How managers can improve virtual communications and learning

How managers can improve virtual communications and learning

If ever there was a time for managers to think about how to communicate effectively with remote teams, it’s now.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which started in 2020, was the catalyst for many businesses making the permanent switch to hybrid and remote working. There have been meteoric rises in the use of virtual communications, from video conferencing to messaging apps, and internet traffic spiked 25-30% higher than usual as a direct consequence of the pandemic.

There is a lot more noise to contend with and a lot more desire to seek out information, which increases the comms challenge for organisations and employees.

These are all challenges that managers need to respond to. 51% of L&D practitioners say that line managers encourage participation in learning and development, but only 39% believe that individuals are given time away from their day-to-day role to actually take part in learning. Beyond the training itself, just 36% of line managers support their employees to bring what they've learnt back into their day-to-day roles, suggesting that while managers have good intentions, they're not always getting it exactly right when it comes to holistically supporting learning and development efforts.


Building successful learning cultures

Managers need to be working with employees and with L&D to ensure learning is effective. Moreover, another report, How the Workforce Learns, by Degreed and Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, talks about the importance of managers working with employees to boost skills and address skills gaps. In a piece written for MIT Sloan Management Review by Kelly Palmer, chief learning officer of Degreed and co-author of The Expertise Economy, says managers have a critically important role to play in building successful learning cultures. Palmer cites several key statistics from the report:

  • Just 40% of workers agreed that their manager helps them to understand what skills they need to advance in their careers
  • 22% say their managers do not encourage or enable learning at all
  • 17% said their managers help create a plan or set goals for developing skills

Clearly, there is much more that managers could and should be doing to improve workplace learning. 

In this virtual world we’re all living and working in, it’s not just learning that is being delivered online. Companies are also reliant on virtual delivery of internal communications. The challenge for leaders is reaching and engaging employees through communications and learning. 


The role of managers in virtual communications

Since 2009, The Institute of Leadership and Management has been researching levels of trust in leaders and managers. The research focuses on seven dimensions of trust. They are:

  • Consistency – behaving in a reliable and predictable manner
  • Integrity – striving to be honest and fair in decision-making
  • Openness – being receptive to ideas and opinions 
  • Ability – the leader’s ability to do their job
  • Understanding- displaying knowledge and understanding of their employees’ roles and responsibilities
  • Fairness – behaving fairly and showing concern for the welfare of employees
  • Accessibility – being available to staff

The latest iteration of the research in 2023 found that trust in line managers has fallen over the last decade, from 71% to 67% – but curiously, trust in CEOs has increased by the same four percentage points, from 58% to 62%. One particularly interesting finding from the report is that the more time employees spend working from home, the more likely they are to trust their line manager – while 62.8% of employees who work exclusively on-site trust their line manager, a whopping 88.3% of those working remotely 'most of the time' say the same.

In contrast, working remotely has virtually no impact on trust in the CEO – likely because contact with the CEO is relatively limited no matter where an employee works. But it's clear that employees are significantly more likely to trust their own line manager when they work remotely, despite the fact that face-to-face interaction may rarely or never happen. It's likely that improvements to virtual communications in recent years have a big role to play in this intriguing finding.


Connectivity is key for virtual team communication

The authors of the research suggest that connectivity is key to building trust in organisations. In the Institute of Leadership's Index of Leadership Trust 2023 report, they suggest an explanation for the link between great virtual communications and the likelihood that remote workers will trust their managers:

"There are two possible (and nonexclusive) explanations; people are more likely to work from home a significant amount if they feel that their Line Managers are trustworthy and their career will not suffer³, and employees who are trusted by their Line Managers are likely to reciprocate this trust. This reciprocity is an important characteristic of trust and has been identified particularly by research into game theory – if people believe that their trust in others is reciprocated, it reinforces their trust."

– The Institute of Leadership (2023) “The Index of Leadership Trust 2023” 

Throughout the pandemic, leaders and managers had to act in crisis mode, responding rapidly to events as they unfold. Internal communications for most organisations are now digital, as are L&D activities. In larger organisations, the outcome has been employees communicating across a variety of channels, from Slack to Microsoft Teams, to WhatsApp and Zoom. The virtual communications mix has become more complex, and leaders and managers now grapple with being heard and being relevant. Things are changing quickly for employers, and they need to be effective in their response.


Make virtual communications effective  

Organisations really need to be pushing out accurate, timely and relevant information. It needs to be succinct and clear and easily accessible. Curation can really help with this. 

At the same time, communication needs to be open and transparent. At a time when there is much confusion and a lot of noise, organisations need to cut through with clear, honest comms that people can trust and rely on. 

For many organisations, there has been a shift in the tone of comms as a result of Covid-19. Corporate communications have become more supportive and understanding of employees’ needs. 

As managers and leaders

Managing remote teams requires managers and leaders to attend to three areas: technology and tools, information and culture and expectations.

1. Technology and tools

The rapid shift to remote working meant a shift to digital communications. Some organisations were better set up than others. Many had a range of tools for communication – email, intranet, Slack, Yammer, Teams and so on. The questions for these organisations are: which tools are we using and why? These are good questions to ask because individuals and teams have different preferences. It is key that managers agree which tools they will be using and for what job.

Other organisations will be grappling with colleagues’ basic IT set up. Research by Asana shows that when employees started to work from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, 67% did not have at least one of the following: a desk to work from, PC/laptop or a reliable internet connection.

Managers need to understand the team’s IT challenges and communications preferences. This will form a basis for communicating in the most effective way. Ignore this approach and managers are in danger of making virtual team communication hard and therefore less effective. Remember, good communications are a key part of working effectively as a remote team.

2. Information

Employees are hungry for information. Those who are furloughed will need to know how long that will last and what their return will look like. Others will be returning to workplaces or preparing to return whilst others might not return to their workplace if remote working becomes a permanent option. Employees will be grappling with raised levels of stress, bereavement, home schooling and a whole range of other personal challenges. On top of this, organisations will be looking at their post Covid-19 business model. Any changes to this will directly impact commercial models, operating models and how work is done.

And then there are the day-to-day needs of team members. What work needs to be done? By whom? When and how?  

Managers and leaders need to understand what information colleagues need to operate effectively. As with the technology and tools, a good place to start is by asking. Simply pushing out the same old information you pushed out before the Covid-19 crisis will not cut it. Understand your team’s expectations and deliver on them.

And finally, consider the credibility of information. Research by the Reuters Institute shows that misinformation from politicians, celebrities and other prominent public figures made up just 20% of the claims but accounted for 69% of total social media engagement. We are all exposed to misinformation so think before you share. Managers and leaders have a responsibility to provide accurate information.

3. Culture and expectations

The learning and communications culture across an organisation, and within teams, is determined in large part by the actions of leaders and managers. If you want openness, transparency and collaboration then as a leader and manager you will need to role model those expected behaviours. This approach has been particularly useful for one of our clients, Hemsley Fraser. 

Chief executive Todd Turner has been sharing video messages across the company every three days to help colleagues shift to remote working.

Teams also need ways to collaborate and to socialise. Managers can facilitate this by creating space to come together and chat – virtual coffees and lunches, for example. Remember, digital communication tools enable teams to be always on, which can become stressful. People need autonomy to do their work too so ensure that individuals are given the time they need to get work done, which could mean switching off notifications for a set period. Managers need to set expectations here, as well as leading by example.

Finally, managers must be alert to the impact change is having on their team. Don’t assume everyone will be comfortable – and competent – in using new tools. Managers must create a safe environment in which team members can try, learn and fail. Where they can ask for help and get the support they need. 


The importance of virtual communications

In its research report on the impact of organisational culture on leadership and governance, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development concluded that healthy organisational cultures are based on good communications and providing space for the employee voice. This is even more important to accommodate with virtual communications.

“Positive levels of employee engagement together with evidence of good communications and support for employee voice through different channels are essential components of healthy organisational cultures.”

The report goes on to recommend that leaders “communicate in a way that involves accurate information, explanations for decisions and openness”.

This is echoed by research from EY8  that shows a manager’s ability to communicate openly and transparently is a key factor in building trust. 

Managing remote teams is no simple task, especially through times of crisis. However, getting the fundamentals right around creating the right working environment, being attentive and responsive to your team’s needs and communicating effectively will start to build the trust needed to work through these rapidly changing times. 

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