Leading and managing teams, organizations, or businesses can be a challenge when all the people can be gathered in one room or building and communication can happen face-to-face in real time. The challenge increases when the people we need to lead and manage are located at a distance. That distance reduces the number and effectiveness of the communication tools at our disposal.
To be an effective leader across distance requires us to remember to treat employees we rarely (or never) see in person as real people and to make the best use we can of the communication and interaction tools available. In the end, “if you care, they’ll care.”1 As leaders, we can show employees at distant sites that we care about them, their work, and how they fit into the broader team.
Building human relationships
Have you ever been the only person calling in to a meeting held at a different site? Have you experienced being left out of the key conversations because the team in the conference room forgot the phone was on? The people in the room can see the other speakers and can use body language to know just when to speak their thoughts. They can also break into multiple side groups and parallel conversations without realizing how difficult that is to track over the phone.
The first aspect of successfully leading from a distance is to consciously build human relationships with each of your team members, especially those located far away. The best way to build improved relationships with teammates is to meet face-to-face and share food. There is a unique bonding that occurs between people over sharing a meal, drinks, or a quick snack. That may be why so many dates begin with drinks or dinner. In today’s busy, cost-conscious business atmosphere, it can seem wasteful to spend money on travel to meet distant teammates. However, how much time (and therefore money) will be wasted on ineffective teams that meet for months or years and never quite realize their potential? It is worthwhile to build a business case for the travel funds and use the improved relationships to drive better team outcomes. Meeting even one time can greatly improve the relationships and the effectiveness of teams.
Another way to value the people in a team separated by distance is to share pictures. Instead of being a disembodied voice on the phone, the distant teammates have faces and identities that help keep the team knitted together. By including pictures in presentations and teleconferences, we remember that everyone involved is a real person, not simply a voice or a role.
An important aspect of building in-person teams is the accidental conversations that happen around the meeting. As people drift into the conference room, they are talking about their families, vacation plans, dinner ideas, or thoughts on the previous meeting. As distance leaders, we can include these accidental conversations as part of our teleconference meeting agendas. We can give a little time to help people share important things in their lives and learn more about their teammates.
Meeting and teleconference etiquette
Leading good meetings is even more important when leading from a distance. Most people won’t put you on mute, do email, or have conversations with people not included in the meeting when you meet in person. However, all of this and more can distract people participating remotely in your meeting. In the face of this competition, it is vital that we lead effective meetings to get the task completed and to keep people engaged.
Effective meeting etiquette is nothing new. Most experienced leaders know the key elements:
- Invite the right people
- Have a clear agenda (provided in advance)
- Know what you want to accomplish
- Start on time
- Make decisions
- End when you’re done (and hope it will be early)
- Have someone take notes
- Issue minutes that include clear action items
- Follow up with the right people
These tips for running effective meetings are even more important for leadership from a distance.
Running an effective teleconference meeting requires a few additional practices, including:
- Have your own teleconference number. Scheduling among distant team members is sufficiently complex without sharing a teleconference number.
- Avoid having two teleconference meetings overlap or conflict, which can be ineffective, disruptive, and/or totally embarrassing.
- State your name before making comments. As the team works together, people will recognize voices, which helps new members or visitors integrate with the team.
- Speak slowly and clearly.
- Lose all the nonverbal elements of communication, which helps teams with more than one native language.
- Ask for input.
- Ensure everyone on the line participates.
- Ensure everyone gets to present ideas.
- Allow silence to work for you in order to help encourage everyone to participate and enable participants to think before responding.
- Send materials before the call to enable people to be more prepared. This also provides an alternative if the screen-sharing tool encounters problems.
- Respect time zone differences and know the starting and ending times in every time zone.
- Share the burden of early starts or late finishes.
More on communication
Experts suggest that as much as 80 percent of communication is nonverbal.3 Nonverbal communication is vital to being understood in face-to-face communication.4 Unless screen-sharing or camera technology is being used, many teleconferences between separated participants rely on voice alone. In essence, we have only 20 percent of our normal communication toolbox available under these conditions. To make that 20 percent do the job alone, we can focus on a few different factors.
- We need a verbal response.
- People have to enunciate their answers. Nodding heads, thumbs up, and grunted acquiescence won’t work.
- We need verbal feedback. Put questions and concerns into words, and replace the raised eyebrow, curled lip, or muttered answer.
- We need to ask meaningful questions.
- Because we don’t get any nonverbal read from the other participants, we need to clearly ask for agreement, understanding, or issues.
- Use active listening.
- Repeat and paraphrase others to ensure understanding.
Leading from a distance requires us to explicitly treat every member of the team as a human being, no matter where he or she is physically located. Building relationships with people we have only met once or might never meet in person is challenging. Bringing human interactions into the teleconference with pictures and small talk can be a powerful connector for dispersed teams. We can improve our communication skills, emphasize the vocal communication tools in our toolbox, and encourage accidental conversations between teammates.
This is part one of a two-part article. Part II will be featured in the May issue of Lab Manager.
1. Melanie Klinghoffer of Powerful Transformations at www.melanieklinghoffer.com
2. Quickbase website at https://www.quickbase.com/blog/5-steps-to-leading-effective-meetings
4. Nonverbal communication post by the Balance at https://www.thebalance.com/nonverbal-communication-in-the-workplace-1918470
The author would like to acknowledge colleagues past and present at Intertek and Air Products. He would also like to thank the Knowledge Management Department at Air Products, especially Dr. Vince Grassi, for the opportunity to participate in active learning about distance leadership. Current Intertek colleagues from the chemicals community of practice (CoP), engineering chiefs, and products & resources peers all have contributed to this article.