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Communication with Remote Teams – The Role of Active Listening and Powerful Questions

July 27 2020 - by Dr. Lois Parkes, Leadership Development and Institutional Strengthening Specialist

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it the almost instant proliferation of remote working arrangements globally. While remote working was a growing phenomenon prior to the pandemic, for most, remote working arrangements were implemented virtually (pun intended) overnight, with limited arrangements, policies, preparation and tools being in place.

These remote working arrangements have certainly brought with it great benefits, and also a plethora of challenges. One common challenge is the management of remote team members. For this article, I will zero in on one aspect of this challenge – quality of communication with a team member working remotely. As one of my colleagues rightly asked me – how can you effectively communicate with someone working remotely all the time, when you don’t have the benefit of using and reading body language? This is the question I will seek to provide some perspectives on, as a Leadership Coach who has coached almost all my clients virtually.

First, having a reliable means of communication is a must. Whatever the choice of platform to be used, both parties need to be able to use it, and have high quality internet and audio connection. Once this is in place, focus your attention on the quality of the communication exchange, and use active listening in the process.

By definition, active listening is fully concentrating on what is being said. While video cameras can be used as a part of virtual communication, it is often not used for a variety of reasons – lack of adequate bandwidth, or persons just being uncomfortable using the camera because of what might be going on the background (eg. Children playing behind the scenes). When there is no body language, it becomes critical to listen to the other party’s tone of voice, in addition to what is being said. As a coach, it is often from the tone of voice that I can detect what is not being said. For example, your team member might say the words, “I’m ok”, but in their tone, they may sound far from it. Then be courageous enough to make that observation of their tone, and follow-up with a question about your observation.

This leads me to the other technique of asking powerful questions. Particularly in this pandemic, it is important to ask questions of your team member, not only about work tasks, but also about them, and how they are coping. How are they really? How might they be managing remote working and home schooling (if this is applicable)? How has the pandemic impacted them and their family? What challenges are they experiencing in completing their work while working remotely? What support might they need, if any? Asking the right open-ended questions allows your teammate to respond more comprehensively on issues. It also affords you the opportunity to get to know each other better and to work through any challenges that might have arisen in the remote working/pandemic context.

Ultimately, active listening and asking powerful questions facilitates the exercise of empathy, and creates the opportunity for great communication. This in turn results in higher levels of team cohesion, learning and productivity.