AMA’s Ask The Experts: Susan Mason on What Managers Need to Know About Virtual Communication

Published: Jul 10, 2020



Communicating Effectively in a Virtual Environment, the fourth installment (on June 10) of AMA’s Online Management Series Ask the Experts, featured educator, executive coach, and trainer Susan Mason. The discussion was a particularly timely one since so many organizations’ teams are now working and communicating virtually, but do not necessarily have all the skills they need for maximum effectiveness. Dorothy Deming, Director of Education, Content and Operations at AMA, moderated the webcast.

Despite the disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mason observes that there have been positive aspects of the massive paradigm shift: “There is a discovery that there truly are more efficient and productive ways to work remotely, and that opens up a whole new world of thinking about how work occurs, where work occurs, and what kind of workers you need. I see this as a great time of discovery.”

“We’ve all talked about agility for years, and nothing says agility more than when you’re immersed in something where you have no other choice,” agreed Deming. “This is such a great way for people to continue to learn.”

“We really ‘get’ the technology, [but] how do we keep connected, how do we really communicate, how do we get that sense of membership?” Mason asked. “There are a ton of things that get in the way of that, like the distractions at home.”

“This couldn’t have happened five years ago in the way it’s happening today. [The pandemic] has shown us you can literally run into a catastrophe and still maintain business,” Mason continued. “Now, that’s not true for every business, but a vast majority of positions and jobs have been able to sustain themselves, and that’s because we’ve recognized how we can use these virtual communication tools.”

How can managers ensure that virtual communication is clear? “Managers need to be thoughtful about screen anxiety,” suggested Mason. “People now are really anxious when working remotely about turning their cameras on, speaking through a microphone. There’s a difference in the way you feel about being on a screen.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of stress associated with using all the technology without the human contact,” explained Mason. “As managers, we need to think about ‘how can I break up the employee’s day?’ so that there’s offscreen work, onscreen work, telephone calls without the screen, etc. People are just so anxious to get things done, but they need to take breaks.”

Upon physically returning to work, some of us will still have masks on, so there’s an implication to “taking away” part of the face when communicating. Mason commented that research has found that “we don’t do well with drawing meaning from context. We pay way more attention to facial expressions and body language. When those things are taken away, we really suffer. It’s a big problem. How do we develop some savvy around the skills of mask communication when we have to keep those masks up, keep that social distance?”

According to Mason, that’s when we have to focus more on better articulation, “encouraging people to use sufficient volume, asking people to use a little more sign language, to use more expressive indicators through different kinds of non-verbal behaviors, and really pay attention to the eyes.”

Listening is essential, as is being responsive to what you hear. “If there’s ever been a time for managers to express and utilize empathy and a willingness to be supportive, it’s now,” Mason explained. “That’s your number-one job. And if you do that, the other things are going to begin to follow. You have to be the leader by modeling the behavior you want.”

“Recreate those moments that would spontaneously, organically happen in a face-to-face environment,” Mason recommended. “The manager has to take the lead to do that. Managers should step away from making a lot of statements, and step into asking a lot of questions, [such as] ‘What do you think? How is this working for you? How are things in your work environment? How’s your stress?’”

Mason also recommended that managers ask their employees about their preferred communication technology, adding that “managers have to think about individual communication, performance communication, and communal group communication—and to think about the result they want when choosing the communication technology.”

Mason concluded by saying, “If we’re willing to move out of our comfort zone and into their [the employee’s] comfort zone, I think the key takeaway is you’re going to be more highly communicative, clearer, listened to, and results will follow. We’ve got to keep our teams together, to keep that sense of connection, and that is the manager’s job. Really be kind to each other, show empathy and understanding, and make it work.”

“Take the opportunity to learn and better yourself as a manager,” Deming added.

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