Communication for Remote Leaders by Shauna Moran

“Communication can be defined as a leading factor for remote teams to ensure team members, managers, and stakeholders are informed and on track to pursue the project objectives.   Communication is also the key to identifying issues, risks, misunderstandings, and all other challenges to project completion. Finally, good communication is a leading contributor to high employee engagement, thriving company culture and trusting working relationships” opened Shauna Moran, founder of Operate Remote highlighting the central role that communications has in the success of remote working.

Under the banner of ‘Effective Communication for Remote Leaders’ Shauna discussed a wide variety of areas from the communication responsibilities and the vital skills of an effective remote leader through to building inclusive and engaged remote teams in the latest Lunchtime Bytes Webinar from the ICBE Business Excellence Skillnet.

Shauna outlined that leaders of remote teams  face 4 key communication challenges including:

  1. Lack of real human communication can contribute to feelings of loneliness, demotivation and general lack of engagement
  2. Lack of clearly defined communication expectations and boundaries leads to duplication of efforts, miscommunication and ineffectiveness
  3. Asynchronous communication over synchronous communication- tightening up both processes
  4. Over communication leads to distractions, inefficiencies and overwhelm

Shauna emphasised the need for social interaction but also warned against too much and the need to have a balance.  She also counselled being deliberate on objectives but that leaders also need to be realistic about boundaries and working hours especially with managing childcare.

Synchronous communication means that two or more people exchange information in real-time. In most workplaces communication happens that way and people expect real-time responses.  Asynchronous communication refers to the exchange of data between two or more parties without the requirement for all the recipients to respond immediately.  Shauna reminded the group that Asynchronous was the norm in remote working and leaders needs to readjust their practices.  This can involve a change in culture.   In this new world some leads can respond with over communication which can further compound problems.

Shauna asked the attendees on the webinar to ponder how they are managing themselves s as Leaders by probing:

  • Based on how I’m now managing my time and energy, what do I need to communicate to my team? 
  • Based on my work priorities, where does my team require more transparency? 
  • How can we hold each other accountable to managing our time, energy and wellbeing? 
  • How can I create a culture of accountability and responsibility? How can I ensure my team are empowered to best manage themselves?

As a reminder on self help and monitoring energy levels Shauna said “You cannot pour from a empty glass” before advising that leaders should share their own time availability/schedules and to encourage their team to do the same in order to create a culture of transparency.  Leaders also need to be clear about priorities and to communicate these effectively.  As remote teams struggle with boundaries, sometimes being hyper productive by over working leaders need to work out how to support each other.
As a hierarchy communication operates at different levels ranging from talk at employee, talking to them, speaking to them, up to the higher level of listening and empowering.  In remote working environments leaders need to listen more, tune into people by asking the right questions (frequently open ended ones) in order to empower them to work independently.  “What is not being said is quite often really important” warned Shauna.

Communications expectations covering the why, when and how are virtal in remote environments and Shauna again asked the group to explore a number of questions with their teams covering:

  • What are the working and communication expectations you have for your team? Have you revisited this since you started working remotely?  Does your team understand what’s expected of them? 
  • What do you expect from team members around when and how they communicate with each other? 
  • What does GREAT communication look like on your team? What are the best practises your team should follow?
  • Are your expectations realistic for your team? How have you communicated your expectations? How do you lead by example? 

By being transparent, realistic and open leaders can set the right structure and understanding to avoid misunderstanding.

“Look at what has worked well, record it and learn to improve processes” counselled Shauna.

Establishing and understanding healthy boundaries leads to calm communication.  Shauna structured this around three areas:

  • It Can Wait
    • Most things can wait until someone is available or even the next day. If it can’t, there’s probably a larger issue at hand.
  • Protect Time
    • Protect people’s time and attention. Calm is 40 hours a week with time off and an end in sight. Meetings are a last resort.
  • Async First
    • Use async as much as possible. Real time chat or calls should not be the norm. Learn to work independently of your team. 

Teams need to learn how to ‘time box’ for priorities and manage email and other tools to enable asynch communications and enable independent working.

In discussing remote team culture Shaun asked ‘what company values or behaviours should your team really live into throughout uncertainty?’ and  ‘How have your team dealt with uncertainty in the past? How can they use that knowledge to support them now?

By discussing these openly leaders can normalise discomfort in changing working environments reframe them as an opportunity.  This implies more listening and different leadership styles more akin to coaching.

“Team building still happens in remote teams but needs to be redefined” she added.

“Virtual socialising and relationship building requires out-of-box thinking!” said Shauna as she outlined some novel ways of narrowing the social gaps between working in a physical office and remote environments.  Some of the tools at the disposal of leaders include

  • Take a picture of your desk
  • Coffee and connect
  • Spotify team playlists
  • Lunch and learns
  • Online games afternoon
  • Book and podcast clubs
  • Walk and talk meetings
  • Live remote office

Shauna gave an example of working with developers who are less comfortable with verbal socialisation and group discussion instead used animated gif images to communicate their emotions.  Flexibility should be given to teams to come up with ideas on socialising.

By quoting LSE Director Minouche Shafik  “In the past leadership was about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in future they’ll be about the heart” Shauna demonstrated the change in leadership towards increased empathy warning that we are now in this phase of leadership evolution.

“Leaders need to be more deliberate with transparency, building interpersonal relationships and listening” said Shana as she shared some frameworks using CLEAR, TRUST and LEARN acronyms:

Transparency CLEAR

  • C- Communicate
  • L- Lead By Example
  • E- Expectations
  • A- Accessibility
  • R- Regular Updates

Building interpersonal relationships TRUST

  • T- Time
  • R- Remember
  • U- Understand
  • S- Social
  • T- Thank

Listening LEARN

  • L- Listen
  • E- Empathize
  • A- Ask Open Ended Q’s
  • R- Recap
  • N- Next Steps

Shauna finished up her webinar with a synopsis of how to build a remote communication strategy looking at four key pillars with key areas to explore.

  1. Communication expectations and boundaries 

“Defining your communication plan is figuring out what kind of communication your stakeholders need from the project so they can make good decisions and effectively function as a team” said Shauna.

  1. Empowering your team to create better processes

Are you listening to your team’s feedback as to what’s working, what isn’t and what needs improving? 

How can you give them autonomy to make better processes and experiment with new ways of communicating?

  1. Choose the right tools, for the right message

Do you need to procure new technology or systems, or are there systems already in place that will work?

Are your team members experienced at using this technology, or will you need
to train them? 

“Start simple”added Shauna

  1. Translating your leadership skills for remote environments

What are your strengths as a leader and how can you translate that into remote environments for your team during this time of change? 

The session finished up with many questions around the increased use of webcams engagement with Shauna advising having open conversation, increased empathy and trying to understand behaviour and avoiding unneeded confrontation. 

You can browse Shauna’s presentation below.