Hybrid and remote working aren’t new concepts, but the ubiquity of these alternative working practices right now is unprecedented. Whether or not this continues long-term, it is the current reality for a huge swathe of the business community. Business leaders have to understand how to make an impact in an increasingly virtual world  – particularly on those they lead.

We hosted a panel discussion with Della Judd, executive coach and remote working expert, and business leaders across a wide range of roles and industries to get their take.

Della Judd has over 25 years of senior corportate experience helping leaders navigate the challenges of the changing working environment.

The challenge of building relationships

“Everything you do as a leader is delivered through relationships, but building them has been very difficult over Zoom or Teams,” explained one panellist. “You just don’t get the same depth of understanding if you’re not actually with people. You start to see it having an impact in all kinds of day-to-day matters.”

Other panellists agreed, adding that in international companies, there are added layers that further complicate the matter, like cultural differences. Indeed, even building a relationship with the business and getting to know its “nuts and bolts is challenging right now.”

You need to invest time and energy

“It’s not impossible to build relationships remotely,” one panellist said. “It just takes longer and requires more effort. One face-to-face meeting is probably worth three or four Zoom meetings at least, so you have to stick with it and continually try to build those bridges and connections.”

One panellist’s direct report sends quick follow-up texts to try and replicate the casual post-meeting chat, for example. “The constant interaction certainly helps,” the panellist reported. It was also suggested that allowing for some personal chat at the beginning of a video call can be beneficial: “With video calls, we tend to dive into the details very quickly, but you’ll probably get a better response if you can just talk together, find out a little bit about them. Let them know who you are too.”

Where possible and appropriate, it was also suggested that having some fun with the team can help. Virtual drinks nights or quizzes can be beneficial, breaking down some of the formality and lightening the mood.

If you are able to get into the office, panellists agree that you should “make those moments count and dedicate that time to building those relationships face to face.”

Onboarding vs. embedding

On the face of it, onboarding virtually can be fairly straightforward. It’s about sharing information, arranging proper time for them to spend with direct reports and stakeholders and so on. You have to make things happen, but there’s a structure to follow.

Where panellists are encountering real difficulties, however, is in actually embedding someone within the team.

“Embedding someone properly takes time,” said one panellist. “It’s hard for newcomers to get traction with people they’ve never met, and hard to hit the ground running. It’s taking longer than if people were interacting face to face.”

There’s also a layer of formality that needs to be overcome. It’s not like a newcomer can lean over their desk and ask a quick question of their colleague or boss right now. It has to be committed to writing or a call arranged.

How to manage the flow of information

This can be challenging for leadership to deal with at a distance. One panellist said that establishing a regular call with the team and, crucially, defining a short agenda in advance had proved helpful. “We asked people to amend it if anything had been discussed since the last meeting and it acted as a catch-all mechanism. It flushed out all relevant information.”

Della added that you should try to get ahead of the situation. “Set the parameters of what you want people to be sharing, what key information needs to get escalated and what doesn’t. Some of that requires communicating with your direct reports and your team to think about what it is you want to flow up and how. Put in the effort now to make sure the right things come to you.”

The importance of body language

You pick up on significant cues from people when you’re in the same physical space. Despite the obvious limitations, this aspect of communication is not completely lost in a virtual context. “One thing that is often underestimated is reading body language,” said Della. “You might think you can’t do that on the screen, but you notice so many tells when you really focus on someone during a video call.”

The key? You have to pay attention. “If you want to make a real, impactful human connection with a business contact on screen, then really look at them,” she continued. “If you notice something, ask them about it. Make it more personal. And don’t split your focus by looking at an email or down at your phone – you might miss something.”

The panellists agreed that it’s easy to get distracted on calls, particularly with the number of them that now occur. “I’m an absolute terror if something pings on my phone; I can’t help but check it. It’s so disrespectful though. And it’s then really easy to lose track of what’s going on and much harder to pick up on any cues, verbal or otherwise,” one agreed.

Use your words

In situations, where you can’t communicate contextual meaning through body language or the actual tone of your voice – like in sending emails, or chat messages on platforms like Slack – use your words and be clear. The difference in someone asking for a quick chat by leaning around your door and sending an official email to request a meeting can be huge. So if it’s nothing to worry about, let them know that, for example.

Right now, as one panellist observed: “You can’t build and then draw on the same kind of trust as you could in a pre-covid world.” It’s slower, for one thing. “To be honest, the lack of ability to build trust quickly is frustrating,” asserted another panellist. “And it impacts a lot, including the pace at which you can drive change.”

Trust isn’t something you can take for granted – it’s earned over time. So be transparent, clear and straightforward to help it along. In short: earn it.

Assessing people from a distance

At one level, assessing people from a distance can be a fairly rational process for a business leader. “The quality of an employee’s written output, their presentations and how they manage their output – it’s fairly accessible to see that,” explained a panellist. “It’s taking longer to form opinions on how good they are though, where they need to develop or even if they have the aptitude to change.”

Another panellist agreed, explaining that it’s the larger, more ephemeral sense of gauging where people are that is hard to grasp. “When you’re on a journey of change, you need to bring people with you. Usually, you’d stand up in front of people and try to connect with them and inspire them, but you can’t create that energy in the same way online. Trying to ‘hold the room’ in a video call is hard. In the end, I don’t really have a clue how it went.”

Self-assessment also plays a role

“From a leadership point of view, if you’re taking the time to think about the challenges and trying hard to make the correct decisions, then you’re already moving in the right direction,” said Della.

If in doubt, Della recommends asking yourself what you would do in the office. You’d be surprised at how much is transferable.

"I know I might put less time and effort into a Zoom town hall meeting than I would if I were to stand up in front of 200 people, but that doesn’t have to be the case,” she continued. “Can you get extra help, add music or create more materials? Whatever it is, try to bring it more to life for your team.”

After all, as one panellist summed up: “Right now, we can’t fill the room. We can’t feel those interactions with people in the same way. Things are taking longer. People need more support. Rather than have the same expectations and do the same things, acknowledge that things are different and more challenging. Factor that into a comprehensive plan. And lead by example, showing that you understand the pressures and challenges that are coming through.”

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