Herbert Lundström, Partner
Structured Profitability Oy 

Since March one of the most actual themes managers have brought up in their coaching sessions is “How do I lead my remotely working team? To say the least, the confusion and uncertainty is often tangible. As coaches we have observed that the managerial communication of this Covid-19 pandemic clearly seeks its form and content, in some cases profoundly.

Confusion hits first

Naturally, one can understand the concern. As the boss it’s frustrating to partly be unaware of what your co-workers are up to. On one hand you want to trust your squad, but on the other you need the meet your personal and the employer ́s goals, there be a pandemic or not. Most likely you have got the necessary communication platforms and tools: Chats, Teams, Skype, e-mail etc. are all at your disposal. However, the fact remains. Your co-workers want to see a personal glimpse of you live, and every now and then have a conversation one-on-one.  

I can personally share a store of an office worker, who after being forced to working remotely in the spring, didn’t exchange one single spoken word with her boss for over a month. Well, our internal sparring partnering produced a solution, normalizing their relation. I sincerely hope this is a single incident, but I’m afraid we have similar cases out there.  

To express it shortly, communication is the fuel of your leadership. As an executive you are expected to communicate your willpower, share the decisions you make, delegate and guide your team. And in addition to those, one hundred more issues demanding communication. You are in charge of keeping the wheels rolling, aren’t you. In addition, your alertness is also seriously challenged during this pandemic. 

It is your duty to ensure, that the members of your team are mentally and physically coping with their workload and working just by themselves. The danger is real, that you are misjudging the situation. Especially, as you are in a situation, there are no joint coffee or lunch breaks and no opportunities for a management-by-walking-arounds. As your on-line Teams sessions are concentrating on every day business topics, they won’t provide much help either. 

If the caring for each other lacks its normal personal channels, the “feeling of emotional belonging” gradually lessens.  Apparently also the “We spirit” suffers, as the raging of the Covid virus just continues.

Stop, ponder and listen actively

So, this is the moment for a short stop. You can start by asking yourself two questions. 

  • How satisfied are you with your managerial communication during the pandemic? 
  • How actively have you evaluated the mood, coping and work satisfaction of your co-workers, now working at home. 
  • If you gave yourself a satisfactory mark in the first question, why wasn´t it a good mark?  What more need to have happened in your managerial communication to mark it as good? If it still makes sense to correct those shortcomings, start with those. However, if you came up with some issues even more urgent, giving all this a thought was time well spent, wasn’t it. At the same time, you probably got some answers why you were partly stuck up with your managerial communication to begin with. Furthermore, it is not a bad idea at all, to ventilate the communication issue as a team.   

However, be merciful to yourself. It just happens. that important, but not so urgent issues are postponed as the hectic days pass by. I fully understand that your day is filled with meetings, taking care of internal bureaucracy and handling upcoming operational “fires”. The world is not collapsing in six months. You still got the time carry out necessary corrective action.    

Regarding the second question, as coaches we observe many managers are realizing, that a proper handling of the situation requires a dialogue. Just simply asking questions and receiving answers won’t do. The dialogue should be based on active listening. There’s always room to increase the utilization rate of your ears. However, in order to be an active listener, you will have to use all your senses. Listening with all your senses, you are also analyzing your counterparts body language. Manners, eye movements, expression of feelings, the strength of the voice and emphasizing of words are all strengthening the message of your companion.

Communicating just in written involves many challenges. Take this following little test, and you will notice:  

Read aloud the following sentence “I want this”. Do it three timesaccentuating each of the words alternately: 

I want this”, ”I WANT this”, ”I want THIS” 

Being so a trivial example, it still shows the risks involved with written communication. You interpret it very likely in your own way. Orally communicated and emphasized the risk of misinterpretation is small indeed.  

No doubt, comparing with a live meeting, it is more demanding to be an active listener on line. Being so, you probably have at your disposal a video tool. Use that, don’t hide behind the phone. You will have eye contact and from the facial expressions of your companion you get more out of the communication. 

The power of active listening lies in the possibility of reflecting back what you are hearing. This ensures you fully understand the message. You can just paraphrase back: “If I have understood you correctly, you are telling that… Be focused, as an active listener you cannot simultaneously have a glimpse at the business magazine, read papers or finger on your mobile phone. Uups, in seconds you lost the red line of what you were being told. Your active listening turned in to just hearing words and 90 percent of the intensity of your dialogue vanished. Your little trick was intended to be a time saver. However, it ended up with your companion having to repeat him- or herself. Two damages with your one action.

The active listener creates trust and improve satisfaction at work

You must be the example. Don’t wait, the initiative must be yours. When you are all ears and listen actively your companion notices, that you are present and interested. You are having a genuine dialogue. As active listener you allow your team member to talk without being interrupted. You also use the silence and let her or him give a thorough thought to what to reply on your comments. While the other is talking, don’t be concerned what you will answer or ask next. When listening actively, your reply or follow-up question arise by itself. Avoid leading questions or giving advice immediately as well.  It is unwise, but easy to bring forth your leading comment, for instance by guiding your team member “In my opinion, you could…

No doubt, chats and e-mails have their advantages running your team. However, they never must act as substitutes for your oral personal interaction.  Active listening has a key role when interacting with your staff. One thing leads to the next. When using active listening, the content of dialogue is deeper and the quality gets better. As a consequence of that, your internal trust grows and you start valuing each other more. Thus, you are gradually creating an atmosphere of internal support and encouraging feedback. This strengthens your team spirit and secure work productivity of the team during this problematic pandemic. In addition, the elements mentioned are important bricks when building the work satisfaction. So increased work satisfaction appears as a bonus.

A leadership coach provides help

It sounds easy, doesn’t it.  Sorry to say, it is not. Your own managerial style develops and changes as time goes by. There always a risk you won’t notice that deep-rooted habits has interfered with your managerial communication. But getting rid of those habits won’t come easy. Changing yourself and your behaviour sustainably are among the most challenging areas of change management. 

Thus, coaching is a usable tool to correct the situation. A leadership coach can assist you in developing your own managerial communication routines. Routines, that fit your personal leadership style and meet the needs of your own team. As coaches we are not enforcing some pre-designed way of acting, but supporting you to create your own better routines. I’m delighted to give more information to those interested. If you haven’t tried it, I sincerely recommend you give it a try

Learn from your peers, the pandemic is not over yet

The only way to become a skilled active listener is to practice and systematically execute your active listening routines. However, active listening is a key element of your leadership, both leading during the present pandemic and otherwise. At the moment many organizations work using the so called hybrid model. In a hybrid model part of the personnel works remote, the other part of it works on site. So, now is the perfect time to improve in active listening. In addition, there are other challenges to cope with regarding the hybrid working model as well. I’ll be back to some of these in my upcoming posts.     

You don’t necessarily have to be on our own with all your leadership challenges. You can learn from your peers. A lot of articles, videos and webinars have been published about the managerial challenges of the Corona pandemic. With a little of research, you’ll find your information channels, giving advice or sharing experience about the issues you are interested in.  

Personally I’m actively taking part in webinar series conducted by the Finnish participants of the international #GoodAfterCovid19 -movement. This series is concentrating on the managerial challenges the Covid-19 -period has caused, and are still to cause. Top executives and university professors share their experience and knowledge how to cope with the managerial disruptions the pandemic has brought forth. Thus the webinars are a great source of new insight, best practices and thoughts how to lead during the ongoing pandemic. The four already held webinars, all in English, are available on our website. Please, welcome to share.

Final thoughts

Support each other. Encourage each other. Take care of each other. As the boss you carry the biggest responsibility that the high quality dialogue is present end evolving. It is obvious, we must mentally hold out with this Corona misery until next spring, with bad luck even longer. When most of your team members are distance working, a dialogue based on active listening is more crucial than ever before. If you are not up to that yet, now is the moment to get started.

Herbert Lundström works as a partner with Structured Profitability Oy (Ltd). His areas of expertise include leading the productivity and change management programmes and working as a professional leadership coach. He is also lecturing and guiding students in several managerial programmes. You reach Herbert by e-mail: herbert.lundstrom(at)sprof.fi and by phone +358505002310. 

The webinars of #GoodAfterCovid-19 series mentioned in the blog are available at www.sprof.fi/webinars