7 Steps for Leaders to Connect Better with Multi-Generational Virtual Teams
Erin Urban, PMI Houston Contributor
“I feel so disconnected from my team” a client shared with me in frustration. “Being forced to work remotely and manage virtual teams is a little stressful – I connect better in person. I also feel very inefficient, like it takes longer to get even the simplest task done.” I can sympathize with my client! They are correct: you are more efficient when you are able to meet your teams in person. As humans, we are simply wired that way. However, what happens when you are either forced to lead virtual teams due to circumstances or the nature of your job? Regardless of the reason you are working remotely or leading remote teams; it’s critical to figure out how you can connect better with your virtual team.
Interestingly, connecting online becomes more of an issue based on which generation you identify with. Due to comfort level differences with technology and variances in behavior expectations across generations – the gap is distinct between what different multi-generational professionals need to feel included, heard, respected, and connected.
The challenge with leading remote teams
The challenge with leading remote employees is that we have had thousands of years to evolve how we build trust and form relationships with others. None of those include email, instant messaging, or video calls. If you want to communicate most effectively - meet with your team and connect in person. The problem with this is: not everyone has this luxury. Circumstances and business needs demand that we must become more agile in our methods to lead and connect with remote teams more effectively.
The other hurdles awaiting remote team leaders extend beyond the disconnect that a virtual work environment creates. In addition to a nagging feeling of isolation, there are increasing demands on leaders to be more authentic. One of the big questions I get as a coach is: “How am I supposed to be more authentic when I don’t even see half of my team in person?” The other question I get is: “What does authenticity even really mean?” The gap between what some leaders feel like is ‘enough’ to engage their teams and what the (sometimes younger) team members might prefer is daunting to many leaders. The good news is, there are some easy steps you can take as a leader to elevate your team engagement and help your team thrive – even in remote work environments.
The generation leadership expectation gap
The tipping point for most leaders in the Baby Boomer and a few in Generation X experience is what ‘authentic’ leadership really means. For most, it’s extremely frustrating. For these two generations, they have a belief system that one should be very professional at work, discussing personal matters isn’t appropriate, and you don’t come to work to make friends. There is a sharper line between their work and personal lives for these two generations. In addition, many professionals that identify with being a Baby Boomer or Gen X are not as comfortable with technology. It’s not to say that they aren’t tech-savvy, they just view technology differently. Tech, for many people in these two generations is a tool: not an extension of your life. For most, particularly the ‘Boomers’, technology is either a necessary evil or something that is used when you have to. These two generations are much more adept at segmenting and creating silos around certain areas of their lives (and businesses). They can also more adept at interpersonal business relationships.
In contrast, for those identifying with Gen Y & Gen Z – technology is almost second nature. Technology for these two generations is an extension of themselves. The lines between work and personal lives are also less defined. As technology is integrated into the Gen Y and Z belief structure, so is their work perspective. These two generations have fewer segmentations between different aspects of their lives and a more fluid approach. Consequently, what they consider ‘authenticity’ is more open, vulnerable, and tremendously terrifying for some Boomers as well as Gen X.
Essentially: what Gen Y and Z need to feel connected to the community, feel heard and valued goes directly against some of the belief structures for the Boomers and Gen X. As a leader, the first step I will encourage you to take is to remove the label ‘right or wrong’ when it comes to how others need to be heard and valued. Instead: I recommend that you shift your perspective to realize that other people have different needs and ‘languages’ based on their belief system. It doesn’t make it wrong, it’s just different.
Authenticity in the virtual environment
When it comes to leading remote teams and connecting in a virtual environment, being authentic at the level needed by those you lead is essential. If there is a gap here, the natural feeling of isolation and discontinuity will expand into discontent between team members. As a leader, it’s your job to support your teams at the highest level. The good news is, if this is outside of your comfort zone – that means you are growing too.
Here are some basic considerations that you, as a leader, can focus on to connect better to your remote team.
1. Acting on authenticity.
You, the leader, are a human being. This means that you have a life outside of work, dreams, aspirations, and you aren’t perfect. It is a great idea to share a little bit about yourself and allow your team to get to know you. This doesn’t, however, include sharing things that will compromise your credibility as a person. Also, please do not get caught in the trap of refusing to admit mistakes – this is incredibly inauthentic and compromises your credibility more than you realize.
2. Get to know your team.
Hand in hand with being a ‘real person’ is the importance of getting to know your team. Learn what their dreams, aspirations, and challenges are. This means making space to get to know those you lead outside of the virtual meeting routine. Schedule regular 1:1 meetings with your team members to not only get to know them but provide a platform to support their professional development.
3. Set expectations.
A remote work environment is more fluid. To thrive and increase productivity, providing a framework that your team can relax against is extremely important to lower stress levels, increase engagement and better manage deliverables. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Have a set staff meeting to share information, updates, set priorities, mitigate drift, and collaborate towards a goal. Best practices are to have this meeting be a video conference call and everyone is expected to have their camera on. While not every connection with your team must include the video camera – seeing one another’s faces a few times a week is a great idea.
Set clear boundaries to help eliminate the feeling of being ‘always on’ – a huge complaint for remote employees. Many remote workers report struggling with working longer hours than if they came into the office. Psychologically, the inclusion of work inside a personal setting (such as your home) can intrude upon the personal space of your remote team. Set work hours and stick to them.
Set clear and measurable goals that your team can track against. Even better if these goals are shared in a collaborative virtual space online so you don’t have to wait until a staff meeting to see how your team is doing on their projects or deliverables. This fosters a spirit of collaboration, transparency, and accountability.
Establish an easily-indexed hub of information so you and your team do not have to waste time ‘hunting’ for files, information, etc. Ideally, you will have some form of shared drive and a repository for all information as well as a way to make trending information very accessible to your team. They will feel more connected and better prepared not to mention vastly more efficiently.
Encourage peer-to-peer feedback and provide an acknowledgment platform. I recommend training your team on how to provide constructive feedback first and set a precedence that it is expected as well as appreciated to help one another grow and develop. In addition to this – the importance of acknowledging others' positive contributions must be absolutely ingrained in your team’s mindset.
Share wins and accomplishments for yourself and, most importantly, for others. Everyone is encouraged to participate, not just the team, the leader too! Because historically leaders have been less than transparent, there are a lot of workplace myths around what managers do and don’t do. Instead, be open and share your wins in the spirit of authenticity and model the behavior for your team.
Have phone calls. Not every meeting or every touchpoint has to include video. In fact, it’s best if they don’t. Establish a balance between when it is expected to send a message, have a call, or video call. Not everyone performs their best in front of a camera. Honor different work styles and mix up your communication style but set a precedent. If it’s a complex matter – perhaps a video call is best. If it’s just informational – send an email. A quick note is great for instant messenger. If it’s a conversation between two people, a phone call is fine.
4. Have a virtual open door.
Some managers of remote teams have a set day/time where they are literally ‘open’ for anyone that wants to sign on to a virtual video chat about anything. This removes the mental shackles of the traditional meeting and gives permission to your team to come to you for any reason during this set time each week. Whether it’s to talk something over or just chat, it fosters the sense of connection that is challenging to develop at a distance.
5. Be more transparent.
When possible and when it does not compromise your leadership confidentiality – share what you are working on and encourage others to do the same. It’s important for your team (virtual or not) to understand how their work matters and what is going on in the organization as a whole. While it’s likely you have a set staff meeting – there are productivity tools that empower teams to easily share what they are working on, thinking about, or what amuses them throughout the week external to a ‘formal’ meeting.
6. Be more proactive.
Ask the question: “How can I help you be more productive and feel more connected?'' Not only does this send the clear message that you care, it also eliminates the feeling that your team has to ‘bother’ you with a question. For those that identify with Gen Y and Z – they have been taught by the education system to come up with the answers on their own. This can create a feeling of isolation for remote workers because they often hesitate to ask for help based on their belief system.
7. Show up online.
Multigenerational teams will have varying degrees of comfortability with ‘showing up’ online across the team. Regardless of your generation identification, there are quite a few best practices to keep in mind in order to bring the real you into the virtual landscape. The challenge is: it requires more energy to do! However, without a firm grasp on what ‘showing up’ means and looks like – most team meetings turn into a window of zombie faces, little to no interaction, or minimal participation. Here are some tips to be engaging, engage your team, and foster a sense of community.
Don’t just sit there. ‘Showing up’ to the virtual event means that you must engage! It’s important to ‘emote’ more than you would normally (by up to 30% more). This is super annoying to introverts but it’s also very important. Because you are in a virtual environment and missing essential non-verbal cues, almost everything you do must be elevated and more animated than normal.
Modulate your tone of voice. Monotone folks need to work really hard to develop vocal variation. Vocal variety helps with engagement and communicating your intent. Again, the virtual environment is missing most non-verbal cues so we need to add a little spice into our audio presentation skills. It also helps to keep other people from falling asleep while you are talking.
Use your facial expressions! You must smile! Show everyone that you are glad to be there. Elevate your expressions and put more emphasis on them to convey your intent. Do not allow your face to slide into ‘neutral’. This is a MUST – otherwise, you end up looking disgruntled (or a zombie) for the majority of the meeting.
Be aware of your background. Take a look at yourself in the video – what’s going on behind you? Is the room a mess, is there a fan rotating on your head, are you sharing more than you want with your coworkers? While some video conferencing software allows you to choose your background on a green screen, I recommend a good old-fashioned folding screen to eliminate distractions. Virtual backgrounds can be just as distracting, depending on what they are.
Mind your camera angle. No one wants to look up your nose or at the top of your head. Buy a cheap secondary camera if you need to and place it evenly with your face. This sends a much better impression and subconsciously puts you on ‘eye-to-eye’ with your fellow participants. With that said, also note your lighting quality. Interior lighting is terrible. If you have access to filtered natural light, that is always best (and not when it behind your head).
Look the part. Working remotely doesn’t mean you can forget to brush your teeth or do something with your face. Dress as you would when you go to the office. People can always create a new impression of you at any time. Be mindful of what you visually represent. Wearing a sweatshirt or a 3-day old T-shirt in your virtual meetings doesn’t send the best message unless that is what is expected to be worn on the job.
The difference between authentic and inappropriate
Those professionals who identify with the Baby Boomers and Gen X definitely need to relax a little bit to adapt and connect better with Gen Y and Z. However, there is a line between what is authentic and just plain inappropriate. Expressing yourself and being true to who you are is a great idea – unless it violates a code of ethics, dress code, or basic social appropriateness.
For example, having green hair or tattoos doesn’t have any bearing on one’s professional performance or intellect. On the other hand, being rude, antagonistic, disrespectful, or bigoted in any way is completely inappropriate. If one wants to share what they did over the weekend – great! Except when the story becomes gauche or potentially damaging to one’s reputation. No one needs to hear that your friend had to fish you out of the ditch because you were that drunk.
From time to time, people misunderstand what ‘authentic’ means. In the spirit of diversity and inclusion, this means you can be the person you are regardless of your cultural background, political or religious preferences, etc. It does not mean that it is advisable to be defiantly authentic when it makes your coworkers uncomfortable or be insensitive to those you work with or around.
Basically, be yourself and use good sense when it comes to what you share with those you work with. Filter out what may not be most advisable to discuss at the workplace and be sensitive to other’s feelings, backgrounds, gender identification, etc. This is called being polite. Unlike the historical years of corporate business, it is now a great idea to not just be known for more than what you do at work. Sharing a little bit about who you are helps others connect with you regardless of generation or work location. As a leader, it’s your goal to create a safe environment for your team to be themselves and support their optimal productivity, even if they are not co-located.