5 minute read 4 Sep 2020
EY Spider web with dew

Connecting with teams in a virtual world

By

Giles Capon

Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Member of EY Private leadership team. Passionate about people who are innovating across multiple industries, helping them to achieve their growth ambitions and supporting their talent strategy.

5 minute read 4 Sep 2020

This insight piece by Giles Capon, Partner of People Advisory Services, looks at how private business leaders are connecting with their teams and the role of technology compared with face to face interaction.

In brief:

  • New behaviours are emerging, with how leaders stay connected digitally while balancing valuable human interaction
  • As we blend business-as-usual with our virtual worlds, empathy will be key in knowing everyone’s different circumstances
  • An inspiring leader recognises the different technologies available and how to apply them

How many of us, even in business, were regular users of video conferencing before the start of the year? Or at least how many of us had used it regularly and felt comfortable? Similarly, the concept of long-term home and flexible working was embraced by some but was perhaps alien to many, particularly private business leaders for whom a physical presence with people, customers and suppliers was often a pillar of their day-to-day life.

Like many other aspects of our working and everyday lives, what were previously just developing trends in technology communications, have accelerated beyond recognition. It will be interesting to see, in the coming months, which behaviours get left behind and which are embraced for the longer term.

New behaviours are certainly emerging, particularly in how leaders stay connected digitally while balancing valuable human interaction.

Staying connected in an increasingly virtual world

For many of us working from home, the diary of video calls would merge into night-time or weekend video quizzes with friends and family. Thankfully, the quiz is long forgotten, or at least it is in my family.

We should not ignore the isolation many will have felt during the first half of 2020, but we should also recognise that technology has helped us become more connected to each other. As society begins to resemble something we can start to recognise as normal, what should private business leaders be thinking about when it comes to staying connected?

An interesting trend we are seeing is business leaders sharing information with each other in a much more collaborative manner. Those peer-to-peer discussions have proved invaluable, not only as an affirmation that all businesses are experiencing similar challenges, but the sharing of ideas and best practice to support each other. We can certainly see a more cooperative business environment emerging.

It is important all information is gathered and disseminated to the rest of the team, so it doesn’t just stay in leaders’ heads. Technology has been gradually shifting our ability to connect with one another over the past decade. However, those gradual shifts in behaviour have accelerated exponentially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with large scale technology adoption being central to allowing many to continue doing business during the crisis.

Many leaders love to network and some of the technological interventions in our working lives could perhaps have made that easier. An informal video call could be easier to arrange, and the time better spent, than other pre-lockdown practices of travelling far to meet in person. It takes bravery to overcome any initial awkwardness trying out a new way of networking virtually, but if overcome once, it will be overcome again.

For many, it might be a case of getting back to a state of normal as quickly and as safely as possible, but for others, recent times may have given business leaders an opportunity to reflect on what they were doing, and learn new ways of staying in touch.

EY’s own research, a survey of 150 UK private business leaders conducted in June 2020, suggests that a purely digital world has still allowed people the opportunity to connect effectively with others in a business context and that respondents have not only invested in technology to maintain their operations but will continue to invest as different working practices evolve.

Virtual leadership

Some business leaders may argue what we’ve gained in being able to stay connected with our networks digitally, we’ve lost in creating and strengthening true relationships. The shake of the hand, looking one another in the eye – these are human connections which are important to building strong relationships on both a personal and professional level.

So how does a private business leader continue to lead their team in this increasingly digital and online world?

Leaders should be asking themselves what technology they have at their disposal and what they need to do to make it work better for them right now.

From there, they should be taking a deep look at their business and its people. How do my teams want to stay in touch with me or the rest of the business? It shouldn’t necessarily be a top-down strategy. Our workplaces and customers are more diverse than ever before, and private business leaders should be looking at how their people and customers want to stay connected. Not everyone is the same.

We can then start to map out a vision for their organisation and what role does technology have in that vision.

Empathy is also so important – recognising not everyone will be the smiling happy face as soon as the video call ends. However, the technology also allows us to make those emotional connections as best we can – which is so important when leaders need to be, and need to be seen to be, leading from the front while still being collaborative. Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with have a strong empathetic view of the world.

As our working and personal lives slowly start to display some form of normality, it is the empathy which will be key in knowing everyone’s circumstances are different. It will be vital as we blend something resembling business-as-usual, and our virtual worlds. Leaders are required to possess the emotional intelligence and taking a bit more time out of their day to recognise what is going on around them – this is not easy.

Inspiring people in a virtual world

How to inspire your teams virtually, is a challenge many leaders face. What you gain in ease of connectivity, you can often lose in the face-to-face or non-verbal indicators upon which strong and effective relationships are forged. The best examples of leadership in this online-only world involve leaders establishing clear communication frameworks.

This could mean large company-wide messages are conducted in a much different way to smaller or “housekeeping” style communications. For larger announcements, ensuring everyone is bought in to the message and everyone knows their individual roles – how do they fit in to the bigger picture. Why me? What value do I bring? Where are we all heading?

An inspiring leader recognises the different technologies available, and how to apply them to their teams, at the right times.

We are seeing excellent examples of leaders taking a few minutes out of their day to recognise the efforts of their colleagues. This could be as simple as a text, but it is that small moment of recognition which matters now more than ever. Never before has one simple question of “How are you?” been asked so frequently, but asked meaningfully.

The challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic have reminded us of the importance of authenticity. The values of a purpose-led business need to be clearly communicated whether online or in person.

For example, at the start of the pandemic we were working with a food producer which, foreseeing some of the challenges the country would face, set themselves the mission of helping to feed the nation through this crisis. By adopting strong leadership, clear communication and working with their team to define a values-driven goal, the leader of that business was able to galvanise the team. Immediately they experienced a lower absence rate and saw productivity increase.

This leader took the time during the crisis to consult with their team, taking time away from the day-to-day management of the company to set the organisation a transformative goal which would make them more resilient in the future.

Next steps for a transformative business leader

While it is sometimes challenging for a private business leader, it’s important to take a step back and truly understand what is right for you, your people and your customers.

Setting a clear purpose and strategy for your organisation will allow everyone to understand the roles they have within it. Understanding where technology can be used to connect and give your people a voice is key.

The increasing use of technology in our personal and professional lives was already fast paced. It has only accelerated in light of COVID-19. Some new behaviours are emerging, some will fade away. A transformative business leader recognises the value in blending empathy with technology and uses it to inspire, lead and stay connected.

Summary

As part of our Real Insights series, we explore four qualities that define the leader of the future: Think, Navigate, Connect and Relate. Here we explore, Connect, by People Advisory Partner Giles Capon, who discusses how private business leaders are connecting with their teams and the role of technology compared with face to face interaction.

About this article

By

Giles Capon

Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Member of EY Private leadership team. Passionate about people who are innovating across multiple industries, helping them to achieve their growth ambitions and supporting their talent strategy.