Virtual Communication in a Crisis

Co-authored with Marcus Wermuth, Engineering Manager at Buffer, Leadership Coach and Remote Work Advocate

This article is an experiment, which started before Coronavirus. We are both interested in and passionate about leadership and communication. After connecting on Linkedin and having an inspiring conversation, we decided to write an article exploring remote work and communication, partnering with our “expertise”. A few weeks later, remote work is everywhere on social media and it would look like we are jumping on the wave. We aren’t. Yes, we have adapted but our focus is more long-term supporting leadership and communication that goes beyond just getting things done. We also want to support leaders who care about people. And we think it makes good business sense. Send us your questions and ideas for articles you would be interested in. We are listening.

Because of our circumstances, we (the authors) have been working either partly or fully remote for many years. Video conferencing, working and communicating on shared platforms with shared documents are normal day to day for us, even more for Marcus, working for an innovative company with a fully distributed team around the world and across multiple time zones. So, this past week, when the Coronavirus crisis hit hard and people were forced to work from home, doing work did not change that much for us. Yet life did.

Our crisis experiences 

Raquel’s experience

On Friday, a decision was made to facilitate a newly merged team remotely on Tuesday instead of in person. Focus was on working agreements and decision prioritization using communication and collaboration techniques with 30 participants. We used Hangout and Google doc links. On Saturday, university classes, normally held on campus were adapted to an online format for Monday. 20 and 12 participants respectively using Zoom. All groups were mainly diverse in culture, all speaking in English as their second language. 

For most participants, it was the first time they had had a workshop or class on-line with video-conferencing and break-out rooms.They went in skeptical and came out inspired. They all loved the small group break-out rooms. They felt connected, listened to and had fun. They also got work done…surprisingly well. Yet the content of the work was secondary. Connecting to each other was primary. And this led to good work as an outcome. A relief and excitement about opportunities.

Adapting quickly to the new situation was made possible by my past experiences. Yet, behind the scenes balancing family time and everyone getting work and school done at the same time is very new. Also care for those in our family that are at risk, without getting close to them. Worry for those who are located far away. Changing travel plans. Worry about financial impact on everything and everyone around us. Noticing the creativity showing up. Noticing blue skies and new sounds.

We all have our stories and our circumstances. And they matter. It’s part of the crisis beyond “just” work from home.

Marcus’ experience

Working in a fully distributed company, prepares you well for a global emergency where everyone is encouraged to stay and work from home. Or at least you would think so. In the past week, I’ve almost had everyone in my network, family or friends saying “this must be business as usual for you, right?” – Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Having a pandemic happening across the world is not business as usual. Even my team, which is spread out from Taiwan to the US, is struggling.

The biggest change in my approach to lead and communicate has been around empathy. One team member, for example, had to stay home since last week along with his 3 small kids. Not having a home office, since he normally works from a co-working space, made things even trickier.

I have been leaning into embracing the situation as it is playing out and encouraging everyone to care for their family first. That also means that I immediately reduced all expectations for the next few weeks and communicated more than usual.

Highlighting it in almost every message that I sent since last week:

😅

“I hope everyone is doing ok and staying safe for now. Just wanted to reiterate what we heard in the Town Hall. The current situation is not normal, and our productivity is likely to be affected. Don’t feel bad if you are less productive!! If you want to continue to work and go heads down into something to distract yourself that is fine too! Do take care of your family and pets first!!”

How do you keep the team together?

What is happening now is not about how to work or facilitate remotely, it is about managing a crisis. This means helping people in our work environment first and foremost to communicate and connect with each other in calming ways which can then lead to their ability to be agile, creative and engaged in their work as much as they can. It’s bringing in the calm while navigating the storm until we land on dry land. And we need to work well with each other to sail the boat in unpredictable weather.

Helping your team feel safe (notice we did not say “think” about safety) so that they can think more clearly and work better with each other is incredibly important. How can you facilitate a space of “psychological safety” online while everyone is working in different locations and in deep fear for their current health and future impact? How can work be more energizing instead of more exhausting by more meetings done the same way as before, yet now via video-conferencing? Will video calls work if you have kids running around you, or if you need to care for a person?

“Communication is the key to building connections. Listening unlocks and opens the door.” Raquel Ark Tweet


Listening is key to making your team feel safe

Research confirms that “managers who listen well are perceived as people leaders, generate more trust, instill higher job satisfaction, and increase their team’s creativity.” according to Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N (Avi) Kluger in a Harvard Business Review article – The Power of Listening in Helping People Change .

This may seem obvious. Or you may be surprised. One way or another, look around you. How are people listening to each other? To whom? When? And how often? When does it work well, and when does that boat almost tip over or lose something/someone of value overboard?

Let’s dig deeper. If you want to replicate the results of the research, it may be simple, but it’s not easy. 3 components that help make listening effective (and efficient) are paying full attention (removing distractions both physically and mentally), making efforts to understand the person/the stakeholder from their perspective while accepting and supporting with no judgement, even if you do not agree. This is called unconditional positive regard, a term from the father of listening, Karl Rogers. And when there is something “critical”, focus on the problem, not the person. 

If you can manage this and facilitate this in your team, watch the magic happen.  Your team members will become more relaxed. When they relax, instead of persuading everyone, they will start to express themselves and speak more clearly. They can actually listen to themselves and become more self-aware which helps explore multiple perspectives around a topic. And even if this may be more vulnerable since they may change their mind, they become less defensive. Your team  is more likely to cooperate instead of compete and share what is needed to make smart decisions while feeling more connected. And it helps their wellbeing.

When you listen to each other, you collectively help each other get smarter and feel better. Team engagement and performance increases. This is good business. Win-win-win. 

And maybe this health crisis is a good reason to make efforts to change unhealthy communication patterns which will only bring people down and can have serious business repercussions. Use this time to reflect on your usual patterns and see if there is space to experiment. Communication is the most important trait that keeps virtual teams working well together, so give it the focus it deserves.

Virtual Listening

Yet how is this even possible when working remotely? Synchronous communication, such as video-conferencing is a good way to get started when facilitating effective communication. Especially during a crisis, if time zones allow it.

Advice we normally wouldn’t give every remote team, but in the past week, we’ve been leaning much more into video calls and daily check ins. Using every chance we get to connect to humans. Checking in with other managers to see how they are doing. Or setting up casual chats at various times of the day, so all the time zones are covered and people have a place to just talk about life.

But be aware that spending your whole day on video calls can also be exhausting. Build in enough breaks for everyone to catch a breath. You can also decide to only do video calls for the most important meetings or those intended to build connections. You can use asynchronous communication and written communication for the rest along, with your daily standups.

For the more serious and focused video meetings, using a specific and simple structure to guide the conversation can make a big difference. One tool is a listening circle, which according to research findings from Kluger and Itzchakov, is an effective intervention that can benefit organizations. And this can be adapted very well on calls where everyone’s voice matters. One version will be explained below. 

Team Meeting

So you have a big team meeting coming up, now what?

Down below you’ll find a structure used in different group meetings this past week with successful results, both in terms of connection and getting things done.

Consider using technology where you are able to break bigger groups into small groups for certain activities, if that is desired. This allows more flexibility, encourages deeper connections, and helps everyone’s voice be heard.

Have a shared space to collect brainstorming, decisions and next steps. This helps give everyone the big picture, make transparent where the team is aligned and where to spend energy on what is needed.

Before getting started, consider the technology you will use and the experience level of the participants. The first run may be more about people feeling comfortable than getting work done.

Consider time management. What can be done async, e.g. a pre-recorded video, a presentation, a shared document answering questions. Then focus your time together for 2-way interaction e.g. group work, Q&A, building relationships, calming your team. Your decisions can be based on considering what is needed for 1) Interaction 2) Input 3) Output. 

You don’t have to do it alone. Team up with someone, especially if you are new at this or it’s a bigger group. When one person is facilitating, the other can help with technology (chats, mute, etc.), for example. Also, if there are break-out rooms, one person can stay in the main room while the other can “visit”  other groups and check-in on progress.

One-to-One Meetings

Continuing to build your relationships with your team is important, and you shouldn’t hold back on doing your One-to-One in a crisis moment. Especially in a moment like this, you want to connect with everyone and see how they are holding up.

You can use most of the Team Meeting advice from above to prepare for those meetings. Have the technology you will use ready and available for both participants. 

To be silent in a conversation is often seen as an embarrassing thing, especially in virtual meetings. Yet enjoying the silence for a couple of seconds can help and won‘t disturb the other person’s thoughts. In fact, it is a gift that allows people to think without being interrupted. Realizing this can help your team appreciate the moments of silence. Video calls might be new to a lot of people, and communicating over video instead of in-person is definitely a shift.

If the silence is getting uncomfortable, you can say, „I don’t want to interrupt your thought process. Let me know when you are ready.” OR  “Just checking to see if you are still there and if there is anything else?” The answer will give you a hint if you are too impatient or if the other person is still thinking or if they are finished. It also signals to the other person that you are still listening, especially when there are weak network connections or frequent drops.

Check out my guide (Marcus) on Virtual 1:1s for more information.

Casual Watercooler Chats

Outside of planned and focused meetings, it is also key to give the team time to bond over non-work related topics. Re-creating the “watercooler” moments has to happen more intentionally in a remote team. Make space for that and create various time slots or various “rooms” that people in your team can simply join and talk. 

Don’t be too strict about the start and end time. Embrace the conversations that will happen in the moment, and let team members listen and talk freely. If someone is quiet, check in with them.

Tools and Templates

Example Agenda for a Virtual Workshop with 30 people

Below is an example of a last minute adapted workshop to remote to give you a feeling of what is possible. We stayed flexible with time, giving the team more time in the breakout rooms during the first round (they asked for this time). On the second round, they needed less time because they were used to the communication structure we proposed. 

13:45 You are ready and waiting. You have invited people to come early to test their technology: microphone, camera, etc. You already sent links to the shared document with a clear structure and agenda so that participants can already think about, comment or question. The ice-breaker question might already be on the shared document, if it takes a few moments to consider.

14:00 Short welcome, agenda.

14:05 Check-in ice-breaker: everyone is heard and seen as a human being. Facilitator calls names and the person unmutes themselves. e.g. Energy level 1-10, If you could choose your superpower, what would it be and why? What is on your mind in one sentence?

14:20 Introduce context and explain the process for group “discussion” and information collection e.g. listening circle and shared document

14:30 Break out groups in 3-5 per group. Small group/partner break-out sessions on agenda questions (less is more) based on a structure where all voices are heard with no-judgment. Give a time limit. Collect information in one space in an organized structure. If they are finished early, need more time or have questions, they can come back to the main room.

15:00 Summarize and document alignments vs. open topics = focus energy

15:10 Clear next steps and who is responsible, timelines, documented

15:15 Check-out: What is my one takeaway (focus on team process)? The facilitator calls names and person unmutes.

15:30 End meeting or take a 30 minute break before repeating the process for next topics. Consider changing groups to build relationships.


Example Listening Circle

This is an adaptation of the listening circle, which helps groups faciliate communication where all voices are heard. Even if team members do not trust each other to listen, if the structure is followed, they will start to trust the structure.

Listening Circle for a remote workshop where participants facilitate themselves
Talking points, possibly in a shared doc as explanation:

Talk through the agenda questions in your group-chat using the “Listening Circle” method. One person is the facilitator and calls on the next speaker. One person is the note-taker and writes down what people say. The facilitator and note-taker will also speak in turn. When you’ve reached a decent consensus write down your answers in (shared document) for each group and then join the main room again. 

When the facilitator calls your name, take a moment to notice if there is something that wants to be said which helps the group. Unmute yourself and then speak or say pass. Only those who want to speak can. If you have nothing to say or do not want to speak, or need more time to think, say ‘I pass’. The facilitator will continue around the circle until there is nothing more that wants to be said, or time is up. You will have a chance to speak again within the time we have, even if you passed in one round. If you do not speak and only listen, know that your high-quality listening is actively supporting the rest of the group. 

 – Speak from the heart: Speak about what is true for you based on your own experiences. Less and more intentional words help people listen to you better.
 – Listen from the heart: Take a break from judging and be willing to change. Be open to discover new ideas, surprising connections, effective solutions together.
– No need to rehearse: When it’s your turn, take a few moments of silence to consider if there is something to say or ask. When we catch ourselves rehearsing (everyone does), we are not listening and miss out. Start listening again.
– Lean expression: Say just enough with the time limits in mind so everyone can speak.
One possible question, “Does this help our team move forward?”

Create space

Dedicated Crisis Slack channel

Allow your team to have space to share any feelings and thoughts around the current situation. As an example that I mentioned above, create a COVID-19 channel and make it available to the team. Don’t force everyone to join but rather make it optional. Making space also means to respect everyone’s coping mechanisms. Some want all the news/information, others prefer to stay away from them.

Share Struggles and Lighten the Mood

Demonstrating empathy, listening to your team members’ stories and sharing your own vulnerability can be key in moments like this. Listening to the individual team members’ needs is important and helps to build connections and foster even deeper relationships. If you yourself are struggling to focus on work all the time, share that with the team. Be open about it and work on it together. Share tips and tricks with each other about how you are coping and some ideas might help others too. You might learn from them.

Lightening the mood and sending a few positive vibes to your team can also be a big help. At Buffer, we created a channel to share funny pictures or videos for this very reason. “How does a funny picture channel help?”. It is also a way of communicating and caring for each other. Sharing funny things that people are experiencing in quarantine. It lifts the spirit and makes virtual work a bit more human, even if the slightest bit.

Summary

We hope that we were able to share a few tips to better communicate and listen in uncertain times. Remember that everyone you are working with, even though they are virtual, are still humans. Video calls and check-ins are important to connect with each other. Yet know that in a long-term remote work situation, our advice would be different. It’s important to notice that a lot of your work can and should be done in an asynchronous way. We are already working on an article that will cover this type of communication. 

Ultimately, it’s about finding the best and most energizing ways to get work done effectively while building a collaborative and motivating team environment among diverse individuals. 

  • Communication is the key to building connection. Listening unlocks and opens the door. 
  • This health crisis might be a good opportunity to change unhealthy communication patterns.
  • Three components help make listening effective: pay full attention, make an effort to understand (minimal interruption) with empathy and listen without judgment.
  • For those new to virtual listening, use a specific and simple structure to guide the conversation.
  • Create space for people to communicate during crises, have casual group meetings, listening circles, or slack channels.
  • Build in enough breaks for everyone to catch a breath since video calls can be exhausting.

Now over to you – do you have any questions or thoughts? Feel free to reach out to us!

*Marcus has been working for a fully remote company, leading teams globally. Raquel has been working partly remote many years with people from around the world on projects,  coaching, facilitating and training in order to balance life with work.

https://www.marcuswermuth.com

Raquel Ark
Raquel Ark
I am a communicator, coach, facilitator devoted to sharing ideas, tools and resources that help you master the art of listening. Listening is the doorway to understanding, the bridge to connections and the foundation of trust.
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