For the vast majority of managers, the shape of their teams has changed dramatically in the past few weeks. While on a personal level many people are still grappling with the new reality of shared home workspace, job insecurities and a sense of loss for all the things we previously took for granted, as managers we need to quickly get to grips with how to make our dispersed teams perform as well as they possibly can.
At the heart of this is a phrase we have been hearing a lot – staying connected. And underpinning that, is trust.
To help address this challenge of connectivity and trust, we assembled a panel of Corndel experts for a live discussion. We were joined by around 80 Corndel leadership and digital skills programme learners from 36 organisations. In what was described as ‘an enlightening session’, here is a recap of the conversation and some of the advice that emerged.
Question 1: Many of us on this call are not used to working from home, at least to this extreme. Based on this, there are a magnitude of topics we could focus on today. Why should we be focusing on trust and connectivity?
In the ‘previous world’, your team may have been well established and made up of solid, personal connections. In today’s virtual space, that may no longer be the case. There are so many things now in play that can throw the team dynamics off track. With the overriding feeling of unease, trust can be easily lost and with that we risk losing collaboration, innovation and high performance.
The panel’s advice: In a sense we are pressing the re-set button. The situation we find ourselves in is a real leveller; and as such is an opportunity for managers to re-evaluate where the team is at, how individual team members are really feeling and how your own leadership behaviours can shape team success.
Question 2: What aspects of trust might we want to pay more attention to when working with virtual teams?
It’s important to be aware that our feelings are amplified when working in a virtual environment. Strains on a relationship with a colleague or perceptions of a line manager can become more acute at this time due to the stress of the situation and the relative isolation.
The panel’s advice: It’s important not to make assumptions. In practical terms, the move to virtual working gives managers a nudge to really notice what is going on for their teams. Now is the time to practise those active listening skills. Really pay attention to what language is being used, notice body language and facial expressions on video calls, listen to the tone of voice. Look out for a change in frequency of communication. If your direct reports feel like they are properly being listened to, they are more likely to open up about what’s going on for them and enable you to support them.
One of our panellists and Professional Development Experts, Suzy Mellor, conducted her MSc dissertation on the leadership of remote and dispersed teams. Through her research, trust emerged as the top factor in high performance. “I trust that team members and leaders have my back.” The test is whether you can confidently say that. Things are different now. Managers can’t see who’s doing what. They need to demonstrate to their teams that trust is a key feature of their culture.
Question 3: What about situations where the organisation perhaps institutes a policy that feels to team members to be breaking trust (for example ‘productivity checks’ put in place across organisations to ‘check-up’ on individuals working hours, etc.); how can a line manager working in that environment help to maintain the trust they’ve built?
Such technology isn’t necessarily new, and just as we would expect in more ‘normal’ times, the important thing for organisations is that they are using it for the right reasons, to protect workers and to help them do their jobs as best they can. An example of this is the tracking of delivery drivers to ensure safety and insightful data to help the business. There is a difference between that and using it to check up on individual job performance.
The panel’s advice: In such situations, line managers have an important role to play in communicating the organisation’s intent and making sure the employee fully understands. They are also well placed to fix trust that has been broken or damaged at an organisation/employee level by playing a ‘mediator’ role. It’s about owning your own team and being a part of that team. This principle applies equally in a virtual world as in a face-to-face environment.
Here are a few other tips around building trust between the line manager and a direct report at this tricky time:
- Reciprocate levels of honesty – respecting the power of vulnerability.
- Make sure goals are realistic – this is particularly relevant when people are working alone and have shifted the structure of their day and possibly the job they are doing.
- Give goals to teams that are outcome based – be flexible and supportive about the method used to get there.
- Avoid making assumptions and be sensitive to the tendency for people’s imaginations to run wild when they are working alone.
Question 4: We would perhaps hope or expect that an existing team would be well placed to maintain trust in this new way of working, but what about new team members; how do we onboard new people and bring them into the team?
It isn’t easy for anyone starting a new role at this time. Managers and leaders should be sensitive to higher than normal levels of anxiety for new starters. Depending on the sector and type of organisation, the new employee may have been worrying whether the job offer would materialise, or may find themselves joining a team that is run off its feet with little time to onboard in the usual way.
The panel’s advice: Make an extra effort to welcome people into the team by fast-tracking the building of trust using techniques previously mentioned. Offer opportunities to get to know team members and other colleagues in an informal setting. Jane Shannon, Chief of Staff at Corndel shared with how she encourages new starters to join our Virtual Coffee and Networking scheme (click here for a step-by step guide to setting this up). It’s a two-way street to quickly building a bond – sharing something of yourself and learning something back.
Proactively build new starters’ confidence by making them feel comfortable with their new colleagues – that first team or group discussion is really important.
We are hearing so much about tech at the moment, and for new starters it’s definitely worth investing time in making sure they have what they need and that they know how to use it. With so many platforms and software out there, they may not have used the same internal communications software that your organisation uses. One of our panellists and host of the Leadership 2020 podcast, Clare Carpenter, recalled a situation when a colleague spent 20 minutes sharing their screen and walking her through the new technology she would be using. The result was that she felt fully supported and better equipped to hit the ground running.
Aside from the practical set up of the new remote worker, our panellists gave some tips around forging an emotional connection and engagement at speed.
Get new starters up to speed with the rhythm of the business as quickly as you can. This involves engaging them in the purpose of the organisation – the ‘why’. What is the culture like? What’s the DNA of the organisation? Find ways to showcase that culture, perhaps drawing examples from before the Covid-19 crisis to bring the company and its people to life.
Also talk about and give exposure to the culture of the team they are joining – this may well be different from the broader culture in larger organisations. Make sure new employees know the value they are bringing and have confidence that you have employed them for a reason!
Another option, echoed by a number of our attendees, is to introduce a buddy system. Someone to support the new starter who is not their line manager and preferably not in their immediate team. This encourages new recruits to ask questions and nip any potential issues in the bud, as well as giving a one-to-one connection right from the start.
Question 5: In the questions we had in advance from attendees today, it appears that it’s not so much the technical solutions for connectivity, but questions of how, when and how often that are on people’s minds. Taking the first of those. How do we use what’s at our disposal to help people to feel connection and engagement during virtual meetings?
Panellist, Laura Bower, who has extensive experience in the charity sector leading home-based staff across the UK, says that there are two aspects to this.
The panel’s advice: Firstly, it’s about how the tech is used to engage people during the meetings. Not just using tools for the sake of it, but really using them as collaborative tools. Think about what you would do if it were a face-to-face meeting and consider how you can replicate that in the virtual world. For example, if you would have a group discussion and then ask one person to present back via a flip chart, use the platform’s whiteboard function to encourage collaboration and ideation. The whiteboard feature in particular is arguably more effective in soliciting contributions from everyone than speaking up in a traditional in-person meeting.
Secondly, think about general leadership behaviours that create a productive and engaging meeting. One approach that Laura has used with great success, is adopting Nancy Kline’s ‘Time to Think’. While this works well in ‘usual’ times, it is incredibly valuable for remote meetings. Nancy recommends writing agenda items as questions so that everyone is clear on what needs answering during the meeting.
Kline’s goal is to ensure that everyone is listened to, for example by giving everyone the chance to speak without interruption when checking in or giving an update at the start of a meeting. She suggests sharing enough information prior to the meeting for participants to have had time to digest and reflect, thereby arriving at the meeting ready to contribute. This can be particularly appealing to those with introvert preferences and is a powerful way to be truly inclusive.
Other tips include:
- Make the meeting invite/email exciting or a little bit different so people want to attend can also help. Disrupting the pattern a bit (maybe especially required at this time!).
- Don’t be distracted by other activities during the meeting – multitasking with emails, taking calls etc can break trust.
- Play to individuals’ strengths. If someone is anxious about presenting, perhaps ask them to be the note-taker.
Question 6: How do we ensure that individual meetings stay focused and ‘on topic’?
Perhaps the best way to think about this is to consider what usually throws meetings off topic and to create opportunities elsewhere for those conversations.
The panel’s advice: If you had a conference event or company meeting, you would likely schedule breaks for people to connect informally, so why not do the same for virtual meetings? Perhaps add to the agenda that the first 15 minutes will be about sharing weekend highlights or put people into smaller break-out groups for an informal chat over a coffee.
It’s about scheduling time for people to dip in and out of what is the right amount of ‘connection building’ or ‘water cooler moments’ for them personally. Online chat groups are a great way to foster this kind of engagement as long as people feel they are in control of how much they are immersed in the conversations.
Question 7: A few people are feeling a little over-connected right now, with lots of online meetings to attend. How do we manage the frequency and timing of contact and is there a connection between frequency and people’s feelings of trust?
Often the sense of over-connection comes when leaders and colleagues and lost sight of the ‘why’ of the meeting. Is it useful? Who is it actually serving?
The panel’s advice: If meetings have become more of a box-ticking exercise about providing a certain quantity of touchpoints, it’s probably time for a re-think. Does every topic have to have a meeting? Why are we scheduling meetings for an hour? Perhaps 20 minutes will do? Do we have to have all meetings on Zoom with our videos on?
A great way to connect as video is, it can be a bit intense. If personal circumstances and social distancing rules allow, consider scheduling a walking meeting. Put your headphones in and get out into the fresh air where you will be able to focus your mind, be calmer, breathe deeper and make better decisions.
It’s also important to treat every team member as an individual. By that we mean not just thinking about how you would like to be treated, but how they want to be treated. This individualised consideration is a great way to make sure people don’t feel over or under connected. Use available tools to get to know members of the team and enable team members to get to know each other in depth to build trust.
Summarising thoughts from the panel and attendees:
1) Be more strategic in how we decide about how to communicate right now. Re-think meetings – is it too much, are they purposeful? We are trying to do the right thing to keep connected, but we should think about what we want to communicate and how to do it. Use appropriate channels – doesn’t have to be video meeting all the time. What’s mandatory and what’s optional? Have those conversations with the team.
2) Inclusivity is more important than ever. This is important when onboarding new starters and also with existing employees.
- There are various ways to do this such as Nancy Kline’s ‘Thinking environment’, which gives people time to prepare and then be productive in live meetings. This works so well in a remote environment. And it really helps to be more inclusive towards introverts.
- Another angle to this is how we engage with our furloughed colleagues at this time – which is absolutely encouraged in order to retain connections and trust. As long as you are not asking them to do any work, they can be invited to virtual social events, join training and have catch ups. The buddy system could also work well in this scenario.
- To overcome shyness around being on video, if you turn your camera on others will generally follow. You can use some of the fun in the systems too – different backgrounds, titles etc to lighten it up a bit.
3) At the heart of trust is vulnerability. We are all feeling vulnerable at the moment to different extents. Leaders have a key role to play in opening up and setting the culture so others feel able to do the same. Trust yourself – use your strengths to build your resilience.
4) Try not to make assumptions!
- We need to ask people the right questions. ‘How are you feeling today?’ Rather than ‘How are you?’ It’s a small but powerful thing to disassociate the ‘feeling’ from the person in order to encourage people to open up.
- Other good questions include: ‘If you were to advise someone, what would you do?’, ‘If you woke up tomorrow and you had fixed the problem what would you have done?’, ‘What is it you really want?’, ‘If you are saying yes to doing that, what are you saying no to?’ This article includes further tips on good questions for managers to ask.
- Be extra attentive to language and, when using video, to visual signs. When there is no video, use active listening techniques to encourage people to be honest and genuine.
- Remember that our feelings are amplified in this remote environment.
5) Don’t put off those difficult conversations. None of us knows how long this will last and if there are difficult conversations to be had with team members, there is little benefit in putting them off until ‘when we are back to normal.’ HR issues are likely to grow. Use video so you can read body language and always inform people about the topic before the call so they can reflect and prepare. Make sure you understand an individuals’ circumstances before launching into a tricky conversation – at this time, there could be a variety of different factors that are impacting their behaviour. Now more than ever our teams need honesty and clear messaging.
Thank you to our panellists and hosts, Laura Bowey, Clare Carpenter, Suzy Mellor, Jina Melnyk, Teresa Roberts and Jane Shannon; and the many learners who took the time to submit questions and share their thoughts during the session.
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