Perhaps it’s time to show off your smile!
Working 100% remotely has its challenges. Technology makes communication so easy, that my colleagues really don’t know (or care) where I work, as long as we can connect and collaborate effectively. There is, however, a source of frustration that comes from being virtual: figuring out how to maintain a presence.
I was recently on a conference call -- sorry, a videoconference call -- and was attending to discuss new resources that I had developed for the team participating in the call. The team leader, who we will call Mike, was immediately visible on his camera and had clearly thought about the importance of being visible. He was at home, with good lighting and good audio, so even though he was using his computer camera and microphone, he looked and sounded pretty good.
Mike has a presence, and he reinforced that presence with video. Aside from the fact that he is tremendously energetic, he also has a huge territory to cover with employees spanning three time zones. His use of video was effective, engaging, and took advantage of his charismatic personality to reinforce the sense of team, engender a feeling of connectedness despite distance, and encourage dialogue instead of presentations.
Here’s the interesting part, though: Mike was the ONLY person using the videoconferencing features to connect with his team. Everyone else was in audio-only mode. The only thing I kept thinking was, “wow, you can clearly see who the leader is in this situation.”
There’s nothing wrong with being a follower, but if you want to be a leader, you have to be visible.
Mike’s choice to be visible to his team emphasized his effective leadership. His team members chose to emphasize their followership.
What are the advantages of being visible?
If you work in an environment where virtualized workplaces are normal, then you may have found yourself in a similar situation: there’s an expectation to be visible on a videoconference call. What does being visible say about you as a leader?
Perhaps a lot more than you expect. As David Clemons and Michael Croth wrote in their book, Managing the Mobile Workforce: Leading, Building, and Sustaining Virtual Teams, effective leaders know how to minimize the distractions of geography and time to encourage meaningful dialogue. That’s really another way to say that effective leaders have a presence.
Beginning with the medium
Assuming that you are able to use a phone, send an email, or participate in a videoconference, you know that there are different perceptions that accompany different communication media. Some conversations with my employees are text, some are email, and some are phone calls or video calls. In a single day, I might use all of these methods with the same employee.
If you can’t be face-to-face with your employee, then videoconferencing is a good stand-in. The technology to hold meaningful communications has increased to the point that the device doesn’t really matter. What matters is the perceived connections between leaders and team members. When the leader is present with a camera on, some thought should be given to the background environment, crafting a clear message, and emphasizing an open line of communication.
It doesn’t have to be video, but it does have to be authentic
I certainly understand that not everyone wants to be in front of the camera for a videoconference. Whether it’s because you just washed the dog before getting on the call, you just returned from the gym, or you’re in an airport with thousands of other travelers, providing a “face” for your voice helps build your presence. Most videoconferencing systems can serve up a profile picture when you are talking, and that is a good stand-in for live video on occasion.
In some cultures, sharing your image with people you don’t know is not a typical business pattern. In that case, encourage team members to share an image that represents themselves, and be willing to explain why that is a meaningful representation of their personal image.
Context is critical
I am lucky enough to work in a position where our teams are spread over large geographic areas, and I work hard to share contextual clues to help others understand my work environment. Starting calls while people are still arriving with information about the weather, noise levels, travel conditions, and other “visualizing” comments helps each person on the team feel a little more connected and gives a safe topic for icebreaking discussions. Karen Lojeski and Richard Reilly shared several other tips in their book Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise. One tip is to use context as a way to build conscious awareness, and then connections, to others’ working situations. Even taking notes on what other people are saying about their work environments can help you develop deeper communication patterns during individual communications.
Making sense of it all
One of the strongest leadership qualities that is most meaningful to employees is teaching employees how to make sense of difficult or complex situations. In my own situation, there are times when I channel my inner boss to deal with potential work tasks. By thinking through problems the way my boss has taught me to deal with them, I am able to make sense of my work and complete projects in a pattern consistent with her expectations.
To be clear, this is not creating a team of mini-me’s. Instead, this is documenting, discussing, and collaborating on work problems to show your team members how you would solve particular business problems. Even when you are not around, you should have some confidence that your team will be able to approach problems in their work the way that you would. (Over time, this process may reverse as your team members may come up with better ways to address issues.)
Having a presence without being present is a challenge that many face-to-face leaders and distance leaders struggle with daily. Here are a few strategies that can reinforce your presence from a distance.
Go from invisible to visible. The richer the medium, the more impactful it will be, so dust off that webcam, find some good lighting, and be virtually present for as many conversations as you can be. It may be uncomfortable at first being on camera, but leaders learn to overcome discomfort. Encourage your direct reports to do the same, especially if they aspire to leadership positions. After all, millions of Youtubers have demonstrated that personal videos, regardless of how mundane, makes a powerful impact.
Choose your medium wisely. There are so many different communication tools available, so choose what works for you. Direct or instant messaging is great for informal check-ins, but emails should be used to communicate more formal communications. Phone calls inject a sense of personal connection into team members’ days. Video is great for group conversations and web meetings. When you use a mix of all three, you are creating a presence that exists even at a distance.
Context is king. Building a context for your expectations through shared experiences or explaining why some of your decisions are being developed in a particular way can help others understand your rationales. This means that you are communicating enough to help others understand your decision-making process. For example, when my boss explains why she chose a particular action, she usually explains some of her experiences that led her to go down that path. It’s very powerful, and helps me make better decisions, too.
Be a better human. We all have social needs to connect with others. Having a presence means working hard to build the connections with your team members through both formal and informal behaviors. You may be connecting through electronic communication tools, but remember that there are team members on the other end of the line, and they might really need to feel connected to the team.
The Results and Being More Visible as a Leader
Do you have any core strategies for connecting with your team members at a distance? How do you feel when your boss communicates with you? What techniques have you tried? I’d like to hear about your experiences!
Clemons and Kroth have an excellent chapter in their book, Managing the Mobile Workforce, with whole chapter on being present when you are not physically available. Lojeski and Reilly also provide some valuable information in their book, Leading the Virtual Workforce. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 are excellent starting points. The following links will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com.