The pandemic has distanced us from each other; yet, it’s just as important as ever that we communicate seamlessly and collaborate closely with each other. This article explores how we can overcome this challenge.
I’m a huge advocate of face-to-face interactions. I enjoyed many turning points in my career when I had the chance to meet my colleagues, partners, clients and prospects in person. We were coming up with game-changing ideas, solving difficult problems and building stronger relationships while sharing the same space.
I also experienced countless frustrating moments when the lack of in-person connection lead to miscommunication, mediocre solutions and lingering personal conflicts.
We all know that face-to-face and remote conversations have very different dynamics. Even though modern digital technologies allow us to transfer data seamlessly (when they function well), they can’t fully simulate the physical presence of a person. We think, feel and act differently when we gather around a table, compared to talking to others through a digital device.
After researching this subject, I identified six major benefits of meeting someone in person. (I wrote about this in more detail in an earlier article, Six solid reasons why you want to invest in face-to-face conversations.)
- Objectivity: We tend to think more deeply and objectively about the other person’s views, putting aside possible preconceptions or stereotypes.
- Consideration: We are more aware of their motives and feelings, and thus more thoughtful and kind in our responses.
- Empathy: We have a better sense of their emotions, being able to pick up subtle cues from their body language.
- Openness: We find it easier to express ourselves authentically and talk about emotionally charged issues, showing our vulnerable sides.
- Presence: We pay closer attention and listen better to the person we’re talking to, as we’re less likely to multitask.
- Patience: By stepping away from technology our thoughts stop racing, and we have greater patience to explore subjects and learn from each other in depth.
What can we do now?
Although I’m an introvert, feeling another person’s physical presence can inspire and energise me. So for people like me, physical isolation can be especially draining. However, I’m sure most people feel some sort of a void, being cut off from their teams.
All of us are missing out on the benefits of face-to-face interactions. If we are not careful, our communication and collaboration could suffer. Our relationships could become weaker, and our wellbeing and passion may spiral downward.
So what are the options?
In his brilliant book, The Martian Chronicles, the late Ray Bradbury tells a touching science-fiction story of an engineer who has lost his wife and children, and decided to recreate his family from robots. In other fictional stories, people who are cut off from each other use holograms to create a sense of closeness.
Well, some of these ideas might find their way into the homes and workplaces of the future, but are certainly not part of today’s reality. Personally, I don’t believe that artificial intelligence and virtual reality are the holy grails of maintaining a sense of close connection between remote members. They certainly have their place, but the solution I’d like to suggest here is much more simple.
The first step requires self-awareness and the willingness to grow. You need to understand how virtual interactions may influence the way you think, feel and behave. Well, if you can identify with any of the six tendencies above, you only need to look at the other side of the coin. You need to acknowledge that you may be more biased, judgemental, detached, reserved, distracted and impatient while talking to others remotely.
As a second step, you need to consciously shift your thinking and behaviour, and create new habits that will help you connect with your teams and clients better. Let me share some of my ideas.
A few good practices and virtues
1. Create a safe space.
Have a conversation with your team and make sure you all provide a safe, inclusive, non-judgemental environment for each other to express your ideas, concerns and challenges. Set some guidelines around handling disagreements and giving feedback.
2. Put yourself into other people’s shoes.
When a person shares something controversial, think twice before you draw conclusions and respond. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to understand their motives, and ask questions if you’re unsure where they are coming from. Think about how they might feel, and respond truthfully but kindly.
3. Address conflicts thoughtfully.
Talk through your differences via video calls, rather than over the phone. Discussing problems in writing can also help at times, because it gives you the opportunity to sort out your thinking and give a level-headed response. You don’t want your anger or frustration to guide your words. But at the end of the day, it’s best to settle on common ground while looking into the other person’s eyes – even through a camera.
4. Share your feelings.
Whether you’re engaging in a creative task or discussing a challenge, talk about your emotions generously. Even the most advanced communication technologies can’t transmit all the nuances of your voice and gestures. So you need to be more vocal about your feelings compared to when you meet in person. An emotional connection will make it easier for you and your team to collaborate effectively and to find a solution.
5. Use rich, flexible platforms.
Choose collaboration software and apps that allow you to express your thoughts in different ways – for example, by talking, writing, drawing, or sharing documents, photos and videos. Keep in mind that the tools you use can guide your thoughts, and different communication methods and activities can bring different insights to the surface. You also respond to other people’s ideas differently, based on how they are communicated. So when you want ideas to flow freely in a virtual meeting, it’s best to create a rich experience where every member has a choice around how they present their thoughts to the team.
6. Focus with all your attention.
Please don’t multitask while listening to others, even when no-one can see it. I’m sure you can sense when someone you’re talking to is not paying full attention. Well, other people can sense it too, and this can discourage them from sharing their thoughts openly and honestly. Moreover, you’re unlikely to have a productive discussion when you’re not fully present. So block out all distractions, minimise the windows and silence the devices that are not required for the conversation, and focus intently on the person at the other end of the line.
7. Slow down a little.
Allow plenty of time for conversations, beyond what’s necessary to cover what’s on the agenda. Be okay with going on tangents at times. Explore topics that spontaneously come up. Without a strong sense of urgency, you’ll be able to explore subjects more deeply, uncover hidden issues and opportunities, and learn more from each other.
Let’s work around the obstacles
These are common-sense practices and virtues, but don’t we all often neglect them?
Of course, when all we need to do is transfer clear, well-documented, non-controversial information, we don’t need to worry so much about the human, intangible aspects of our communication. But we’re not robots. As smart, creative and sensitive beings, we have a greater role in the workplace than just taking data in and putting data out.
There are certain situations when it’s especially important that we think objectively, act with great consideration, and practice deep empathy. There are times when we must speak with an open mind and heart, and be fully present and patient, in order to succeed. (I talk about specific examples in my article, Four scenarios where in-person interactions are hugely beneficial.)
These include situations, for example, when we need to find innovative solutions to complex, unique challenges, and deal with uncertainty, ambiguity and stress. Well, these are exactly the kinds of problems that this pandemic has created – problems that would be best addressed face-to-face. Yet, most of us need to work from home. It looks like we have a Catch-22.
By following the ideas I shared, perhaps we can overcome some of the current obstacles and work together as a team like in the ‘good old days’. Or hopefully, even better.