Doing business remotely

Doing business remotely

By Regina Reinhardt
Intercultural C-Suite Coach

In 2018, I conducted a series of online workshops all five continents with a colleague. The platform we used offered everything you could imagine: chat, white board, polling, recording, screen sharing and even breakout rooms for group exercises.

With this kind of technology available, why do we still feel the need to meet in person? Why do we spend time and money to travel, increasing our personal ecological footprint and even risking infection?

Yes, I can hear you say: “In-person meetings are different.” And I largely agree when it comes to family and friends. A friend’s hug is irreplaceable. The aroma of a home-cooked dish bonds people in a way that words can’t.

I admit that 15 years back, when I started conducting my first online workshop, I was skeptical. I had to learn the grammar of working online (slow down, plan extra time for technology checks and have a plan-B in case of technology glitches). Instead of traffic, today I deal with these challenges instead.

Today, in March 2020, the time has come where we no longer have the luxury to choose, but must all join in online and remote working. A new era has started, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can we communicate using technology as successfully as possible?

Get ready to prepare and moderate online meetings.

  1. Technology
  • The tool

The list of tools available is long – Zoom, GoToMeeting, Hangout, Microsoft Teams, Webex, Skype, BlueJeans, FaceTime to only mention a few. Take some time to research which tool to use, either by asking colleagues who are already using them or research it yourself. Be aware of your needs: are you mainly conducting group or single client sessions or online conferences with 300 people upwards?Check back with your meeting partners specifically if they are in a different region to ensure technology works for them.

  • Become a savvy user

Once you decide on your tool make time to get accustomed to it.

  • Look for online tutorials
  • Benefit from free-of-charge life tutorials
  • Ask an experienced colleague to talk you through the pros and cons
  • Call a friend or family member to gain experience with the tool
  • Online is not offline
    • Internet quality is comparable to traffic in real life – in different places quality available is sometimes influenced by factors as weather (rain, wind – no joke)
    • Support your meeting partner using your platform – use this article if you find fit
    • Prepare your online meeting room by switching on the camera. Make sure
      • the light source is in front of you with no shadows in your face
      • the background is exactly what your meeting partner should see without been distracted (e.g. sit in front of a nice painting if you like), a white wall or upload backgrounds from the online platform.
      • You are sitting in the centre of the screen
      • Your dress style is appropriate
    • Working pace overall might be a bit slower than in real life so be patient
    • Stay flexible if there are micro pauses during speaking (instead of complaining or panicking) and try to switch off the camera for a while as it might help with sound quality
    • When working with larger groups consider a co-moderator who can check the chat, deal with questions and use the white board
  1. Switch on your camera 

Always be prepared to switch on your camera. Connecting the visual to the audio communication channel is essential to improving mutual understanding plus it speeds up the pace. Half of your communication partners are visual anyway!

  1. Adapt your language 

Find out which are common languages spoken between the two of you, and try your best to adapt to your counterpart’s language level. That means, when talking to a non-native speaker, slow down your speaking pace, try to avoid local abbreviations and slang, and be mindful of your accent. I remember my first training with native Irish, Australian, Indian and South African speakers – quite embarrassing as I had to double-check every other answer I received (not to mention that it hindered my participants’ learning). Native speakers should also be careful with humour, which often derives so much from local know-how and nuance that someone living in another region will likely find it impossible to follow, let alone laugh at.

4. Paint a bigger picture
When explaining complex situations to a person who is not in the room (and who can only see and hear through a computer), we need additional tools. Metaphors, stories and examples can be especially useful to explain a complex or new situation. For example, to illustrate how the shape of the moon evolves throughout the month, using a cup, banana or simply your hand gets the message across even if your listener isn’t familiar with the concepts concave and convex. Which leads us to the next point …

5. Body language and micro expressions
I often get asked ‘Do we really need the camera when meeting online?’ Yes, I know, it means having to do your hair and get dressed (instead of staying in your cosy sweater). But keep in mind that only 10% of our communication is delivered by words! The rest of the message is transmitted by body language, micro expressions, intonation and a person’s energy. Switching on a video camera therefore offers 23-communication channels to read, which can considerably diminish misunderstandings. A worthwhile investment, isn’t it?

6. Ask open questions, rephrase messages received and include your counterpart in the conversation
When working online (particularly if you don’t have visual contact), it is very useful to ask a question such as ‘Does that make sense? What have you understood so far?’ or ‘Ihave been talking a lot. Could you tell me your take-away so far?’ (or whatever phrase feels natural to you). Sometimes a simple request (‘Would you like to summarise the above to make sure we are all on the same page?’) offers an opportunity to check in, and if you’ve been talking for a long time, helps keep your listener’s attention up.

7. Use compliments and acknowledgement
Speaking in a non-native language always demands extra concentration and effort. A speaker explaining or asking questions at length, or a listener carefully and deeply listening without interrupting deserves real acknowledgement when done in a non-native language. Even stating the obvious, such as ‘Wow, we managed this online meeting within a very short time, considering we are not in the same room’ or ‘Wow, we both made great efforts here to make sure we have a mutual understanding’ is always encouraging and worth the time. After you deliver your message, be careful not to jump to conclusions such as ‘we have an agreement’. Rather, stay empathetic while listening and double-check that your counterpart:

  • has understood, and if so, what they have understood (use open questions, ask them to summarise the conversation)
    • agrees on a timeline and next steps
    • is committed to take a next step (or knows who else will)
    • is on the same page regarding deliverables
    • has open questions or doubts (stay empathetic).

8. Take it slowly
For all the above reasons, when working online, communication pace categorically needs to be adapted to what we might normally perceive as slow motion, compared to working with colleagues in the same office or region.

Working online definitely is a culture unto its own. We hope these tools give you an idea of how to hone your online working skills. And remember, as withlearning a new language, take your time and use every opportunity to practice, practice, practice!

About Regina Reinhardt

Regina grew up in Athens, Greece, where she graduated from the international college Deutsche SchuleAthen. Given her German ancestry she is a typical Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK). In Switzerland, she started her career as an IT programmer.

Specialised in cross-cultural consultancy, she coaches and trains global executives from all five continents. Coaching groups as well as individuals, she is highly committed to helping her clients achieve tailored and sustainable solutions, by applying the Solution Focused coaching approach. Regina is fluent in German/Swiss German, English and Greek and offers training and coaching in all three languages.

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