Author: Chad Roedder
Understand and leverage your communication style to improve virtual team leadership
Leaders face workforce challenges and curveballs almost daily in managing their teams. However, few leaders anticipated the critical shift toward a remote workplace that swept many employers in 2020.
Nearly overnight, workplaces shuttered across the globe, forcing those employees who could, to grab a laptop and carve out a work space in their homes. According to research by Gallagher as reported in the company's 2021 Benefits Strategy & Benchmarking Survey, remote employees make up more than 50% of the workforce for nearly one in five responding organizations. Further, Wileyublished a 2021 survey that indicated only 22% of U.S. respondents worked from home at least part time before the pandemic. Today, that figure has grown to more than 51% of employees working from home at least part time, according to the findings.
This dramatic shift created a steep learning curve for employees and leaders alike. Many employers are taking a serious look at maintaining some level of remote workforce. As one measure, 86% of employers responding to a June 2020 Gallagher COVID-19 Return-to-Workplace Pulse Survey indicated they are considering whether the practice makes sense for their workforce going forward.
The challenge of strengthening a virtual culture
Given this backdrop, leaders must tackle new and very real challenges to attract, motivate, retain and develop their remote teams to create a productive remote work culture. The spontaneous, casual and face-to-face conversations between employees and their managers likely occur less frequently now. As leaders, we know that authentic, human-based connections help to drive employee engagement, collaboration and a sense of belonging. The question becomes, how can leaders best harness the passion of their employees to support better career and organizational wellbeing?
We recommend enhanced focus and strategic investment of resources to strengthen the virtual culture. Wiley's survey supports this strategy, reporting that an overwhelming 98% agreed that an organization's culture greatly impacts its success, and 99% agreed that the culture can be improved. Virtual workers sometimes struggle to engage, and may exhibit such apathetic behaviors as snarky comments, minimal participation, and more frequently missed deadlines than their in-office counterparts. Research from Gallagher and other sources shows that the biggest influences on culture include:
- Mission, Visions, Values
When the Wiley survey asked leaders to rank skills by importance to virtual work, "Social and Emotional Skills" ranked second behind "Critical Thinking Skills." It may seem obvious that organizations would value social and emotional skills even more now than before the pandemic. However, unlike critical thinking skills, social and emotional skills can be difficult to learn because individuals may have to "unlearn" some core behaviors. For example, an employee may be more of an introvert and prefer the comfort of the home office "cave" to team interaction. In this new work environment, the leader may have to help the employee unlearn the need for total isolation to remain part of a high performing team. If you were to categorize your employees into four buckets, as many psychological assessments do, you will find typical traits that describe employees' communication styles: dominant, influencer, supporter, analytic.
The leadership advisory consultants at Gallagher are licensed and certified users of Wiley's "Everything DiSC® Workplace" personal assessment tool, and incorporate its uses into many of our leadership development projects. Psychologist and inventor William Marston, Ph.D., created the DiSC theory emotional and behavioral self-assessment tool in the 1920s. Everything DiSC Workplace equips participants with valuable insights to help them better understand themselves and others, while offering actionable ways to strengthen their relationships in the workplace.
The tool helps individuals assess themselves within four quadrants: Dominance (D), Influence (i), Steadiness (S), and Conscientiousness (C). Using the Everything DiSC Workplace Profile, employees increase their self-awareness, learn about and understand other styles, and build more effective relationships as a team.
Using this process, the first step toward improving leadership skills involves understanding your own DiSC style and how it shows up to others. The four sections below describe this for each of the four styles.
The Dominance style tends to show up to others as direct, firm, strong-willed, forceful, and results-oriented. Leaders gravitating toward the direct and results-oriented nature tend to provide remote employees with clear direction about priorities. However, those who have the Dominance style may struggle to slow down and ask questions about whether remote employees have the information and resources they need, or such leaders may neglect to check in with remote workers' emotional states. Employees using phone and video communication may hesitate to bring up areas of conflict out of concern that they will be unsuccessful reaching resolution without the benefit of body language. While they are not reluctant to bring up areas of conflict, those with the Dominance style may not always prioritize asking questions and listening to others' point of view with an open mind.
The Influence style tends to show up as outgoing, enthusiastic, optimistic, high-spirited, and lively. Their optimistic nature can provide a buffer against many of the hassles and anxieties associated with remote work, and may help increase the resilience of remote workers. The outgoing Influence style also facilitates frequent check-in conversations, helping to build relationships with remote workers that encompass personal as well as work-related connections.
Such personal connections can help to minimize isolation that some remote workers feel. While adept in building relationships, those with the Influence style may need to temper their enthusiasm appropriately to reduce the chance of overlooking or minimizing challenges that some remote workers face during the day. Common examples include managing elder care or childcare responsibilities.
The Steadiness style tends to show up to others as even-tempered, accommodating, patient, humble, and tactful. The even-tempered nature of those with this style is likely to smooth out the highs and lows that remote workers, especially those who are newly remote, might experience. This calming influence is among the single greatest assets that the Steadiness style brings to leadership. Such leaders likely will excel at helping remote workers navigate such issues as those related to technology, communication, and scheduling. While patience and humility will nurture relationships, leaders with the Steadiness must be sufficiently direct with their reports to support clarity, given the ambiguity that remote work can create.
The Conscientious style tends to show up to others as analytical, reserved, precise, private, and systematic. The analytical and systematic approached favored by leaders with this style is a good fit with creating and implementing structures and processes that can make remote work as productive and seamless as possible. The Conscientious style also supports identifying and clarifying priorities and addressing the uncertainty that remote workers sometimes face. The private and reserved nature of this style can be an issue about which Conscientious style leaders need to stay mindful. Creating and nurturing personal connections with direct reports working remotely is a critical part of keeping employees engaged. Conscientious style leaders may, at times, neglect these personal connections.
Understanding how your style tends to show up to others is important; however, such awareness informs only part of what you need to consider when leading virtual employees. The sections below identify how to flex your leadership style to your direct reports, based on their DiSC styles
When managing remote employees who tend toward the Dominant style, use the following approach:
- Arrive early for the video teleconference
- Make eye contact
- Limit non-work related chit-chat
- State the goals for the meeting up front
- Allow the employee to identify goals first
- Move quickly through the agenda and watch body language to ensure the employee is tracking
- Check in to see if the level of detail is meeting needs
- Ask directly for what you need the employee to do
- Provide direct, clear, and concise feedback
- End the call early if the conversation accomplished the goal
When managing remote employees who reflect the Influence style, use the following approach:
- Schedule the meeting for a little longer than needed to allow time for extra chitchat and discussion
- Allow the employee to speak first
- Inquire about their personal hobbies, experiences, family stories
- Share about your own personal accomplishments or challenges
- Gently move into the agenda
- Check in with the employee to determine agreement with the goals for call, and change the agenda as needed
- Ask a lot of questions and prepare to listen to the employee talk
- Guide the employee to a decision, conclusion or stated opinion
- Recognize accomplishments with praise
- Schedule regular and frequent check-ins
- Consider instant messaging
When managing remote employees who gravitate toward the Steadiness style, use the following approach.
- Provide a long lead time and advance notice of the meeting to allow the employee to fully prepare
- Send materials ahead of time to allow the employee time to read
- Start on time
- Make eye contact in a friendly manner; smile
- Inquire as to how the employee is feeling
- Start with acknowledging the employee's value to the team and to you
- Praise frequently and reinforce the employee's value
- Be clear on expectations and goals for the project or discussion
- Ask questions to clarify understanding
- Use emojis as appropriate
When managing remote employees who fall within the Conscientious style, use the following approach.
- Provide agenda and pre-read information well in advance
- Allow the employee to shape decisions
- Use data and facts to build credibility and engagement
- Keep the pace suitable for them to pause and think in the moment
- Avoid being too informal and asking personal questions
- Address the ambiguity they may feel working remotely and take steps to give them clear direction and expectations
- Be direct and specific regarding what you need them to do and by when
- Avoid putting them in situations that might elicit extreme emotion or where others might show extreme emotions
- Use advance scheduling; avoid instant messaging and impromptu meetings
Tailoring your leadership style to your direct report's personality is a well-accepted best practice to build a healthy organizational culture. That said, several leadership techniques work effectively with nearly all employees, regardless of communication style. Consider using the following questions with remote employees to help stay connected and to keep them engaged.
10 Questions to Help You Stay Connected with Remote Workers
- How is your day going, and how is your energy level?
- What challenges are you working on? What success or setbacks have you had recently?
- What is the best single step we could take to improve our communication?
- Which aspects of your work do you find most energizing and which are most draining?
- What is something you are anxious about? What could be done to reduce that anxiety?
- Are your work priorities clear? If not, what is unclear about your priorities?
- Do you prefer collaborating with others or working alone? What is your ideal mix?
- Has communication among our team been effective? Why or why not?
- How are you taking breaks and re-energizing during the day? Is it working for you?
- What is the single best step I can take to support your efforts?
There is no doubt that teamwork across distant locations has become normal in a highly interconnected global workplace. Forging stronger connections with team members is crucial to ensuring organizational goals stay the course. During this time of uncertainty, managers can demonstrate trust in their teams, support overall organizational wellbeing and face the future with confidence. Remember, we are all in this together to build a healthy remote work culture and better organizational wellbeing.
Contact us if Gallagher's Leadership Advisory team can help your organization to face the future with confidence.