For anyone who has finally met a coworker in person for the first time after years of communicating exclusively by phone, video conference, and email, it should come as no surprise that nuance and complexity can be lost in those remote exchanges. When we meet someone face to face, our minds can better interpret subtle social cues, distinguishing industriousness from rudeness, sly sarcasm from true concern, and other multilayered emotions. Whereas emails may cause confusion or inadvertently stoke conflict, in-person communication tends to clear up a lot of uncertainty.
In the context of the traditional workplace, we may begin with remote communication and only later find an opportunity to meet a team member, report, or supervisor who has been telecommuting or working from another branch. That meeting can often be a startling lesson in gauging personal character and managing preconceptions. But what about when the opposite happens—when in-person interactions move online—as has so often been the case in this COVID-19 moment?
Many leaders have found finessing digital communication subtleties on top of restructuring work protocols during a pandemic to be an overwhelming project. Mark Mortensen and Constance Noonan Hadley surveyed 275 managers last month to see how this period of sheltering in place has challenged team leaders. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the authors say this group “reported a lack of clarity about their team’s role in the leadership agenda, fading interpersonal connections due to remote work, low motivation, and overwhelming workloads.”
As soon as an organization sent employees home to work remotely, that business entered a massive, de facto launch phase. Even under normal circumstances, such a transition would be extremely challenging. Coupled with an absent communal workplace, it becomes astronomically complex. How do we make meaningful connections with that mosaic of poorly lit faces spread across our monitors during a Zoom meeting?
First, I would suggest keeping your reactions in check. Instead of jumping to conclusions, track patterns. One or two incidents of misunderstanding during this dramatic transition might not offer an accurate measure of behavior. If a report or team member appears to be struggling, ask yourself first whether the work conditions themselves have affected your ability to interpret the person’s level of engagement. Remote video conferences can seem to flatten the affect of even naturally enthusiastic employees.
Also consider the fact that you have been deeply affected by these changes, as we all have, and that your normally fine-tuned perceptiveness may need some adjustment in this new environment. Such self-awareness can prepare you to empathize with otherwise highly functional coworkers negatively impacted by the pandemic. We are all experiencing different levels of grief, anxiety, and uncertainty during this time.
As workers are furloughed or laid off and as businesses generally reorganize to weather this crisis, remaining employees are left with more responsibilities, often serving on multiple teams simultaneously. These changes can create confusion, so people are not only managing less satisfactory communications with existing colleagues they’d normally see in person but also finding themselves engaging with new groups they’ve never encountered before. It takes time to adapt to new agendas, dynamics, and personalities, so allow for this learning curve before making assumptions about individual behaviors.
Think of it this way: You started a new job as soon as coronavirus arrived. Channel all the enthusiasm, persistence, openness, ingenuity, and comfort with ambiguity that you would as a new hire with expertise in your industry. There are many unknowns to manage, and giving “the benefit of the doubt” has never been a more valuable skill in an organization.