The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them, of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
Well, we recently had a colleague in town from Berlin. Four of us sat outside, physically together on the terrace that we have at our offices here in Toulouse.
Sitting out there in the fresh air, being with these colleagues, we had bits of paper out on the table, hands in the air, ideas flying — and we were super productive. In 40 minutes, we sketched out a really good framework for a slide deck we were creating. I don’t think we would have been as effective had we all been sitting on a video call.
Everyone was engaged. They had their phones facing down and no one was looking at other screens. The main benefit of being there in person is the physical energy people create between them. Simple things like body language, eye contact, the ability to connect face to face, and therefore not be distracted by what might be going on in the background.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
I think there’s a certain level of disconnect. It’s very easy to be distracted. There’s a lot of multitasking that can go on, which I think dilutes the attention and the purpose that you could otherwise have.
Something we’ve also spoken about at EasyMile is that not being in the same space can create a glut of too many meetings, or unnecessary meetings, or meetings that haven’t been thought out well enough. That’s because we’re not having those corridor chats or grabbing a colleague over coffee.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 . Set out your intent.
Even if it’s just a chat, you’re communicating on a digital platform, or you’ve set up a meeting. My colleague in Japan recently asked me to engage with a client, which also involved crossing a cultural barrier.
He really guided the intent for this engagement — “I need you to respond to this client, he wants to know ‘x, y, and z’ and it would be good if you could frame the discussion in this way…”
2. Be clear.
You have to be clear with people on what you expect from them. I find it’s helpful if you’re collaborating with someone to have a shared working document. This helps determine clarity for everyone.
For example, I’ve been working with colleagues in Germany on a series of promotional activities. After a few calls together on this, we’ve started a shared document, where we’re very clear on what we want out of this, who our audience is, the individual responsibilities in the team, that sort of thing.
3. Follow up.
Whoever is leading a project, or whatever it may be, needs to keep the dots connected, put in some timelines, and check in with everyone.
With my US colleagues, for example, I know roughly what time they’re hitting their computers, I might just send them a quick chat message to follow up and keep them up to speed. That way, we’re still connected throughout the day. Even if it’s not a meeting or a big conversation, it’s just a simple touch base.
4. Have a structure.
Especially when you’ve got remote teams, you need a structure to follow. That can be a working document or a set plan.
At EasyMile, we work a lot in Google G Suite, making use of all the Google tools. This works really well for us, and it’s great for encouraging collaboration.
5. Be human.
This last one is super important. At EasyMile it’s not unusual — in fact, it’s encouraged — to have a bit of chit chat at the beginning of any interaction. In one of my previous roles as a soft-skills trainer, I loved delivering a workshop called “Be Nice to Get Results.” You’d see participants really engaging with that — it’s a principle that works.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
We are already quite a young agile company using digital online platforms for our tools, so the pandemic hasn’t been a particular challenge from that perspective. I think at first, we probably did see what I mentioned earlier about “too many meetings”, and it’s taken time for people to find their rhythm with remote working.
But I think we’ve definitely found our groove with that. And I don’t think the different way of working has affected productivity at all.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
The main tools we all use that are communication-specific are G Suite and Slack, amongst others. We’d been doing this before the pandemic and find they work perfectly for us. We’ve also discovered a few online brainstorming tools. It’s fun to have everyone connected at the same time and see ideas popping up live. It adds that element of dynamism that these discussions need.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Particularly for meetings, I’d like to develop an add-on to Google Meet, which gives the user prompts.
It could be questions such as “Do you really need this meeting?” “Could this be a Slack discussion instead?” “Who’s the lead for the discussion? “What is the agenda?”. It wouldn’t necessarily be all of these questions, but I think a few prompts would set the tone and the actions to come.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
I don’t know that the pandemic has changed the need or appeal for unified communications, but then I think at EasyMile we’re doing okay in this area.
Organically, some people are more comfortable with one form of communication over another, such as Google Chat or Slack. With the platforms and tools that we’ve already got in place. At the end of the day, we’re all human and it’s also about company culture and the way these platforms are pitched.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
What excites me is the development of 3D imagery for video communications. I think having something that can make you feel like you’re physically sitting in the same meeting room will be a real game changer for remote communications, it could help solve the problems I mentioned earlier, with body language or simulation of eye contact.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Well, the human connection in any interaction is really important, it’s the value-added element for any business. I can see the benefits of that personally as well, for chatting to family overseas for example. So, any future vision has to make sure we don’t lose that — or find ways of keeping or improving that human connection.
So far, we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
We already were using a lot of these tools, pre pandemic, I think that what the pandemic did was take away those human touch points. Such as getting together with a client over lunch or sitting around a table. I don’t think necessarily our interactions have moved. I think they’ve stayed where they were. But we’ve missed the face-to-face touch points and we’re glad those are slowly starting to come back. They can help strengthen our relationships with our customers, our clients, and our partners.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
Again, it’s important to start with intent. Tell them why you’re setting up a chat — without obviously giving all the details or making them scared. You need to let them know so that it doesn’t hit them unawares. You might even give them a few bullet points or ask them to prepare.
Doing this remotely, you’ve got to use the tools the best you can. It has to be on a video call, so you ask them to turn their video on (and again, ask if they’re comfortable with that). Make sure your discussion is face-to-face, with as much eye contact and signals as you can send over a video call.
Whether your discussion is remote or in person though, none of this pre-chat and pre-email should come as a surprise. We have platforms such as quarterly or six-month reviews, which pave the way for these types of feedback sessions.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
I think particularly for a company like EasyMile — where the majority of our people are in one place, but with remote teams across the world — we try wherever possible to include our other locations in what we are doing.
This is down to something as basic as coordination. Wherever possible we try to include as many as possible — picking a reasonable time when everyone can be awake. This can be a challenge, it can be super early in the US, but quite late for Australia, and 2pm for France, but we try to go for that time so everyone can be involved.
We also try to have fun. We hold a quiz at the end of our monthly all-company meeting which is great for getting everyone engaged. And we encourage our other teams to have fun remotely as well. Each team in each location has a sense of cohesion. All our teams are part of the wider EasyMile family. Wherever possible, we try to have face-to-face events, we might dial them in on a live video link or make sure to have something in the presentation that refers to or includes them in some way.
Then there are other, simple ways of getting people involved and interacting. In the lead up to Christmas we had a “Christmas Challenge” on Slack. It included questions and light-hearted things for everyone to get involved in, but it was on a digital platform, and so accessible to everybody around the world.
It was a lot of fun and we saw some great interaction from everybody.
See full interview with Authority Magazine here.