Leadership in the Era of Always-On Communication

Leadership coaching is ripe for some change. The days of leading mostly through in-person meetings are numbered. Instead, business leaders are more likely to set a course, problem-solve and inspire from behind a keyboard or by tapping out a missive on a smartphone. A whopping 95 percent of workers plan to use business communication tools over face-to-face meetings, according to a survey by uSamp Research.
“What we’re seeing is a change in which people communicate, and how business communication is perceived,” said Kira Makagon, EVP of Innovation for RingCentral, which sponsored the survey. “People expect flexibility—whether working from home or anywhere else.”

An always-on environment may give people the flexibility to answer emails from home at 9 p.m. or to dial in to a conference call from the road. But a strong leader knows to marry that flexibility with an understanding of team norms. Just because it’s one person’s style to fire off emails late at night doesn’t mean other team members should necessarily feel pressured to respond around the clock, for instance.

“Just because it’s one person’s style to fire off emails late at night doesn’t mean other team members have to respond around the clock.”

When Dawn Zier, now president and CEO of Nutrisystem, returned to work following her maternity leave, lack of transparent expectations strained her team. “Within a few weeks of my return to the office, I realized my team seemed unsettled,” she wrote in Fortune. “The biggest issue they had was with my emailing in the wee hours of the morning. Members of the team thought that because I was up, I expected them to be up as well.”

Zier immediately called an all-staff meeting to address the issue head-on, explaining why the flexibility worked for her but that that team needn’t be responsive outside of normal work hours.
If you equip team members with smartphones and laptops in part because you expect them to be reachable beyond their office hours, make those expectations clear. Does that mean answering emails until 7 p.m. or 10 p.m.? Do only certain types of emails or texts need a late-night response? Remember that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition: You could set up a communication ladder with your team, so that people email when a response isn’t urgent but text or call when an issue needs immediate attention.

Likewise, it may irk you to send out a detailed email on strategy plans and get an instant message in response. But it’s hard to begrudge your team members from responding on different platforms unless you communicate your expectations as a leader. One way to generate stronger buy-in on how the team will interact is to have a team meeting where you work through as a group what issues can be handled over instant message (quick questions, say, or one-sentence updates) and which warrant an email or in-person meeting.

Meetings, schmeetings

Today’s teams are more likely to span telecommuters and global teammates on differing time zones. But that doesn’t mean the need for meetings has vanished just because the logistics have grown more complicated. “If you’re in a remote office, location or are an offshore employee, there’s a drive for visual meetings as a replacement for in-person meetings,” Makagon said.

Employees in today’s always-on environment may be more forgiving when a virtual meeting spans distant time zones and requires an early start or late end to their work day. But they’ll expect their flexibility to be reciprocated, maybe by letting them dial in from home or giving them comp time later in the week. Don’t allow employee assumptions to create inconsistencies within the team. Instead, be upfront and transparent about what’s appropriate.

Managing these virtual meetings also requires its own set of leadership skills, writes Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Matt Abrahams in Inc magazine. “If you wish to come off as competent and ‘in command,’ speak concisely with even pacing and a steady tone” while on a video conference. Also, subtle physical cues, like a head nod or eye contact, are easy to overlook in virtual meetings. So make sure you verbally acknowledge teammates when they’re done talking.

Communicating norms ahead of the meeting can go a long way to making always-on communication work for your team. When work bleeds into personal time, it can be understandable for team members to cut corners about how they present themselves or engage. If you expect everyone to be visible for the after-hours virtual meeting, give them fair warning to avoid pajamas onscreen. As a leader, you can help mitigate any tension by establishing norms early and being transparent about what’s acceptable and what’s not in this always-on environment.



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