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How Leaders Can Restore Communication And Connection Among Distributed Teams


Michael McFall is the co-Founder and co-CEO of BIGGBY COFFEE as well as author of the Inc. Original book GRIND.

The recent and widespread transition to a distributed workforce brought on by the pandemic has destabilized many leaders.

In some ways, this is a familiar problem. A 1999 study of telework transition found that many leaders frequently struggled to trust their employees when they didn’t share the same physical spaces.

However, these challenges are amplified today as more people than ever before have the tools and capabilities to work from anywhere. This shift has left many managers reeling. According to a Harvard Business Review survey of 215 supervisors and managers, 40% expressed “low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely.”

Unfortunately, workers are aware of this disconnect. Many feel that their managers are more closely monitoring their work, keeping tabs on their activities, and otherwise inserting themselves into employees’ day-to-day activities in ways they didn’t before the remote work transition. At the same time, a record number of people report feeling burnt out and disconnected from their leaders, reflecting the incongruity between heightened oversight and helpful support.

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Simply put, to support their teams, strong leaders need to adapt. They need to leave their shortcomings, personal hang-ups and insecurities at the door. They need to turn their attention to meet their teams where they are and support their efforts by any means necessary.

To be sure, this is easier said than done. However, these steps can help leaders meet the moment.

1. Reinvent Quality Time

Anticipating the challenges of long-term remote work arrangements, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told The New Yorker last year, “Digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection.” Instead, he added, “Digital technology should help human connection when there are constraints of space and time.”

For many teams, the adjustment hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped. Teams struggle to connect as casual “water cooler” moments disappear amidst a flurry of scheduled Zoom meetings and on-message conversations. According to one employee survey, more than 40% of employees feel this loss. They actually miss the water cooler conversations with their managers and co-workers. Meanwhile, formal meetings remain mostly unchanged. People show up prepared to discuss a structured list of business objectives that drive company outcomes.

However, this in-person dynamic is unlikely to return any time soon, if ever. That’s why leaders need to reinvent quality time. Leaders must recognize that quality time results from quantity time and be able to adapt to today’s operational realities. For example, consider calling team members just to check in. Go into a call with topics prepared to spur engagement and resist the urge to fill the silence. Let your colleague take the conversation where they want.

Too often, as managers, we drive the ship and power through things that we want to cover or communicate. Asking open-ended questions or simply saying “what’s going on for you right now?” can begin the processes of reinventing quality time, forging trust and open communication in the process.

2. Deliberately Engage Everyone

It’s easy to hide in a Zoom meeting. That doesn’t mean the people are disengaged or disinterested, but some personalities may be more likely to participate actively than others.

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Gathering everyone’s opinion and achieving consensus was more accessible when everyone was together in the same room. Leaders have to set a new tone. Be more intentional about inviting all group members to share their input. Some people will be uncomfortable with this dynamic, requiring even more effort to hear everyone’s perspective or insights.

Consider calling people one on one who didn’t participate in a meeting to hear their ideas or personally following up to express their importance and value to the group. This may seem tedious or even unnecessary, but the long-tail results can be astounding. Developing intentional communication patterns keep people engaged and connected, regardless of location.

3. Prioritize Focus

Zoom meetings and digital communications invite endless opportunities for multitasking and distraction. If you’re checking email, reviewing your calendar or scanning the news during a Zoom meeting, you’re not alone.

According to an extensive Microsoft remote work survey, multitasking is ubiquitous in online meetings. It may be common, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. Nobody would tolerate a team member walking around the conference room, posting on social media or shopping online during an in-person meeting. That behavior would be exceedingly obnoxious in the office, but it’s unseen and ignored online.

It’s time to change. It’s time to restore focus by giving your full attention to the task at hand. Make whatever adjustments are necessary to facilitate this change. Microsoft’s survey found that twenty-minute meetings achieve the most focus, while those that exceed 80 minutes are predictably disjointed.

As the leader, be deliberate about mitigating your distractions. Multitasking erodes productivity, and making interpersonal connections is exponentially more difficult when meeting online, requiring leaders to be laser-focused on what is occurring so they can guide and direct events for the healthiest outcome. Simply put, set up your Zoom environment so you can’t access distractions and are fully present in the meeting.

Whether you shorten meetings, emphasize objectives or intentionally engage the people in the meeting, it’s time to start treating online meetings like everyone is together in the same conference room.

Building company culture and connecting with employees is uniquely challenging in a hybrid setting, but it is doable. However, it won’t happen by accident. That’s why leaders must implement and nurture the best practices that work for them when connecting with their teams online or in person.

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