Angelina Ebeling of acework: “Accommodate different communication styles”

Accommodate different communication styles: Inclusion is key Distributed teams really have an opportunity to be more accommodating to different communication styles. With video calls just being one way to communicate with each other, leaders must think about how to be most inclusive of more vocal and quieter colleagues. For example, give the opportunity to collect ideas […]

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Accommodate different communication styles: Inclusion is key

Distributed teams really have an opportunity to be more accommodating to different communication styles. With video calls just being one way to communicate with each other, leaders must think about how to be most inclusive of more vocal and quieter colleagues. For example, give the opportunity to collect ideas in a written format and asynchronously instead of in a larger conference call. This will give a more equal chance to everyone to share their thoughts, not just those who are quick at articulating ideas.

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angelina Ebeling.

Angelina is the founder and CEO of acework. Acework enables companies to build high-performing distributed teams. Since 2018, Angelina has been growing the acework team of remote work & recruiting experts, supporting companies from large corporates to international scale-ups. She has over 5 years of experience in transitioning companies to flexible working and hybrid team structures. She’s a TEDx speaker, and delivers keynotes about the future of work and talent at global conferences. Prior to founding acework, she led the US expansion of a German tech startup in New York City, where she realised the potential of remote work.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everyone needs to make their own mistakes”. I have learnt this time and again, both in my own experience and watching other people make mistakes I had made before. It definitely is one of my main life lessons as entrepreneur.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Of course there have been many mentors, friends and inspirational people who have helped me get to where I am today. If I had to name just one person, I’d have to say my dad (cheesy, I know!) — but he has been such a support throughout my career. He is an entrepreneur as well, so having him as role model growing up has been such a big inspiration.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Having your team physically together has the advantage of high-bandwidth interaction easily available — meaning a face-to-face conversation is ideally just a short walk away. High-bandwidth communication is ideal for complex, potentially emotional topics, as well as longer creative collaborations, like brainstorming sessions or workshops. That said, both can be done remotely, but need more intentional preparation and are usually more exhausting.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

The biggest challenge is probably leadership of a physically distributed team. Great leaders are coaches, and coaches must tune into the needs of their team members. Often traditional leaders rely on serendipitousencounters to touch base with the team — think ‘quick catch up at the coffee machine’ — but this isn’t possible when the team is distributed.

Another challenge is the flow of information and speed of communication across distributed teams. This is a very common one we have observed at companies that switched from office to remote at the beginning of the pandemic. Teams complained that they drown in a flood of messages, notifications, emails while being booked back to back in calls. The problem here is actually not the fact that the team is distributed, but rather, that they haven’t adjusted their processes for communication and collaboration yet to suit a remote environment.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Master explicit over implicit communication

‘Reading between the lines’ is generally not a good idea, but especially tough in a remote environment. Due to the lack of high-bandwidth interaction, things can get lost in translation, bad internet connections, and poor sound & camera setups. Therefore it is extremely important to practice explicit communication, to be extra clear and to repeat yourself if necessary.

2. Learn to Listen — really, listen.

In line with explicit communication goes active listening. To avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication, active listening becomes much more important when you are on a voice or video call. A good practice is to paraphrase what the other person has said and check if you understood their main point correctly. It takes some practice, but really does help distributed teams feel more connected and work more effectively together.

3. Accommodate different communication styles: Inclusion is key

Distributed teams really have an opportunity to be more accommodating to different communication styles. With video calls just being one way to communicate with each other, leaders must think about how to be most inclusive of more vocal and quieter colleagues. For example, give the opportunity to collect ideas in a written format and asynchronously instead of in a larger conference call. This will give a more equal chance to everyone to share their thoughts, not just those who are quick at articulating ideas.

4. Define channels of communication for different situations

This will help you avoid a flood of messages across channels, and support the team in doing their best work. For example, having shared agreements about when you can just call a colleague out of the blue, and when to send a Slack message instead is quite important. Especially teams that used to work together at an office need to define rules for communication. This includes escalation of requests, like when you don’t hear back from a colleague which is the next appropriate way to get in touch.

5. Learn about your colleagues communication styles

This will help you tune in to how best to communicate with each and every one of them. The easiest way to do this, is by having each team member complete a User Manual of Me, outlining what they need to do their best work — including how to communicate with them. You can download a template for a UmoM here:

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

We’ve always been remote, since I founded the company in 2018, so we have been very used to working remotely. Our only change during lockdown was that we could no longer work from co-working spaces or coffee shops.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

Generally, I’d say that we don’t replicate or try to replace being in the same space. Our processes and ways of working have been optimized for working remotely. When we need high bandwidth communication to solve an issue, we use video calls via Zoom and work together with tools like MURAL or Notion. Essentially every tool that allows for simultaneous work on a document, project, or so on, is effective to collaborate remotely. As for communication and to sync with colleagues, we really like Tandem. It’s ideal to co-work alongside each other on individual tasks and then exchange ideas and quick thoughts on voice. It also combats Zoom fatigue! I’m a big fan of voice only calls with people I know well, and when it’s about a non-critical topic.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

I’m quite happy with what is out there, and the setup that we have at the moment. I like that we think about it digitally, and not in an analogue way. For example, I am not a big fan of these virtual offices or VR environments, and definitely believe that being conscious of effectively using screen time and knowing how to take a break from screen should be a definite priority for all knowledge workers.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

I think it’s an interesting concept, but not one that is very widely adopted or used in the reality of remote business today. Instead of allowing for communications to transform from one medium to another seamlessly, it’s more important today to have those shared agreements about channels and ways of communicating.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

As mentioned before, I’m not the biggest fan of these tools. I’ve looked at and tested quite a few, but they just have never worked for me. They actually create more of a distance with whoever I am speaking with or am supposed to connect to, because they are quite distracting with a lot of bells and whistles. But who knows, maybe after a few iterations they’ll get good enough to convince me.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

As much as I am a remote and flexibly work advocate — I really do believe it makes the integration of work & life so much better for most people — I am also a firm believer in the value of coming together in one physical space to collaborate and connect. Therefore, I think it is very important for companies to start thinking strategically about when they must bring people together. Only when they do this, leveraging the value of physical presence, can they actually design flexible work policies that are sustainable.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

Since we’ve been remote since day 1, we have also made sure we work with all of our clients remotely. We deliver our workshops, coachings and recruiting advisory in our ecosystem of tools, such as Zoom, Meetbutter, Notion, Mural, and our own platform for talent matching. But if a client has another environment, we can jump into that as well. We’ve delivered keynotes on WebEx, and ran workshops on Microsoft Teams. But we definitely make our clients drink the Cool Aid, so to speak. Advising on distributed team management in a conference room seems quite paradox!

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

First and foremost is a basic video call etikette, like making sure both facial expressions and body language are visible. So not sitting to close or too far away from the camera, a good angle, lighting, as well as good sound and stable internet are super important. If you don’t have those basics down and the environment feels compromised, don’t start with tough feedback, it will become stressful.

As second tip, which is probably a general best practice for feedback, but especially important when you have to be on a video call is to practice active listening. This includes rephrasing what your interlocutor has said and asking if you have understood correctly.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

As mentioned before, co-working virtually is one of our main practices. Also coming together for weekly non-work related coffee chats. Most importantly I would say though is that we make an effort to check in with each other, especially when we have scheduled meetings like our all-hands, we take the time to talk about personal stuff for about 5 mins before jumping into the agenda for the meeting.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Definitely follow me on Linkedin, as well as my podcast. It is usually in German but every so often we have an episode in English. There is also plenty of content coming out on our website, so keep an eye on that and subscribe to our newsletter. If you’re a team leader or manager, I’d recommend downloading our guide for remote leadership on the website as well. Find it in the resource section.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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