Information is not Communication: Thoughts on Remote Management

Staying close to your team when forced to keep your distance

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A significant shift in style and focus helped remodel this executive’s management approach from face-to-face road warrior to the limits of laptop leadership. Dan Kagan, Canada GM for Docusign, shares thoughts on the challenges and surprising upsides of getting closer to your people when forced to keep your distance.  

When managing remotely, don’t confuse information with communication.

As an executive who spent more than half my time on the road pre-COVID, it’s been a major adjustment – with a few hard lessons – to become an effective remote manager. “Laptop leadership” just isn’t my style. I’m a believer in face-to-face meetings. I’ve criss-crossed this country for the past three years to connect personally with my teams, get a first-hand view of the business so I can steer growth, remove roadblocks when necessary, and stay close. 

Here are reflections on my leadership experience during lockdown.

On management expectations

Expectations have been high for managers to quickly learn how to deftly manage remote teams. At first we were all flying by the seat of our pants. Doing our best to bridge distances and stay in close contact with no office hours, no grabbing a coffee, or sitting down together at lunch. I can tell you this: creating, even maintaining, relationships through the phone, Zoom and Slack is a full time job. 

Human nature demands physical interaction to create bonds. That camaraderie fuels connection. When physical connection is removed, you have to work that much harder to keep the attachment alive. Like a long-distance relationship, the quantity of communication becomes a substitute for the real thing. It’s almost formulaic: every face-to-face interaction is worth five phone calls. Each in-person meeting equals three zoom calls. 

Compound the challenge of remote communication with the fact that many people don’t relish talking on the phone. Even more have burned out on the sheer volume of video calls or have developed conference call malaise. Yet, every manager is expected to become an expert at remote management – and for good reason. Without solid leadership, business decays.

On information vs communication

We’re lucky. We’re a tech company. The majority of our information delivery since our inception has been digital. We’re accustomed to relying on tools like Slack, Zoom and Google Drive to collaborate with customers and coworkers wherever they are. Physical events and meetings have of course been cancelled, which has curtailed some of our ability to connect. On the upside, we’ve seen a sizable uptick in attendance at virtual events. People crave connection.

But let’s not confuse information with communication. Sending emails that say “see attached” is simply forwarding information. That’s not communication. Referring employees to a link is not communication. It’s information. A lazy communicator sends emails all day. You’ve got to pick up the phone. Connect. Book a Zoom conference. Have the face-to-face. And you have to be deliberate about it.  

On inclusion vs exclusion

Communication today is an “invitation only” affair. Send a conference call invite to your distribution list and others, naturally, get left out. On Zoom, only the person with the mic is heard. The quiet ones don't speak up and may not even know others on the call. Direct message one of your usual suspects and that’s a pretty intimate group of two. None of this is conducive to keeping everyone in the loop and feeling part of the mission.

I noticed in my organization that folks would speak only with their managers and peers. Only on scheduled calls. That makes it hard to break free from your pod. So it’s incumbent on leadership to foster inclusion proactively. Maybe have everyone turn on their cameras during video calls. It’s important to see faces. Read body language. Stay engaged. Belong.

Managers have to present opportunities to connect. Communicate with the entire herd, not just the ones out front or the stragglers at the back who need encouragement. In fact, we must over-communicate. Emphasize calling each individual. Leave no one behind. Embrace them in the broader family. Once you’ve opened the door to individual conversation, make it clear that they’re invited to connect with you anytime. And mean it.  

On new rules of engagement

It’s clear that a sales dashboard does not represent the health of the team. We’ve had to work hard to shift leaders to think beyond the numbers. Happy, adjusted, included employees will move the dashboard. Let’s remember: our employees are not working alongside their peers. Many haven’t seen their co-workers in months; new hires have never met their manager in person. They’re trying to adjust to a new way of working to figure out how to close business remotely. If you’re all about the numbers, people don’t respond. They disconnect. That’s why it’s so vital to have open, meaningful communication. 

We’ve had to redesign workflows, too. For example, in onboarding new employees. Rather than rely on me to welcome new hires face-to-face in the office, I now commit to book time on my calendar to connect with them within days of starting. A critical conversation to help get employees started off on the right foot when I can’t stride over to their desk to shake hands in person.

We’ve adjusted how we communicate as well. Routinely, less email. More conversation. As leaders, we attempt to be as “in person” as we can. It’s too easy to misconstrue the tone of an email. We can’t risk negative misperceptions when we’re socially distant. 

On business vs personal

Before COVID made me a shut-in, it was simpler to know where to focus my attention to keep business moving. Now I spread my attention around by design. Out of necessity. And I try to do that in an equal-opportunity fashion. As I speak to individuals in my organization, I remember that everyone has a story. A personal story. A story of family. Of downtime. Of fear and frustration. Of spare time and special skills. People (more often than not) want to tell their story. Especially now. 

Business is personal. Making time to speak to each Canadian employee one-on-one has made me more human. More appreciative. A better listener. And improved my ability to interact with all of our people. Getting the remote management thing right – it’s a lot harder than it looks.

DocuSign Canada, Dan Kagan

Dan Kagan, GM Docusign Canada

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