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Overriding Digital Disconnects in Virtual Teams

September 23, 2021

Setting healthy boundaries to engage remote team members

The digital transformation that has enabled us to work remotely hasn’t just reshaped our concept of the workplace. It’s irreversibly changed the way we communicate. In February 2021 alone, Microsoft observed that over 40 billion more emails were sent compared to the same period last year. More of our communication is happening online, through means that do not convey the nuances of face-to-face conversations.

The thorough integration of digital technologies in today’s workplaces means that a great deal of work will stay online, even when offices reopen with hybrid work arrangements. Knowing this, it falls on leaders to make these virtual environments more conducive to sustained collaboration and meaningful connections.

We spoke with Christopher Daguimol, Head of Communications at Zalora on how leaders can humanize digital communication, not as organizations but as individuals, to achieve this. 

What challenges do we face with digital communication? 

On a general note, electronic communication has very real limitations. Emails and instant messages cannot deliver the same emotion and tone as those we express when we meet in person. Similarly, video conferencing keeps us at a disadvantage putting a damper on our ability to identify and respond to non-verbal cues. These factors, coupled with our reliance on technology usually across various platforms, makes digital correspondence prone to miscommunication. 

Digital offices can start to feel like revolving doors of strangers with people joining and leaving teams without ever meeting their colleagues in person. The virtual environment offers little opportunity for chance encounters and the equivalent of watercooler chats. A lot of our interactions are now task-focused. We are already seeing how this is making teams more insular and disconnected from other parts of the organization.

Left unchecked, this depersonalization of communication may mute the individual personalities that contribute to our organization's character, and sever the business wide connections that help us thrive. 

Leaders of virtual teams may also find it challenging to keep staff engaged. As entertaining as it was to watch this CNET content creator go undetected after automating his attendance in online meetings for a week, we realize that we contend with new distractions and short attention spans in this digital world. We therefore need to speak in ways that resonate with our coworkers and clients.

What can leaders do to set healthy boundaries for digital communication?

Transitioning to remote working arrangements has not only changed where we work, but how as well. In some ways, it has inadvertently created more to do. Studies show that the shift to remote work, prompted by the pandemic or otherwise, has a tendency to increase meeting loads and instant messaging.

Employees of Microsoft China for instance noticed that their time spent on voice and video calls doubled, climbing from 7 to 14 hours per week. Instant messages via Microsoft Teams from managers increased by 115% from pre-pandemic levels. Work days are getting longer as employees feel pressure to respond to messages sent outside their ordinary work hours.

As our days become more intense, it is timely for leaders to consider if recalibration is in order. Reflect on whether you are poised to accelerate or slow down, and ask each of your team members the same question. Considering the team’s abilities, strengths and varying performance levels across time will help leaders find the right pace for work and prevent burnout. 

Christopher offers excellent advice on the topic. He says, “Putting humanity at the center of how you treat people will actually make you more inclusive and make you a better leader for the team.” Exploring and experimenting with teams to find the group dynamics that bring out the best of each employee will help leaders establish appropriate digital etiquette and boundaries to support staff. 

How can leaders effectively mentor people virtually?

Traditionally, mentorship involved employees shadowing their bosses for extended periods of time. This environment naturally fostered relationships of trust and learning opportunities. As we spend less time meeting in person, leaders need to be more intentional in reaching out to those they mentor.

Mentorship goes beyond teaching people how to accomplish specific tasks. Often, it is about developing skills, behavior and attitudes our teams need to grow and succeed which makes empathetic leadership such a valuable tool. Setting time to know our people professionally and personally allows us to discover their strengths,  motivations, aspirations, fears and frustrations. This knowledge puts us in a better position to help them set their intentions and plans for their own development. Humanizing the people who work for us also prevents us from losing sight of their needs in the midst of business demands and investor expectations. 

Working remotely also enables us to entrust our mentees with responsibilities that allow them to operate autonomously. These situations communicate our confidence in our people while giving them space to make real contributions and test their learning.

Final thoughts

The digital environment doesn’t require us to reinvent the wheel when it comes to engaging your team. The situation isn’t new, particularly for managers in multinationals who were already nurturing talent across borders before COVID-19 shook things up. As digital technologies take up more space in our lives, we just need to sustain our appreciation for the skin behind our screens. And that begins with taking the time to have real human conversations with those we lead. 

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