In September 2018, the ABC’s hit documentary series Australian Story tracked ...
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a change in the way we live and work, with a reduction in travel, face-to-face meetings and days spent in fully-staffed offices.
With virtual meetings and teleconferences on the rise, along with the use of messaging apps, many of our pre-pandemic meeting and interpersonal communication behaviours need also to adjust to increased remote working patterns and adoption of digital communication technologies.
Experts from Korn Ferry, a global organisational consulting firm, provide the following advice for effective communication, virtual and remote meetings.
Behaviours – be empathetic
Drop your ego
While it may give you a sense of control to assume that you’re handling things better than everyone else, the truth is that we’re in uncharted territory.
The best thing you can do is have some compassion for your colleagues—and yourself. If your colleagues seem to be struggling with productivity, offer a helpful push instead of an interrogation. If you can’t seem to get an assignment done, let go of your perfectionist tendencies and recognise that you’re only able to do so much.
“Take a moment and say ‘Ok, I’m human too,’” says Sean Carney, career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.
When you’re upset by something a coworker says, you can’t react like a sprinter off the blocks. Pause between the stimulus and your reaction. Remember that the tone behind written communication can easily be misinterpreted. Take a pause and count to 10 (or 20) before writing back. When you do decide to address something that’s bothering you, do it with care and tact.
“Early in my career, someone gave me some amazing advice: people should always feel better after they’ve spoken with you—even if it’s a difficult conversation,” says Gary Burnison, Korn Ferry CEO.
How do you do that right now? Since anxiety spreads faster than the coronavirus itself, be the person bringing positivity to the conversation, not angst. Check in with your colleagues to see how they’re doing on a personal level, or how their families are handling all the changes. If you’re a manager, look to reassure your team and seek answers to any questions they may have.
Don’t assume the worst
During chaotic times, priorities shift and things escalate. With a lack of direct, or face-to-face communication, it’s easy to assume the worst. When in doubt, assume there is positive intent.
Offer help—or a laugh
The coronavirus could be bringing burdens to your colleagues that they don’t share publicly. Maybe they’re a single parent balancing work and childcare all alone. Maybe they have a sick loved one. Ask people what you can do to support them, whether it’s delivering their point of view in a meeting they have to miss or taking a task off their plate. What help can you offer to get the job done—and do a good deed? Even a simple gesture, like retelling a funny story might help lighten the mood. And if you’re the one who feels stressed or anxious, don’t be afraid to reach out. People want to help in a crisis, and when they do, it builds community.
Meetings – have structure
“You’re most in control when planning the meeting,” says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Joshua Daniel.
The agenda sets the tone for the meeting you want to have. Where you place opportunities for conversation, how often you have those openings, and how many people are present will determine how much chatter you can expect.
It’s in the agenda where people determine their level of engagement. If it’s a solo presentation without insight into how they will benefit from paying attention, then there’s a good chance they will work on other things. Make sure to set expectations that the participants will walk away with certain tasks—which you will send as action items afterward—in order to heighten their focus.
Skip the filler
As the host, it’s natural to want to start with some small talk. That’s OK if there are only a few people on the line (about six or fewer), but it’s advisable to keep the conversation short and not force people to speak—especially during these collectively stressful times.
If you’re hosting a larger call, skip the small talk, thank everyone for joining, and get right into your agenda. The more people there are on the call, the less likely any of them are going to feel comfortable sharing how things are going or how they’re feeling about the current crisis.
Create pauses for people to speak
When you set the agenda, let everyone know when they will have an opportunity to participate. If it’s a presentation, inform them of the Q&A section at the end. But also incorporate chances for questions within the presentation.
If it’s a planning session, direct discussions to specific people if needed. And if two people are dominating, then make sure to ask to hear from someone you haven’t heard from yet, adds Joshua.
Don’t take the awkwardness personally
With people working from home, you’re bound to overhear someone’s child on an unmuted line or the clanging of cupboards, pots and pans in the background. Don’t let these interruptions derail the purpose of the call; if it happens more than once, politely remind everyone to mute their phones (don’t call anyone out by name).
If you only hear silence toward the end of the agenda—but you’ve built in enough time for conversation throughout—then that’s probably just a sign that it’s time to wrap it up.
Technology and distractions – check!
Watch your background lighting
Consider things like where the light is—you don’t want it behind you, or else your entire face will be dark—and soundproofing. Don’t forget about pesky mirrors and the reflections that may crop up if someone else walks in front of them.
Your background can prove to be distracting to others during a videoconference. Bookshelf backgrounds, while seemingly harmless, could reveal more about you than you’d care for your colleagues to know. Make sure the shelves aren’t completely disheveled, or that titles that can be seen are harmless and be wary of any TV screens being used by others in your household during a videoconference.
Another issue to control for is background noise. Your new work environment—be it your kitchen table or home office – is going to come with a new set of sounds that can disrupt the flow of a call.
Let others in your household know when you’re on a call and to keep background noise down.
If you’re having audio or noise issues, alerting others on the call to your sound challenges and mute yourself as much as you can.
Regularly check and test your headphones and speaker to make sure they provide good quality and be wary of using speakerphones, particularly in a large room as it can cause an echo and make you difficult to hear to others.
Working with others in the household
If you share a house with others who are at home while you are working remotely, a good tip is to let them know your schedule and when you might be on any videoconferences in particular.
Let them know where you are positioned in the house so that they are aware of camera angles and can avoid inadvertently walking into view in the background or disturbing the meeting.
When to go ‘old-school’ and pick up the phone
Making a phone call can be a more time-efficient way to get quick answers in a time-pressured environment. It cuts down on the back and forth of messaging and emails, and time spent typing out text.
Phone calls are also a better way to communicate emotion or concern, particularly around sensitive or urgent issues. This can assist in overcoming any potential for a message to be taken out of context or misconstrued by the recipient.
Here are some specific tips when it comes to teleconferences and phone calls.
- Listen to your own voice (as much as it pains you). The way we sound in person is often different from how we sound on the phone, in part because cell phones don’t always reproduce the full range of our voices. There’s also the fact that most people hate the sound of their own voice because we hear ourselves differently than outsiders, thanks to vocal vibrations in our heads that other people don’t hear. Of course, you can work on sounding more professional by recording yourself and playing it back, to scrutinize whether your nervous giggle or habit of saying “yeah” too often needs some editing.
- Know the level of urgency. One of the best ways to avoid a smartphone faux pas is to set ground rules up front of what’s urgent and what’s not. Be clear with those you are communicating with if something requires an ‘as soon as possible’ response or is not urgent. It will enable better time management and prioritisation.
- Don’t forget to respond and follow-up. If you leave a voice message, follow it up by sending email through to back up the message. Similarly, if you have a missed call or a voicemail from a colleague, sending a brief reply or response to let them know you are busy but will get back to them shows good etiquette and that you are attentive.