When you read this article, chances are you are at home, and are taking a break from your work. Many companies assign employees to work from home as a form of participation in government efforts to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
For those of us who are accustomed to working face-to-face with our team in the office, this condition may feel unfamiliar. If usually we can invite them to meet to discuss a problem, now we are forced to communicate with them through telecommunications media.
Some of us have experienced this reality as part of our daily work. We must work with teams that are in several locations, and we have no choice but to use e-mail, text messages, telephone and video conference to communicate with them.
The distance between us and our colleagues can cause several problems:
Disconnection from the team. When working in the same location, we feel comfortable because our team is close. It’s easy to ask for information, and we have friends with whom we can chat. When working in a different location, solitude can make us feel isolated. Although in theory we can interact with our team through digital media, but not infrequently we receive late responses. WhatsApp messages that are not read, phones that are not picked up, emails that are not answered, these can increase stress on remote workers.
Slow decision making. In the same location, teams can gather immediately to find solutions to problems and make decisions. When working in different locations, synchronizing time to meet digitally is sometimes not easy. Instead, we rely on WhatsApp group or Slack or Trello as a place to exchange ideas. Again, not everyone is quick to reply to messages sent through the group.
Getting lost in digital media. Today there are many communication media that we can use. When a colleague said, “I already sent the information.” Then the response would be, “What did you send it through? Email or WhatsApp?” If the answer is WhatsApp, there will be a follow-up question, “Did you send it in a group or directly to me?” If the answer is in a group, then the response is, “Which group?” Although in some aspects digital media made a lot of things easy for us, but in others they may complicate our life a little.
Digital miscommunication. Written messages cannot replace direct communication. Communication between people is more than just words. It also involves non-verbal factors, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so on. Therefore, text messages that are written in disregard to the correct use of punctuation can cause the recipient to understand the message in a totally different way. What is meant as a neutral message when typed with excessive number of exclamation marks may be perceived as emotional message.
Video calls cannot substitute direct interaction either. First reason is technical obstacles. We may receive sound that is not in sync with the picture, delay in transmission, etc. These technical glitches may cause conversations to be fumbled and unclear. Second reason is the McGurk effect. This effect occurs when there is a mismatch between the words we hear and the lip movements we see. The brain tries to process this mismatch and came up with a different word. Unclear video images can have this effect, where we seem to hear the word “tomato” when the speaker says the word “potato”.
Dealing with Remote Team
What can we do to create a productive atmosphere when working in different locations? In his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Dale Carnegie offered several principles that we can use.
1. Become genuinely interested in other people. One nice thing about working in an office is that we have relationships. At lunch, we have friends with whom we can talk about things outside of work, so we feel that we belong. Try to bring this feeling by taking a few minutes every day to ask how our off-site friend is doing and get him to talk about his condition. Encourage all team members to check on each other.
One participant in the Fundamental Leadership Program training class is based in Jakarta. He applied this principle with a colleague who worked on a site in Kalimantan. “Usually we only talk about work,” he said. “This time I called him just to say hello and ask how he was doing. From time to time we exchanged greeting text messages. We became friends, and it is now easier to work with him.”
2. Be a good listener. Make understanding the other person as your first goal in communication, before making yourself understood. When meeting via video call, take the time to check whether what you understand is in line with what the other person meant. Say for example, “Let me check my understanding. You are saying that our client has agreed to buy thirty units of this product, on the condition that the price is reduced by ten percent from the initial offer. Does it sound right to you?”
3. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. One thing that makes people reluctant to communicate with us is when they see us as someone who is more likely to catch what’s wrong rather than what’s right. That could be one of the reasons we receive delayed replies to our text or email messages. Being critical is important to minimize costly mistake. Being critical ALL the time may cost us relationships with others. When receiving a message or listening to a colleague, instead of criticizing immediately, it would be a good idea to ask probing questions to understand the other person better.
One of our class members applied this principle to his superior. Before taking the class, he would criticize his boss for anything that he felt lacking. Later he tried to refrain from doing so and listen more. He found that his relationship with his boss was improving, and he got better support at his job.
4. Begin in a friendly way. This is the way to winning enthusiastic cooperation from your colleagues. Nobody likes to be boss around. When people are being told what to do, they feel what is known as psychological reactance. This reaction cause people to resent instructions and become less productive. Instead of directly telling people what you want, start with a friendly tone. We can use something like, “Hey Joe. I sent you an important email yesterday. You were probably very busy and missed it. Your opinion is important to me and I would like to hear it before I make my decision. Would you mind having a look at it now?”
5. Try to honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Being in separate locations often mean different situations. What seems easy for us, may not be so readily implementable for our colleagues. Before implementing a plan, it would be a good idea to bounce ideas with our off-site colleagues. What risks do they see? What challenges they are facing? For this plan to succeed, what actions do they think needed to be done first?
6. Admit faults quickly and empathically. Being human, we are not immune from making mistakes. Jeff Bezos, founder of the giant online retailer Amazon.com, looks for people who can admit when they are wrong and change their opinion. According to him, smart people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they had already solved, open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradiction and challenges their own way of thinking. Bruce Lee, the legendary martial arts actor once said, “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” Admitting mistakes is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage.
When people who are used to working in the same location are forced to work separately, mistakes are bound to happen. Being apart from the team, it is easy for someone to hide their mistakes. Hidden mistakes have big consequences. Show your team that it is not shameful to come forward and own up to one’s mistake. When you realize that you made a mistake, admit it quickly to your team, and explain what you are going to do to correct it. In that way, you lead by example, earn your team’s respect, and strengthen trust in your team.
7. Give an honest and sincere appreciation. An article in Psychology Today recounted the experiment done by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino. They compared the performance of two telephone fundraising teams. One team had the Director of the Annual Giving visited them and thanked them personally, while the other team did not. The next week they compared the number of calls made by the teams. The first team who received appreciation placed 50% more calls than the second team.
Being in separate locations means our team needs more support. We can take the role as their emotional cheerleaders. A simple thank you can make them feel appreciated. Or better yet, announce any achievement your team member made to the whole group. Send a congratulatory email copied to everyone in the team or use the team’s WhatsApp Group for that. How about taking them to lunch? Or if they are home bound, why not send them a dinner voucher they can use to treat their family?
When working remotely, make sure you always build a warm relationship with your team, and keep the communication channels open. This way, they feel the support and attention they need to stay focused and motivated.