A black and white headshot of Sarah Winton.
Sarah Winton. Image: Alan Rowlette

4 tips for staying authentic in a virtual world

21 Apr 2020

Sarah Winton, senior communications manager at Dun & Bradstreet, discusses four key areas her team has focused on while adjusting to the new normal.

A cornerstone of authentic leadership is the idea of bringing your whole self to work. In an unexpected plot twist of epic proportions, now that most of us are not actually going into a physical office, we’re having to bring more of ourselves to work than ever before. It’s not just the video-conference backgrounds that are blurring, it’s the line between home and work itself.

Dun & Bradstreet’s Dublin team had a high degree of readiness for keeping the wheels in motion from a business continuity perspective and was equipped for a work-from-home scenario. We had a good dress rehearsal when the ‘Beast from the East’, the most memorable snowstorm in recent history, hit. Plus, many of us work in global teams where we might go months without seeing our colleagues apart from a video call. Yes, we’d miss the coffee and the camaraderie if we couldn’t go to the office for a few days but, overall, we believed we were ready.

Except who could be ready for this? This isn’t remote working as we know it. It’s working from home while juggling spouses, partners, children, housemates, pets and an off-the-charts case of cabin fever. Suddenly, the rules of engagement have changed, leaving many struggling to adjust to leading and connecting with teams in an all-online world. It’s OK – in fact, it’s encouraged – to admit that it’s not easy to keep all the plates spinning.

‘This is an opportunity to build lasting connections, become closer colleagues and get to know each other as real people beyond the water-cooler chat’

Business as usual has become very unusual indeed, and it is more important than ever that we make a point of engaging authentically with colleagues in a crisis. Here are a few things that have worked for our team as we’ve adjusted to the new normal.

Let the dogs bark

It seems almost quaint now, but in the first few days of virtual working, on-screen interruptions (canine, feline, human or otherwise) were swiftly followed by profuse apologies.

Then, it happened frequently to colleagues, leaders and pretty much everyone who was on the other end of a video chat. Soon, the apologies turned into introductions and webcam close-ups. What was once feared a distraction became a welcome addition to calls.

This is an opportunity to build lasting connections, become closer colleagues and get to know each other as real people beyond the ‘any plans for the weekend?’ water-cooler chat. You’ve been in their homes and they’ve been in yours.

No one has a guidebook for navigating this, and it’s totally normal to feel like you’re doing everything half as well as you should be. Be open, be kind and be available to talk when the need arises.

Communicate consistently

When shifting to an entirely new way of working, it’s hard to fight the inclination to find an entirely new way of communicating, too. Yes, face-to-face is pretty much out for the moment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t connect with your team. It just means you need to dial down some of your channels and turn the volume up on others.

Consistency is key in uncertain times and while it’s tempting to set up a new daily check-in or weekly huddle, it’s worth taking the time to read the room and see how people feel about extra meetings when they’re already juggling work and home responsibilities.

At Dun & Bradstreet, we’ve created a one-stop-shop on our global intranet with coronavirus-related resources, including all regional office memos regarding work-from-home arrangements, links to senior leaders’ open mic sessions and how to donate to local causes via our Do Good corporate social responsibility programme – the list grows longer every day. It’s a way to have the whole company (literally) on the same page with the latest information and guidance.

We also have stepped up our schedule of the previously mentioned open mics, which provide optional opportunities for employees to ask senior leaders questions in an informal setting by phone. We’ve seen quite a few new teams stand up in Microsoft Teams to keep the connection going, which has been particularly useful as people can contribute asynchronously, a key consideration when global teams are juggling work and home life.

All of these were channels that we had in place before, we’ve just adapted them quickly to accommodate a new way of distributed working.

Connect to your higher purpose

In a crisis, it’s natural to want to be useful and your teams feel that, too. If you’re helping to solve a problem – and this is a challenge on many fronts, so it’s highly likely that you are – it’s important that you make the connection for your teams to the bigger picture of how you are making a difference.

Whether it’s giving back to charitable causes or helping clients navigate uncharted waters, connecting to a higher purpose should be a cornerstone of your communications strategy.

In a mid-March open mic with our CEO and our president, they highlighted how our firm was using our data to help organisations struggling to make sense of a rapidly shifting business landscape through our reports and solutions.

Many of the follow-up questions we now receive from employees are around what we are doing to help, and new ideas have been raised by employees on how they’d like to contribute to their local communities. Some of these ideas are coming to fruition now and it’s a pleasure to work for a firm and a workforce that cares so deeply about its communities.

Trust the process and focus on results

When working virtually, it’s hard to give someone a physical pat on the back. But celebrating success and recognising achievement is more important than ever. It’s understandable to worry that productivity will take a hit, but from my (admittedly, anecdotal) observations of colleagues over the past few weeks, people are actually working harder than ever. Why?

While it seems counterintuitive to think that you’d be able to maintain a high degree of productivity with competing demands at home, adapting to virtual working is forcing teams to communicate expectations clearly and focus more on measuring results than effort.

Across all our global communications channels, we have made a point to celebrate measurable impact, from the teams working tirelessly to ensure our business continuity plans are fully operational to account managers continuing to deliver sales wins in a world without handshakes.

While I don’t have a crystal ball, I’m willing to bet that remote working is going to be the rule rather than the exception for the foreseeable future as countries work to contain a global health crisis while keeping productivity as high as possible.

The good news is that many of the tools and tactics that are used to build company cultures within the four walls of an office are the same as those needed when engaging teams virtually – strong leadership, high trust and clear communications. If you have those, you’ll have no problem staying authentic in a virtual world.

By Sarah Winton

Sarah Winton is the senior communications manager at Dun & Bradstreet.

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