As virtual working becomes increasingly common we have to find new ways to make it work in situations that traditionally required face to face contact. This story is about my experience in leading a change project in Thailand... while based in London!
Last year I led a change project for our business in Thailand. Following years of little investment, staff were de-motivated, and the business was in great need of a turnaround. Cultural differences and different leadership behaviours added to the difficulty; however, the real challenge was that due to cost reduction measures I would have to carry out the project while based in London after only a short visit to Thailand!
Reflecting back to my Managing Change classes at Business School, great leaders were always men or women with great presence, strong drive, engaging staff and pushing the limits to make the organization improve. But I would clearly have to do things a differently: How could I change the team member’s behaviour without physically being there? How could I sustain their efforts? Here are my three key take-aways:
- Build the core team who will drive the change.
Motivating the five Thai colleagues who would be my eyes, ears, mouth and hands in the regional office was my first priority. For an effective virtual relationship with a strong cultural challenge, I felt true understanding of the people, their character, drivers and fears, was key. I felt I needed to go beyond words in a teleconference.
I started by Evaluating the tools available to decide which was were best for each situation: teleconferences were the most used but the pace of the discussion was different to a European one where everyone wants to talk. Long silences could mean distrust, but also anxiety about how to communicate the impact an implications of our work to the local business. I also used 1 to 1 messenger services to get instant feedback from a few team members, real time, while leading a call. I used also informal online surveys (like surveymonkey) to get a feel for how the team viewed the progress
2. Figure out how to co-create virtually,
The virtual substitute of a whiteboard is a screen shared online, but it is not as easy to draw bubbles and instant charts on Word. I started using emoticons to express feelings, downloading internet images to illustrate some points, to make the experience more interesting and fun.
Teleconferences can also be very quiet when you mention brainstorming. I wanted participation but not embarrassing people by forcing them to speak up. So I started first trying to break the silence, by making funny noises such as snoring or whistling. The team got the point, but were still reluctant to speak. I tried to organize virtual breakout sessions and asked team members to take 5 minutes and then email me their ideas, which I could then present anonymously while sharing my screen. As we worked together and trust improved, the shyness faded and each member was happy to present their idea and speak up in the call.
3. Be present in everyone’s mind, despite not being able to walk around the office continuously
This was probably the biggest challenge: how to access the wider community in the office, and convince the key stakeholders to make this project a priority, in particular as I did not have time to meet many of them F2F. I used my direct team as a tool, assigning each of them to a group of stakeholders and asking them to engage on a regular basis.
I also did that myself – appearing on everyone’s computer screen with the annoying message from Messenger popping up when least expected. I am sure some were frustrated by my smileys, and often I was ignored, but I became very visible in the organization and the wider community started talking about me and the project, and reacting to the decisions I made. I got wind of it when the country general manager called me for an urgent update asking me to clarify something I had said to her finance manager that she strongly opposed. At least the real discussion had started!
Let’s be clear: working 100% virtually is not as effective as working together in an office. Indeed, as a team, our efficiency really changed gear after our face to face meetings, however brief. And for project work there must be a minimum required face to face time to create cohesion, depending on the nature of the activity, cultural differences and team dynamics.
But the reality is that virtual working of this type is becoming more common, and we need to find ways to make it work. Moreover, I also began to experience the benefits: working virtually gave me a lot of freedom: to avoid long commutes, to work at every timezone sitting comfortably at home with a cup of coffee, to organize my day and save time and cost to both myself and the company. A well planned virtual meeting can even be more effective than a physical one! The latest technologies such as Halo or webcams will help lower the virtual barriers even more as it becomes possible to actually be ‘face to face’ even when in two different continents. It is then up to each one to find their best balance and most effective influencing techniques in this new work environment, as in the traditional one.