Examine each job carefully and decide what can be done remotely — either in its entirety or in a hybrid form and ensure that decisions are done using a rubric that is fair to all employees. It should not be up to a manager’s or an employee’s preference alone. The job description should include skills needed to work in a hybrid or remote fashion and . Managers need to outline performance outcomes and expectations clearly and carefully including what times they are expected to work and how accessible they need to be for unplanned calls or emails. Employees need to feel confident that there isn’t favoritism or unfair perks or flexibility.
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 Diane Gayeski.
Back in 1981, Diane Gayeski, Ph.D. was already adopting Alvin Toffler’s concept of hybrid work from her “Electronic Cottage” in centrally-isolated Ithaca, NY, using CompuServe on an Apple IIe to collaborate with colleagues and clients across the globe. Since then, she’s established her position as a leading futurist in workplace communication technologies, spending her time both as a professor in the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College and as a consultant / executive briefing leader through Gayeski Analytics. She regularly teaches courses and leads consulting engagements on the topics of new technologies for virtual learning and collaboration, performance management for the new workplace, and attracting and accommodating Gen-Z workers and customers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I fell in love with communications in 3rd grade when my hometown’s most popular radio station moved into my father’s office building. I’d spend Saturday mornings with my nose pressed up against the studio window until finally one of the DJs (our local celebrity) took pity and invited me in. I was hooked. Then Public Television came out with Sesame Street and I was inspired by its fusion of creativity, humor, and educational theory. I went on to study broadcasting at Ithaca College, then continued with my master’s and Ph.D. in educational communications and was recruited back to Ithaca to teach corporate communications and training when I was 25. As a new professor, I participated in some of the early experiments lashing together personal computers with VCRs and I found my niche. I began teaching and producing interactive media — quite literally defining the field by writing the first book on the topic — and the world beat a path to my door. My company was launched from an “electronic cottage” on a dirt road just outside Ithaca, NY, a beautiful college town known as “centrally isolated” and “5 square miles surrounded by reality”.
I wanted to see if I could experiment not only with new technologies but with new models of integrating professional and personal life. As the company grew with projects, clients, and contractors coming through the house, we found a new spot — a home built on the foundation of 2 stone barns from the 1850s; one wing is the home and one wing is the office and they are connected by a huge kitchen and surrounded by 5 acres of orchards, a stream and a pond. But would clients accustomed to being wined and dined by big agencies in urban office towers ever take us seriously? Well — they did. They actually loved coming to Ithaca, dressing down in their jeans, and being in a relaxed but inspiring atmosphere. We had locally sourced food catered in by the famous vegetarian restaurant, Moosewood. Clients met my family. It actually increased my credibility because they were able to see exactly who was running the company and who was working on their projects. Most of them have remained colleagues and friends for over 30 years.
No two projects were ever the same, so I relied on a team of colleagues / contractors who could be assembled to work on a project. While some were local, most were not. In over 300 client projects, only three were for local organizations. So over the years, I’ve adopted a number of technologies and techniques to work across time and space.
I also have maintained a full-time tenured teaching position at Ithaca College in communication management and design. I developed their first online course in the early 2000s called Online Learning and Collaboration, and I taught a new version of it last spring during COVID-19 lockdown. The student teams worked with corporate leaders to compile recommendations on how best to leverage online technologies and hybrid work situations as they were knee-deep struggling with these issues.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of the most interesting stories leads directly from my last comments about having contractors and clients across the globe. Jim, a young MIT graduate who lived a block away, was working on our biggest project ever — a custom-designed software tool that would allow trainers at a huge multi-national pharmaceutical company to develop computer-based interactive learning programs for their sales reps without having to learn a bit of code, and to be able to customize the content for each national market. A lot was at stake. Our client had just been hired after his predecessor was canned for leading a failed multi-million dollar project to create interactive videodisc training for this same international product launch challenge. Well, about a third of the way into the project, Jim got the opportunity he had been dreaming of — to study for a year in Japan on a cultural exchange program. He didn’t want to let us down, but we didn’t want him to pass up this chance. We decided to try and have him work remotely, sending us the code he would develop after every day’s work over a dial-up modem using AOL (this was in the mid-80s before the days of universal email and high-speed internet!). We’d then try it out, send him feedback, and if need be, get on a long distance phone call. Well, not only did it work out, but we actually finished the project under time and budget. We discovered what many software companies now practice in their “follow the sun” project teams who hand off work to each other across time zones so that somebody is working on a project 24 hours a day. Oh, and by the way, Jim became fluent in Japanese and met the girl of his dreams, now his wife. Our client got a promotion. The project was featured in articles and conference presentations. The client is still a friend, went on to get his Ph.D. in learning and development focusing on international training, I was on his dissertation committee and now he’s in semi-retirement and teaching remotely for the online master’s degree in communications innovation that I run. I call that success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. “ That quote was attributed both to Confucius and to Mark Twain. Neither is around for me to verify.
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?
There’s really not one particular person but there are many clients and colleagues who believed in me even when it seemed that I was too far ahead of my time. Ithaca College allowed me to develop a course in Interactive Media and run the first public workshops on the topic to be offered by a higher ed institution back in 1980. They literally didn’t know what channel they were watching when I showed them demos, and most of them — especially the dean at the time — refused to even touch personal computers because in those days only “secretaries” did typing! Clients believed in me even though I didn’t have a huge company and conventional offices, and they gave me challenging and lucrative projects that allowed me to continue learning, to travel, to buy emerging hardware and software, and to share that new knowledge with my students.
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?
People are “wired” to work together in person. We can attend to many channels of cues, some of which we are not even aware such as scent or brain waves. Being physically together allows you to yell across an office “what’s the name of that guy who called yesterday about our copier contract?” and brings up opportunities for informal chat that can spawn innovation and personal growth. Most people use work as an important part of their social life, so being physically together offers more time for personal bonds and conversations — such as noticing a photo of a boat on somebody’s desk and asking if they like to sail, or seeing flowers on somebody’s desk and asking if it’s a special occasion. You can have coffee together, go out to lunch, and share recipes waiting for your turn at the microwave. Those bonds engender trust and commitment — key to innovation and human capital development.
Obviously, some jobs can ONLY be done with a team that’s physically together (a surgical team for instance) — and many jobs have important aspects that can’t easily be replicated virtually. Most of us sat through brave attempts at plays and concerts and weddings that were online — but truly not the same.
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?
A lot of this depends on whether the work was designed to be remote and if people were trained and ready to work in that modality — or if it was — as it was for most people this past year — something that they had to “pivot” into. Even if the jobs are designed to be remote, and workers have a great remote setup and are happy to work in that fashion, some challenges remain.
- Most communication has to be scheduled in advance. Typically, people only meet virtually by appointment, and there’s little or no chatter before or after the meeting. It’s difficult to know when a colleague is free for just a quick question or even a not-very-important story to share. It’s so much easier to walk past somebody’s office or see them in the hallway. That informal communication is what often builds relationships, a corporate culture, and sparks innovation or new insights and that gets lost too often in a more structured virtual environment.
- Most managers are lousy at evaluating true performance. They often — even unintentionally — rate employees based on how they appear to carry themselves and arrange their workspaces, how they dress, whether they come to work on time or stay late, and whether they look “busy”. In an digital environment, real performance outcomes need to be developed and employees need to be evaluated on what gets done — not HOW it gets done and that’s not simple for many supervisors.
- An environment shapes behavior, culture, and values. Going to work in a place with impressive views, posters of products or client projects, a bustle of activity in conference rooms, pictures of the founders or old factories, or even in a place with elegant or modern décor sets a mood and it communicates important values, history and goals to employees. In a virtual work environment, employees are often only aware of their own current work, and that’s too narrow of a focus and outlook.
- When people are not in the same space, they are often also not in the same time schedule. One of the biggest values of remote work is the ability of workers to adjust their schedules to their own personal preferences or family needs. Additionally, remote workers may not even be in the same time zone. This makes setting up meetings even more challenging and sometimes forces workers who are in an odd time zone to work at unnatural times.
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.)
- Examine each job carefully and decide what can be done remotely — either in its entirety or in a hybrid form and ensure that decisions are done using a rubric that is fair to all employees. It should not be up to a manager’s or an employee’s preference alone. The job description should include skills needed to work in a hybrid or remote fashion and . Managers need to outline performance outcomes and expectations clearly and carefully including what times they are expected to work and how accessible they need to be for unplanned calls or emails. Employees need to feel confident that there isn’t favoritism or unfair perks or flexibility. A friend of mine was hired as a Chief Marketing Officer about a year before COVID hit; it was clear from the interviews that he’d be expected to move from his home in Washington, DC to the small Pennsylvania town where the company was located, which he did. Only after a few weeks on the job did he discover that the VP of Product Development who was hired only a month before he was not only got to work remotely, but he was also given a company car for his monthly three-day visits to the office, about the same distance away as my friend would have been in Washington. Their jobs are essentially the same in terms of employee supervision and the kinds of executive decision-making and meetings that make up most of the workday. And of course, my friend was perfectly able to do his job working 100% from home during COVID — but only after he had sold his beloved condo in DC, said goodbye to his friends, and moved to an entirely unfamiliar place and little apartment with no friends. My friend feels that the other guy was allowed to work from home because he has a wife and kids and my friend is single… NOT a good way to make a business decision — and actually this kind of thing is the set-up for a discrimination complaint! This situation engendered a feeling of resentment, and furthermore the company is now having to deal with these kinds of questions as they are preparing for everyone to go back to the office — in some form or another. Most want hybrid work, but the decisions will need to be made with much more care and transparency.
- Prepare employees with the skills and technologies they need to work remotely and set clear expectations for both behavior and for a work set-up. Most people have not learned the techniques of virtual collaboration and they may not be familiar with the tools. Provide training on all of the tools your company uses as well as the soft skills of virtual teams and remote management techniques. In employment contracts or job descriptions, be clear about schedules, expectations as to availability and response times (e.g. employees are expected to be available to answer unscheduled calls or texts between the hours of 11-AM — 3PM Eastern time within 15 minutes). Provide them with the proper equipment, perhaps including some stipend for ergonomic office furnishings, large or multiple monitors, headphones, etc. Make it clear what expectations you have for their work environment. Is it ok for them to be working off a kitchen table with kids and dogs walking by? On the beach with a skimpy bathing suit while they’re conferencing with a supplier? Do you need to ensure data and conversation privacy? Should laptops and cell phones be kept in a separate and locked room and do employees need to ensure that nobody can overhear conversations? One of my class clients last spring was a large firm that supports lawyers across the US by providing court reporting and transcribed interviews with expert witnesses. When they had to go virtual during COVID, there were many questions about the security of these very private conversations and transcripts. Could family members overhear interviews with witnesses? Could somebody break in and steal a laptop? Were their wireless connections secure? They had to very quickly come up with some solutions, understanding that nobody expected a work-from home model — especially also with kids and spouses also home! They provided some simple guidelines like using headphones for conversations and finding a room with a door — even if it was the garage — when they were in meetings.
- Develop a tech stack that is used for virtual collaboration with a minimal number of different applications or interfaces — and make sure that everybody sticks to using only those tools. It can be extremely confusing when a team is not sure where documents are stored, or when meetings pop up on different platforms. Critical data can be lost or at the very least, become inaccessible. There are now many suites of tools — some of the most commonly used and robust ones are Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace. Both integrate tools for email, text chat, shared digital whiteboards, calendars, and shared documents such as documents, spreadsheets, forms and slides that can be kept in files that are protected and only accessible to approved people. At Ithaca College, we have a variety of online tools that have been used for course materials, shared documents and drives, and video conferencing platforms. When everybody went remote, it was a bit confusing for students, faculty, and staff to know where and how to collaborate, teach, and find information. Most faculty did not ordinarily use shared cloud-based storage for files, and just kept things on their hard drives or their shared drive on a college server. This quickly became problematic because most faculty and staff did not have remote access set up to the server (A VPN connection) — they didn’t even know what it was — and some didn’t even have laptops. Some professors used email and Zoom or even Skype for their courses, and some used another learning management tool called Sakai which was itself not standardized in terms of interface for different courses. Some staff teams used Microsoft’s cloud and Teams and some used Sakai for storing documents. Over the year, much of this became standardized; all courses all moved to a more modern learning management called Canvas, and the instructional technology staff created course templates and training for faculty so that the look and feel for all courses was consistent for students. All staff projects are currently being moved off Sakai and onto Teams. And Zoom is the video conferencing tool that’s supported for classroom use, kept secure from intruders, and integrated with our Outlook calendar.
- When establishing work or project teams, use the tools and research on teambuilding, intercultural communication, and project management to manage conflict and expectations and to keep everybody on the same page. When work goes remote, one advantage is that it allows companies to recruit talent regardless of their location. That can mean new challenges as groups form with new members, and with members who may not be from the same region or country. The old model of “form, storm, norm, perform, and adjourn” is a good concept to remember as teams go through their process of attacking a project. We often forget to take the time to build the team and to develop trust — made even more difficult in a remote environment. We also forget that all teams seem to have that “storm” stage and it’s easy to get frustrated or even punish team members when conflict arises. The digitality of remote teams means that it’s easy for people to forward emails or text messages or even snippets of a Zoom meeting to call out others’ behavior, thereby escalating the conflict. And we’ve all experienced the problems that happen when somebody misinterprets a joke or sarcasm shared over email without the facial expressions and tone of voice that could have cleared up the miscommunication. Managers and team leaders should be prepared to coach teams and help them use conflict productively. When onboarding members from other cultures, take the time to learn about the typical norms of that culture, and give them a bit of a “pass” on some communication that might seem awkward. When one of my clients, a Fortune 50 industrial manufacturer, decided to form training teams based on product rather than on location, entirely new teams needed to be built and nurtured. When I conducted a workshop with them from their headquarters in suburban NY, members were conferencing in from Chicago, Tokyo, Milan, Rio De Janeiro, and Mumbai. Instead of jumping right into project work, the learning leader knew enough to make time for teambuilding exercises — and ones that didn’t seem “phony”. They would often start meetings by sharing something interesting about their city. They all read some articles about intercultural communication, including Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions. (Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, 2010, by Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov). They celebrated birthdays and holidays by all eating some treat during a meeting. And they did make the investment for the team to meet at least once a year in each of the members’ locations — not just at corporate headquarters in the US. They understood that not all team members had similar expectations for being accessible outside of “normal” work hours or what “being on time” meant. They discussed what was considered polite behavior in their cultures — such as whether it was considered polite or impolite to ask questions of speakers after their presentation.
- Watch out for unintentional threats to diversity and inclusion and examine practices and tools that may need to be modified. During the last 18 months, we’ve not only struggled with new communication technologies, but we’ve also been made painfully aware of systemic discrimination barriers to success and inclusion that are faced by members from typically under-represented or under-served communities. While this certainly happens in the face-to-face workplace, it can be heightened in a remote workplace. It’s all too easy for people who already know each other and who have common backgrounds to stay in touch informally — they may already have common connections such as going to the same place or worship or having kids in the same school. These informal connections can lead to better problem-solving, to coaching, and to feeling engaged. In real life, we can at least physically see each other, and we may be put in situations where we talk informally with people we otherwise don’t know and thereby develop a relationship. In the remote workplace, most communication is formal and intentional, and it may be very uncomfortable for a new or “different” person to reach out informally to chat with a team member or supervisor. We need to make sure we are not excluding some individuals from important coaching and social support. While remote workplace tools have reduced barriers for some individuals with disabilities, they have created challenges for others. For instance, a worker who uses a wheelchair may find it much easier to work from home. Individuals with chronic health conditions may be able to practice better self-care, eat healthier meals, and schedule their work when they are feeling better. However, individuals with other disabilities — often hidden — may find remote work more challenging. Workers with ADHD may find it much more difficult to pay attention in Zoom meetings and may get more distracted when working from home. Individuals who have auditory processing challenges can find it very challenging to make sense of phone calls, and individuals with dyslexia face exhaustion from having to process even more emails and text messages. One positive example: a large healthcare system created expectations for managers and senior peers on teams to reach out to new remote team members to have informal coffee or lunch meetings (either in person if possible or virtual if not) when they can talk about how things are going, share some stories about the company’s history or interesting facts about the division in which they’re working, and offer mentoring on both a personal and professional level. This seems to be working to ensure that everyone feels included and “seen” by their boss and peers. On the other hand, some other barriers have been impossible to surmount. Several high-tech companies had been establishing teams of individuals with autism — both as a means to be more inclusive and because these individuals often out-perform neuro-typical employees in areas like cyber security and code testing. There had been careful training for their supervisors, including tips on how best to supervise these individuals, set up a conducive workplace, and get them incorporated into the social and work culture. When work went virtual, this kind of careful observation, workplace design and coaching became much more challenging. While these individuals may well have been able to perform their jobs, the important goal of developing their workplace and social skills was compromised and these individuals were even more isolated.
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?
I’ll speak from my perspective in higher ed, and of course our biggest challenge was to move all classroom instruction — including very hands-on courses in film production, physical therapy, music performance, and art — online in a period of one week! Most (but not all) professors had college-supplied laptops but they certainly were not set up to teach from home and to have the kind of auditory and visually appropriate space that live teaching or recording lectures requires. Some didn’t have high-speed internet, and others were sharing a connection with a spouse and several kids. Most had never taught online. Students were on spring break and were told to stay away for an additional week — but in the end, they were not allowed to return to campus to retrieve their belongings from the dorms until mid-summer and classes remained online until the following spring semester! Most had never taken a course online and many had left their laptops in their dorms or apartments, and had gone to some warm beach to relax! Of course staff faced the same issues, and some could work from home on their own computers or on a college computer while the jobs of others literally could not be done remotely.
Some of the wonderful things the college did include
- Setting up immediate virtual workshops (which were all recorded) for professors on how to use our online learning platform and Zoom to teach. Individual appointments with tech staff could be set up.
- The IT department got loaner laptops and mobile hot spots to professors who didn’t have a computer or an internet connection at home.
- Many web pages were created on how to continue to work online or teach online — many tutorials, including video demos were created about how to install a virtual private network to access the college servers, how to use Zoom to teach, or how to use tools like Microsoft Teams.
- Some staff remain working remotely at their choice; the college set up a way for them to access their regular business phone number from their personal phones.
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?
I guess I’d like to switch up the question and talk about how to most effectively collaborate and communicate in a newly designed virtual environment RATHER than how to “replicate” what it’s like to work together. It’s kind of like the early days of film where producers thought of it as just a means to capture ongoing events or theatre productions. It was not until they discovered that they could use editing and different camera angles to show something DIFFERENT than a real-life, real-time experience that film came into its own. When professors first taught online, they thought of merely replicating the classroom experience; however, they quickly discovered that they could use powerful new approaches to make their classes much more tailed to individual students and to increase engagement. Instead of lecturing to a screen full of Zoom squares, professors recorded their lectures or assigned readings that could be done asynchronously and then used the time together for discussion, collaboration via whiteboards, and group work through breakout rooms.
Many people (including me!) appreciate the ability to work undisturbed by “drive by” peers who just want to chat. Most employees like having a more flexible schedule, and to be able to “attend” a meeting that might conflict with other duties by watching a recording. And most of all, many organizations appreciate the fact that they can assemble the “dream team” regardless of location. That’s certainly the way that I designed my own consulting company. So I would strongly suggest that organizations RE-design work rather than trying to replicate the ways they used to work in the office.
The most robust and complex tools are not necessarily the best. We’ve found that Zoom can work quite well for meetings as well as for teaching. Simple tools such as Microsoft Online or Google docs allow people to collaborate on documents without having to email endless versions. Texting is a good way to ask quick questions or share a joke or story or update without disturbing somebody’s concentration or meeting with a phone call. In my class consulting projects, we used Microsoft Teams productively. We had a team site set up for the entire class where I could share updates, readings, and documents and where I could schedule a few synchronous meetings with all the students. But I also set up individual “channels” for each team project, and only they and their clients and I could access the messages and documents in those channels. We were able to add our clients to these channels even though they were external to our college, and they could be assured that their communications and documents were kept secure. All of their meetings with clients and with me were recorded so if somebody missed a meeting or didn’t remember something that was said, it could be reviewed. We also used some of the built-in project management tools so I could set deadlines for class deliverables and the students could then set up other key tasks with deadlines and individuals associated with them.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I would design something that’s a blend of Match.com and Microsoft Teams that wanting to stay on top of virtual reality for training or who’d like to talk with a fellow veteran about job hunting strategies ). It would suggest “matches” in terms of people with whom to network as well as online conversations, professional resources, and current articles. And it would be a platform like Teams or Google Workspace where individuals could opt into informal ‘chats’, video meetings, or projects and share documents.
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?
Absolutely. As I mentioned above, one of the biggest challenges has been the proliferation of tools and the common practice of individuals deciding which tool they prefer to use rather than having a standardized tech stack. This caused a huge tax on individuals’ time and attention because they were constantly having to learn new tools, install them, troubleshoot them, and figure out which meeting or document was where. When we were occasionally sharing documents and we physically meet in the same conference room each week, tit was a not big deal. But when everything went virtual there was a lot of chaos and time and money wasted.
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?
Yes- some of the tools like Hubilo and Dreamcast use immersive VR and avatars to create shared spaces where people can virtually ‘walk around’ and engage in private or small group chats on the spur of the moment. For teams that need to visualize objects or spaces, these tools are invaluable. I would expect that many of these will at some point integrate more analytics and AI so that connections or conversations might be ‘suggested’ by the platform. Combining AI and VR will be very important for employee training as well .. see for example https://www.rit.edu/news/researchers-develop-manufacturing-training-will-include-ai-and-virtual-reality-technology
Our admission office used Spatial Chat to hold virtual open houses for prospective students last spring. All these new tools require a lot of experimentation and re-thinking the entire experience rather than trying to replicate former “in real life” experiences.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
For sure. Privacy. And micro-management. We are already always-on and digital tools allow employers to track everything that people “say” and “do” especially when the work and communication occur digitally. And the analytics in team software platforms supposedly allow managers to coach employees when they are working TOO hard — but my skepticism also suggests that this can allow managers to focus too much on when employees take breaks, when they look at websites that are supposedly not part of their jobs or create stats on who they communicate with most frequently.
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?
This applies mostly for me to the way that my college interacts with prospective students. We had already begun to record virtual tours and to have optional Zoom chats for parents and prospective students with our department chairs and deans. Our admission office now is using chatbots, many more virtual tours, and has used some virtual meeting environments like SpatialChat to hold virtual open houses.
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?
Actually, the ability to carefully construct feedback instead of having to do it in real time is a plus. I would suggest that when critical feedback needs to be given by a supervisor or even a peer, a good way to start might be a short email that you can very carefully craft that begins with your own feelings and experiences and asks questions about what’s going on — and then suggests a synchronous meeting by videoconference.
It might look like this:
Dear Diane, I hope your week is going well. Did you get the rainstorm that hit here in the home office yesterday? I hope you didn’t experience any flooding — several of us had washed out basements.
I would like to set up a video conference with you on Friday. I’ve noticed that you have not yet posted your section of the Robo report that I had expected to see yesterday by noon, and I’m getting worried. A few of your teammates are being held up with their parts and we wanted to see if we could find a better way to help you meet your deadlines. My calendar shows that you’re free at 10 on Friday, so look for a Zoom invitation from me — or let me know another time before the end of the week that might work for you.
Then, the video call might go something like this:
Supervisor: Re-state problem — not meeting deadline — this has happened before. Supervisor is starting to feel anxious — and teammates are being to feel resentful. Ask Diane what is happening on her end and what is she experiencing?
Supervisor then listens to explanation and re-states what employee has said. Supervisor then follows up either having a better understanding of the situation — or more likely asks the employee what we can do together to make her work successful, stressing that her input is valuable. Agree on next steps and goals and set up a time to check in again.]
Follow up with an e-mail re-stating what was agreed upon.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
From my perspective in working with Gen-Z college students about to enter the workplace, they are looking for a connection with their employer and teammates around values and the overall goals of the organization. No amount of virtual cocktail parties, stickers for being a good teammate, or team challenges whether online or in person on a ropes course is going to give them a sense of camaraderie for very long if they don’t truly embrace their part of an overall bigger mission. Once employees are feeling good about what they’re doing and where they work, using tools that give a sense of virtual presence are useful — especially if they can indicate whether somebody is open to being interrupted for a brief chat. We need to replicate what we had in person by seeing whether an office door is closed or if someone looks intently down at their screen or is on the phone — or on the other hand if an office mate is strolling back from lunch or getting coffee in the break room. Managers also need to help teams celebrate milestones and personal events like birthdays -or major work anniversaries- but this is also true in the traditional office environment.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
To design and promote a new “ideal” lifestyle that has more fluid boundaries between and equally values productive and inspiring work, family, community, and recreation — with an expanded notion of sustainability that includes climate, mental and physical health, and social structures. We might call it integrated living design.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.