Communicating in a Virtual World

COVID-19 has certainly impacted the way we communicate from a technical or logistical perspective – I think we’d all agree with that! It has also perhaps raised our awareness around the importance of communications, on a number of different levels.

Treasurers around the world are having to work differently with their team, their bosses and peers, and their external stakeholders, often without any visual cues, and are telling me that they realise now how reliant they were on body language before. Nowadays they are having to be much more explicit with people, and are having to ask them in return to speak up more and give more feedback, as it’s so difficult to pick up nuances when you are faced (see, we even use a visual word in this context – twice now!) with a black screen and a disembodied voice.

A way to combat this is to ask that people turn on their video whenever possible. When I was on vacation and others were leading my full team meetings, they suddenly realised what it was like to feel you were speaking into some form of void. That helped as, once people recognised this, they tried to help by being more visual from then on. It’s so important to be thinking from the other person’s perspective in this new world – more so than ever before.

What are the other pitfalls and things we need to think about to enhance our digital communication? The following are a few ideas:

  1. Be sure where your camera is, and that you are looking directly into it when you want/need to make ‘eye contact’
  2. Ensure there is a facilitator or leader for any calls involving more than a few people, especially if they don’t know each other very well. There are still many people who haven’t developed the art of speaking in turn, or even if they have the delays caused by slow internet connections can have people inadvertently speaking over each other, so having someone invite people to speak in turn can be helpful
  3. As ever, be really conscious of different cultures – religious holidays, different ‘weekends’ and different time zones can all trip you up and mean you are inadvertently not being inclusive
  4. If you notice someone becoming quieter or avoiding contact, make sure you check it out; they might be suffering in terms of their mental health as it can cause people to ‘retreat’ from contact with others. Equally check yourself if you are starting to avoid human ‘contact’
  5. Be as transparent as possible, especially when there are business decisions being made; your team and colleagues will be more worried than usual if they are not hearing why and how decisions are being made
  6. Separate conversations asking people how they are getting on in themselves, from work performance conversations: people can avoid telling you how they are if they think there will be repercussions, for instance they have shown some ‘weakness’ and you will hold it against them.

We often talk about the things to watch out for and the downsides of communicating in this new, virtual world, but there are also some great benefits: we can get to know people, learning about their home/children/pets/hobbies in a way which we would never have experienced before – and that person then comes to life in our eyes, and the relationship develops faster than previously. As an example, the recent EACT Board ‘eCocktail’ was a great success as we compared notes about our favourite drinks. It was in some ways like being in the room with everyone, and each person taking a turn to share made for a wealth of information and recommendations which I’m looking forward to exploring in the future.

We’re also able to connect as easily with someone the other side of the world as in our home town, and that ‘shift’ means we have a much greater sense of being a global citizen than we might have had in the past. This may over time help to break down geopolitical barriers. And there are added benefits too as we realise we can recruit anywhere in the world we like, hence being able to choose the best of the best to join our teams.

I think we are also learning a lot about ourselves. Things we took for granted before, we look at and see what really is important to us, and what doesn’t matter so much. And the ‘covidcoaster’ we are riding on can bring surprises – one day feeling fine, and the next in a deep depression. The communications we hear via social and other media can have an adverse impact on our wellbeing, and we need to learn to switch them off, out of a sense of self-preservation. Depending on where we are in the world and the season, we can feel uplifted, or more down as the days become colder and darker. We need to think ahead, as the situation is not going to be resolved in the near future. And whilst that in itself may be a depressing thought, it’s best to manage expectations to a certain degree.

And then there is how we treat our minds and bodies. We need to eat good food, drink plenty of fluids, have regular exercise and connect with nature – all proven to be helpful to our mood. But what has this got to do with communication, I hear you ask? Well, we cannot be effective communicators if we are withdrawn and/or feeling down, and we know that good and engaging communicators make the rest of us feel so much better. So, if we look after our own state of mind, we are helping others – and that’s maybe more of a reason for some of us to do it than if we were just thinking about ourselves smile

Caroline Stockmann
Chief Executive
The Association of Corporate Treasurers

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