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One of the effects of Covid 19 in the last few weeks is that that many Leadership and Management teams have experienced first-hand the challenges of working remotely. Very quickly it can lead to misunderstanding and distancing of team members at a time when mutual understanding and joint working is critical.  Often this will not come to light immediately but will manifest in breakdowns in communications creating inefficiencies and frustrations. 

Issues will easily fester, minor resentments may build and, if not addressed develop into the first set of problems to be addressed on the return to work when things get back to “normal” if not sooner.

However, current circumstances also present the opportunity to develop and create better interactions and ways of working.  Where teams can build upon this, they will also be able to implement and roll out improved face to face interactions later down the line.  The Keys below set out a structure and practice for team communications that will pre-empt challenges and deepen understandings eye to eye and face to face.

Develop the Agenda for Structured regular “check-ins”
The way we talk to and connect with our colleagues when working remotely is crucial.  It will also be different to how most of us do it generally.  This is because we need to consciously capture information that sits beyond the “what needs to be done”.  We need to understand assumptions that each person is making and the plethora of “unsaids” that are more often picked up face to face.

To do this, we need to ensure that 1:1 and team check ins are regular and diarised and that a more thoughtful agenda is applied.  The purpose of this agenda, which is set out below, is to capture both the practical and relational.  Albeit, that it is a slightly alternative format, the agenda will still cover the conversations required but enable the interaction to make room the relationship to develop.

In each meeting, individuals should cover the following areas.  Sometimes, some of them may have more attention than others but all are important.

> Appreciations:
Here we talk quite simply, about what we appreciate in the other person.  This may be something they have done or how they have behaved.  Having this on the agenda allows members of a team to openly acknowledge others’ qualities or achievements otherwise be brushed over.  It also clarifies what was done and can unearth new information or indeed actions to be taken.

Crucially, an appreciation allows the person who is acknowledged to know that what they have done or how they behave is seen and recognised instead of feeling taken for granted.  No acknowledgement is too small because often it is the little things we do that we want others to appreciate and when they do we feel valued and more motivated. 

> Puzzles:
These are issues that you don’t yet have an answer to.  These are often things that are brushed under the carpet precisely because we can’t see the solution.  However, putting them on the agenda in this way allows people to talk them through even though they may not be able to reach a final solution straight away.  It allows time for creative thought and to play with ideas that again, we might only do face to face with a colleague over a coffee break if at all.

> New Information:
This could be anything from upcoming meetings to research on a competitor that you want to take time thinking about or that you feel the other person needs to know.  It may relate to a change of routine or working practice.  It may also, at this time, be personal information such as an illness or death in another person that has affected us in the past week.  New information is often missed in assumptions.  Having it specifically on the agenda forces each person to thing carefully if there is anything they have not communicated and might be helpful to expand on.

> Complaints and Recommendations
Working in teams can be frustrating at the best of times, we pick up irritations with our colleagues easily.  Putting complaints on the agenda acknowledges that these are inevitable.  Putting recommendations together with the complaints allows a the complainant to offer ways that their complaints can be addressed as opposed to just “having a moan”.

Complaints and recommendations can of course be sensitive.  So, key to talking about these is to recognise that we are voicing the complaint, recommending how we would like things to be different but recognising that the other person may have a different perspective on how to address the issue.

> Hopes and Dreams:
As high stress conversations can easily become transactional and highly practical, it is helpful to create a space for hopes and dreams.  This is an opportunity to share some blue-sky thinking, to think beyond the current situation and find a way to move perspective to the future.  This agenda item also allows colleagues to understand each-others’ drivers and to start to support each other with them as well as getting on with the day job.  Often this identifies or re-emphasises common interests and needs which are a useful starting point for tricky negotiations

 Listen in the Silence …. then ask big beautiful questions.
Communication breakdowns often start one or both people talking over each other or, one party not talking at all.  When either of these things happen or when communications become confusing or generally fraught, the best place to start is deep and focussed listening.  This means listening attentively both to what colleagues are saying and what they are not.  By listening and reflecting back what people have said we clarify our understanding and leave less room for misinterpretation. When we find ourselves trying to make the other person listen to us, the best place to start is to listen to them.  When we have done so they are likely to be much more open to listen to us.

One crucial element of listening and reflecting back is to be open to clarifications and accept that what we think we have heard may not have been what the other person said or, indeed, meant to say. 

 In a remote environment, it is very easy for people to stop communicating or to retreat to their “caves”.  Often people just do this as they don’t have an answer.  This may feel harder to do when people are not responding and we can start to interpret their silence or “make up” what we think they mean.  It can be very powerful to reflect that back whilst still owning the fact that we may have misinterpreted the situation.  We could say something like “I notice you are not responding and what I am understanding from that is [XYZ] OR what I make up is [XYZ]”

Then, when we have fully and deeply listened, can we ask open questions that allow the other person to give us their perspective.  These are open questions like “What do you want?” “How do you see that happening” and questions using the word “if” to test out alternative ideas for example “If we did X, might that work for you?”.  These questions provide an opportunity to support the other person and build on their ideas rather than a more accusatory set of questions that corner the other person and shuts the communication back down.

Take advantage boundaries set by technology
Finally, anyone who has developed training or interactive meetings through video conferencing recently will know that the meeting runs best when “ground rules” and boundaries are in place.  Technology sets quite a few ground rules such as that one person speaks at a time and that everyone else listens.

Break out rooms can be controlled and time limited which for facilitator who struggles with getting participants to come back into the group might be a bit of a gift!  They can also be quite an intimate space in which honest conversations can be had literally in ones’ own home. 

Developing ground rules and boundaries in online conversations is a powerful practice.  It is useful to think about and communicate how you are going to have the conversation, look at individual preferences and adapt working practices accordingly.

There is no doubt that remote communication requires work and thought.  However, it is precisely this thought that can build relationships and develop the emotional intelligence in a team that improves communications relationships and ultimately efficiency.

Louisa Weinstein – Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre

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