A challenge companies are facing now is that virtual or remote working is not part of the culture and many leaders are uncertain as to how to act in these situations. And it is true, you can’t lead in the same way virtually as you can when you are physically present. Team collaboration becomes more complicated and communication becomes less fluent when you can’t see each other.
Having managed teams virtually all over the world for the last 15 years I think I’ve made every mistake there is to make. As a Swede, I find it difficult sometimes to tell people what to do; you want to lead by consensus and making decisions together, and I’m always trying to coach the team towards the right decision—rather than dictate. However, this is often not an effective strategy when working remotely and especially not when there is a lot of uncertainty. In these situations, people look for clear instructions and advice, and my approach has often resulted in me being frustrated with the lack of action taken and the teams being frustrated with the lack of direction.
I’ve also often underestimated the communication flow in the organization. When you discuss things with the management team, you hope that they will be able to pass on the right information to the team members. However, the reality is that there is a big black box between you and the team members. You hope that they have received the right communication via their leaders, but more often than not, I have seen that this is not the case. Often this happens because their leaders a) didn’t understand fully the message, b) didn’t agree with the message), c) interpreted the message differently than you intended, d) had different priorities at that moment, e) just didn’t listen, f) you were not clear enough, … and the list of reasons goes on and on.
When we were kids we used to play a game called Chinese Whispers. It’s a children’s game that starts off with player 1 whispering a message in the ear of player 2, who continues to whisper it to player 3, and it goes on until the last player who will announce the message they’ve heard to the entire group. It doesn’t require a lot of players for the message to completely change the meaning.
In a similar way, this happens a lot in remote working. Without body language and eye contact, it’s difficult to assess whether or not a message has been correctly received. It’s difficult enough in person, but without meeting physically, even harder. In addition, to drive change, you need to repeat the same message over and over, but that could just make it worse if the original message wasn’t understood correctly.
In China over the last 1.5 years, I have encountered that some leaders follow a message word for word when I intended it only as a guideline. I’ve also seen the opposite; some interpret is a very loose guideline when it is a hard rule or policy. While this has varied from office to office, it has left me bewildered as to whether something has been well implemented or not. And as you can see, I’m still on a journey to figure out what approach works best and how to best communicate with teams virtually. It’s a lifelong learning journey.