after public health restrictions are finally relaxed.
When two or more people gather in an online meeting, it may feel as if there is both physical and psychological distance, making it impossible to connect authentically through computer monitors over web cameras. In addition, in these times, anxiety pervades every conversation. You can chip away at anxiety by intentionally striving to create positive outcomes in each virtual conversation. Working constructively and productively requires that you hold many conversations: coaching conversations, performance conversations, career development conversations and team-building conversations.
How can you create positive outcomes in your many online conversations? What takes away from your ability to create these positive outcomes?
Virtual managers often express frustration at the challenges of meeting online and a desire to return to “normal.” But, as the saying goes, “normal” is just a setting on the dryer. For the near future, normal requires managers to coach remote employees to handle performance issues in video conferences. Normal demands creative problem-solving in digital meetings. Normal means developing trust and teamwork online despite geographic distance. The new normal is digital. A virtual self-assessment is one way to evaluate your skills in this new normal.
The mnemonic CREATE captures the essential elements of holding effective digital conversations: collaborative, relational, empowering, authentic, trusting and encouraging. These five factors, in combination, support leaders who choose to thrive in the new digital normal.
Collaborative conversations encourage give and take on both sides. To collaborate literally means “to labor together,” but building that special feeling of laboring together is harder to achieve virtually. Fortunately, most platforms allow for all parties in a conversation to be on camera.
If you are the meeting leader, you must show up fully present, really listening to your colleagues and employees. Ask stimulating and probing questions, rather than dominating the conversation. Is your face expressive and supportive? Look into the camera when others are talking, and provide non-verbal indicators that you are tracking the conversation. Nod your head, smile and look attentive — or puzzled, if you need more information. Beware of looking bored even if you feel bored. If you need to check a website or an email, tell people why you are doing so. Otherwise, the camera magnifies your disinterest, and it feels as if you do not care about the point of view of the person speaking.
Self-audit: How comfortable are you being on camera, actively collaborating in virtual team meetings and conversations?
Relational conversations put the relationship ahead of the task, which is critical in a virtual environment, which can feel cold and unsupportive. The more isolated we become as we continue working from home or away from our colleagues, the more important it is for virtual managers to put relationships front and center.
In other words, you are not the center of the conversation. Instead, your purpose is to activate or motivate your virtual team members. Take the time to check in on a personal level, even if you are meeting to discuss a performance challenge. A good rule of thumb is to include appreciation or acknowledgement in every virtual conversation.
Demonstrate that you are aware of the competing demands on people’s time. Working from home for many employees, for example, requires juggling kids’ participation in online school while working on a laptop in a closet away from interruptions. Avoid cutting straight to the task at hand or ignoring the personal challenges a co-worker may be handling. Relational conversations acknowledge the stress and added pressure a co-worker may be working under in the new digital normal.
Self-audit: Do you include appreciation and acknowledgement in every virtual conversation?
Empowering conversations lead to constructive outcomes. While not every online conversation needs to have an agenda, the virtual manager should always be clear about the purpose of a video conversation. Stating the purpose near the beginning of the call can help everyone focus: “I am just calling to see if today is more relaxed than yesterday. I know that client was difficult to handle.” “I am checking in to see if you have been able to reach the finance department about that discrepancy.” “I am calling to discuss the performance issue we agreed to resolve.”
Schedule difficult conversations so that all parties are prepared to have a constructive, empowering conversation. Working from a remote location may require employees to find a quiet, private space to talk. It’s also important to avoid springing unpleasant topics on a virtual co-worker without warning; instead, initiate the planned conversation with an email or text message that clarifies the issue, the questions to discuss and the outcome you hope to achieve. Instead of treating the conversation as a fault-finding mission or an argument, treat it as an opportunity to collaborate and inspire action. Remind employees of their strengths and previous successes to motivate them to take ownership of the current situation.
Self-audit: In difficult digital conversations, is my focus on fault-finding or empowerment?
Authentic conversations are genuine; they accurately reflect the virtual leader’s state of mind and heart. When virtual managers show up online authentically, their defenses or shields are down. They listen openly with curiosity and empathy to what their colleagues bring to the table.
The state of being authentic can feel vulnerable, and it’s easy to mistake this feeling of vulnerability as weakness. However, in a virtual conversation, your willingness to say what is true for you and listen openly to what is true for your colleague engenders respect and reciprocity.
When you are authentic, you acknowledge your feelings while remaining professional. Authenticity is not an invitation to spew, speak inappropriately, attack or break down emotionally. If you are on the receiving end of an upset employee or co-worker, authenticity asks you to listen openly without defending yourself.
Difficult virtual conversations are buoyed by your authentic presence. Once you have listened openly and are able to paraphrase the other person’s concerns or feelings, your authentic response may include clarification of the facts or even honest disagreement.
Self-audit: How well do you listen with curiosity and ease even during moments of disagreement?
Trusting conversations are built on trustworthy actions. In a trusting digital conversation, there are no hidden agendas. Everyone who is listening or speaking in the online conversation is introduced and, if possible, on camera.
Another, more subtle, aspect of building trust online is your virtual background. While it can be fun to include digital backgrounds with exotic locations behind you when you are on camera, a difficult conversation is grounded by your real, physical background. Take the time to clean up your visible space and remove distractions.
Trusting conversations are supported by regular summary and restatement of the opinions people are expressing. To build trust during and after an online conversation, take notes on a shared whiteboard or document, and then post a written summary of key points and agreed-upon action items for the participants involved in the virtual call.
Never put a virtual call on speakerphone for anonymous participants to hear. The minute your co-workers learn that their conversation has been observed by anonymous others without their knowledge, it beaks their trust in you, and it may be impossible to regain it.
Self-audit: How confident are you that there are no hidden agendas in your virtual meetings?
Encouraging conversations inspire confidence or hope. The word “encourage” literally means to fill someone with courage. How you present yourself online when tackling challenges can mean the difference between a positive or demoralizing outcome. The goal is to leave everyone involved feeling confident that he or she can make changes or corrections.
You want your co-workers to feel more capable, not diminished or defeated. To that end, consider closing virtual meetings with time for kudos — an opportunity for meeting participants to acknowledge the support they have received from their virtual teammates. Even better, have them put their expressions of appreciation in chat or a format that everyone can save, share and revisit when times are tough. When virtual leaders show up with confidence and optimism (not wishful, delusional thinking), they inspire positive action.
Self-audit: Do your virtual conversations end on a positive note, with people feeling encouraged?
Virtual workplaces, the new normal for many organizations, are greatly enhanced by managers who master these practices. Virtual conversations that CREATE positive outcomes do not happen serendipitously. They are the result of clear intentions and a desire to collaborate, relate, empower, be authentic, build trust and encourage optimism.