We can’t lose sight of personal connections when managing teams remotely

Leaders shouldn’t forget to maintain a personal bond with their teams over video calls, since remote working makes it more difficult to sense how they’re feeling, and keep them motivated and engaged.

I recently took part in a speed mentoring morning for NABS. As always, I start these things with mixed feelings.

Actually, let’s be honest, I always start them being annoyed with myself for agreeing to signing up. Then I remind myself how wonderful the organisation is, and how important it is to support it and help less experienced people in our sector. So, I give myself a talking-to and click on the link (now with only a tiny part of me hoping the link won’t work).

And of course, once it all starts (because the link always works), I immediately remember why I said yes in the first place. I found the whole thing incredibly energising. It was great to connect with people beyond my regular network.

Brands can do more for society when they work together

I did three sessions with five or six people in each one. Most were mid-career, clearly smart and from across marketing disciplines, so it was a bit of a snapshot of our industry and some clear themes emerged. Of course, it was by no means a properly weighted sample, but I have done these kinds of sessions before and have always found that the things that come up are a pretty good reflection of the concerns of others. What is interesting is how much has changed since I last did one of these and what that means for those of us who are leaders.

What has changed

There appears to be a greater sense of optimism, at least there is less pessimism. Last spring, job security was the main focus of concern. Of course it was: marketing was laid low by Covid-19 as brands cut budgets and payrolls. But nine months on, those still in jobs seem to be more confident about work and, indeed, want to talk about how they can get promoted.

We have lost what I call the soft stuff. The chat when you walk a client to the lift, while you are making tea, as you try to unjam the printer.

The initial enthusiasm about remote working is definitely dying down. The realities of social isolation; the challenges of collaborating with people who you haven’t been in a room with for almost a year, or at all if you are new to the business; and the effort keeping up team morale when the thought of doing another quiz brings on a migrane are beginning to take their toll.

Bringing both of these themes together is concern over how to make a good impression on your boss and your client while working remotely. This came up a lot. All the time.

Lessons for leaders

We need to give our people an opportunity to shine in internal team meetings and with clients. We have to work harder than we do when we are all in the same room to bring people into the discussion. Making sure even the juniors have something to say in front of important people will help to build confidence. Sure, it means taking more time to plan meetings than we used to, but I think it is a worthwhile investment.

I would also encourage much more casual chat, especially at the beginning and ends of meetings. We need to remember that our interactions have become largely transactional. We spend all day on Teams, or Zoom, or whatever your preferred teleconference platform is, so the tendency is to cut to the chase. Can you do this? Shall I do that? Got that, yes, on to the next call. Who wants to spend more time watching themselves talk out of the corner of their screen than they have to?

We have lost what I call the soft stuff. The chat when you walk a client to the lift, while you are making tea, as you try to unjam the printer, when you are in the loos. We need to try to create little moments of pause for more obviously social interactions. I know I am always keen to tell people about my latest cooking distraction (bread, marmalade, pasta and, most recently, cheese – did I mention how bored I am?), if only I was given the opportunity to share!

We also need to create moments of visibility. Not being able to see my team means I can’t know at a glance who is having a good day or a bad one; who looks like they are struggling; who has just handled a clearly difficult call brilliantly, and deserves an immediate and vocal shout out. And it isn’t all about my seeing, it is also about others showing. Showing me how good they are, how frustrated they feel, how much they need a break.

When lockdown started, I used to schedule meetings with team members but realised the degree of panic caused when people saw an unexplained meeting with me slip into the diary was very high. So now I am trying the unscheduled call, the just checking in to see how you are doing call, you know keeping it breezy. Not sure if this is more welcome or less; I am sure I will be told.

Skills, team structures and ways of working will be the key focus on day four of the Festival of Marketing’s new event Fast Forward, which takes place on 7 to 10 June. Visit the Festival website for more information on sessions, speakers and tickets.