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Remote but still present? The challenges of virtual stakeholder engagement

Even before the pandemic struck the trend for remote working had been on the rise with employees expecting increased flexibility and autonomy in managing their work life balance. However, with the sudden introduction of lockdown, workers were thrust into a situation where they were required to juggle their professional and home lives within the confines of their own four walls, without any preparation or training. Navigating our way through various video call blunders, many of us (and our children) have developed digital communications skills far beyond those our pre-pandemic ways of working required.

Claire Harkin, an experienced Business Consultant and Change Management Practitioner at Principle One, knows as well as any the challenges of working from home with young children and coping with the daily interruptions from Amazon. Claire also juggles her consulting role with completing the final year of a Psychology Masters, which has given her a different perspective on how to communicate, engage and collaborate effectively but remotely with colleagues, customers and wider stakeholders.

Moving into the remote ‘office’ has brought with it many challenges through limiting the effectiveness of our communications, which can derail collaboration efforts and reduce efficiency and productivity among colleagues and stakeholders, putting project delivery at risk.

As social beings, communication is how we interact and engage with others. Verbal and non-verbal communication happen in tandem and non-verbal communication in particular can either reinforce what is being said through speech or contradict it. Remote working therefore limits our effectiveness, with many workers can now ‘hide’ themselves from view during meetings by simply selecting not to turn their cameras on. There may be several valid reasons for doing so, such as a busy background, poor camera quality or social anxiety, but it can also be an avoidance or disengagement tactic, especially in group meetings and those non-verbal communication cues are lost. By not being able to see the person you are talking to, there is a higher probability of miscommunication, or misinterpretation of what is being said and what the general intent is.

Psychology has taught Claire that to communicate effectively, individual differences need to be taken into consideration when developing strategies to work effectively remotely and to get over these barriers. By individual differences, we are referring to the various psychological attributes that dictate how we behave, think or feel. These drive human behaviour and can make remote working for one person an enjoyable experience, but for others, such as those who struggle with self-discipline, a difficult environment to cope with.

Individual differences can impact on productivity and the motivation to engage in the virtual environment. It is more important than ever to appreciate that we are not all remote working robots and that everyone’s experience is different. There may be some people that thrive off remote or hybrid working, whereas others may need that extra encouragement, support or guidance to stay driven and keep communicating.

Expectations in meetings have also changed. Without the chance to catch up quickly and spontaneously with team members as needed, there has been a growth of the full team or ‘all hands’ call. However, while meeting attendance may be higher than a real world workshop, you may have far fewer participants fully engaged and contributing as the temptation and opportunity to multi-task is much greater. In fact, staff are often expected to multi-task throughout a day of back to back meetings simply to stay on top of their workload. Behaviours that would be unacceptable in the room have become a tacitly acknowledged norm during call after call.

So, how do we ensure that our colleagues and stakeholders keep the camera on, communicate effectively and, most importantly, stay engaged? At Principle One, we are involved in many ‘rainbow teams’, bringing together individuals from different organisations who have never met outside their Teams calls, and need to get rapid results from engaging with a diverse and significant number of stakeholders on any one project. We’ve started by focusing on building remote relationships across our own team to enhance engagement and support collaboration – and set us up for working effectively with our remote customers.

Like many other organisations, we have had to be creative in our thinking about how we do this, fighting against the fatigue of yet another Teams call. The Principle One virtual ‘coffee catchups’ proved popular, improving working relationships and helping to boost motivation and we’ve introduced ‘energisers’ into many meetings to bring a more human element to what can be a de-humanising process.

We’ve regularly used energisers to help improve the remote working dynamics of rainbow teams. They are used at the beginning of longer meetings when everyone is asked to turn their cameras on for the first fifteen minutes. There are various types of energisers that can be used, such as using a drawing tool to ask participants to draw what they can see from your window, or where they want to go on their next holiday. No one needs to be Picasso, but the idea is to get people to turn their cameras on and engage with each other, which leads to cameras staying on for longer when we get down to business and greater engagement with each other and with the content of the meeting that follows the energiser.

Working within our rainbow teams and with project stakeholders, we’ve come across more interesting ways to encourage virtual interaction and engagement from attendees. One programme, prior to getting down to business at the weekly stand-ups, has introduced a three-minute ‘show and tell’ delivered by a rotated host, the topics of which have ranged from pet dogs to handmade quilted blankets! Everyone has an opportunity to share, irrespective of experience, level or grade across the business. This mini-icebreaker can help to distract attendees from online anxiety and provides an opportunity to get to know more about the people that we are working with, something that happens less when working remotely, but is crucial when developing strong, collaborative teams. It sends the message that you are interested, willing and fully present in that meeting – and you want others to be so too.

There is a significant reliance on ICT as the key enabler for virtual team working in this new hybrid era, which many of us will have met with resistance. However, once you push past these issues and engage proactively there are many positives that technology can bring, particularly when participating in remote workshops. Something as simple as being able to record the session eliminates the need to take notes, saving time and allowing everyone to fully immerse themselves in the topics being discussed. The use of collaboration tools can offer a readymade record, removing that fear of the white board being accidently erased or post-it notes going astray.

While nothing can compare to face-to-face working and we have come to value the rare opportunities when we do meet up to workshop and work on problems together, it’s rare that it’s possible to get everyone in the same room and many face-to-face workshops end up having to run on a hybrid basis.

One challenge that we currently face is making the hybrid workshops work for both the virtual and in-person attendees, as it’s almost inevitable that someone will be compelled to contribute remotely. There is an immediate divide amongst the participants, with at least one group being at a disadvantage at any one time depending on how the physical/virtual space and materials/technical tools are being used, and this can lead to those dialling in from home feeling isolated and disengaged.

Planning upfront around how you will pace your workshop, ensuring materials are as accessible for those at home as in the room and ensuring you enable contributions from all can help get across this divide. The role of the facilitator in keeping the group together has never been more critical – and we now incorporate managing hybrid meetings as well as in person and remote meetings into our core consulting training. Looking back, we’ve now all become a lot more confident with making use of technology to collaborate and work effectively. Keeping those cameras on is key to ensure that we are fully present and as engaged as if we were sitting round the same table.

There is still work to be done in how we continue to keep the virtual world a place where people want to keep talking and working together easily. We must also not forget the power of in person engagement and need to ensure that the little we are able to have goes a long way to giving us the relationships to return to remote working as needed. The learning curve has been steep and the blurring of the divide between work and life has been challenging and exhausting, but the opportunities to embrace change and become more creative in our communications should not be underestimated.


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