National and international associations by their nature are accustomed to managing projects with a remote workforce, whether that is volunteers or staff. As our team of association professionals has grown, it has meant that all our staff are no longer working from our association management company’s office, rather we have staff working from home locally or elsewhere on a full and part-time basis. This has meant a shift in how we work and how we communicate, but in many ways, I have been learning to manage this in the same way we work with association volunteers that are spread out across Canada or around the globe. This is all about effective communication.
Teleconferences are a mainstay of our world, both with staff and our clients’ volunteer leaders. We continue to use teleconferences as a way to bring people together a very low cost. Upgrading our office’s speakerphone and using a quality bridging system (we are big fans of Uber Conference; see my earlier article for more on this) has definitely been worth the investment. More recently we have added video conferencing to our company’s staff meetings.
When considering a video conferencing system for our office we had two things in mind: 1) ensuring that everyone could be seen and heard, and 2) finding a solution with a reasonable start-up cost as well as ongoing cost to operate. For hardware we chose the Meeting Owl, which offers a 360-degree camera and is easy to connect to a computer. For the software component we chose Skype for Business, as it was something that we are already paying for with our Microsoft Office 365 user licenses. The Meeting Owl is compatible with other platforms such as Zoom. Over time we will experiment with combining the Meeting Owl with these systems as we have association management clients who prefer Zoom for their meetings.
In the few months that we have been integrating video conferencing into our internal meetings we have already seen that the screen-based face-to-face meetings are helpful. Facial expressions and not being able to “hide” during these calls really help to engage our team. We are also taking advantage of screen sharing to enhance collaboration, especially with training and developing budgets. Screen sharing is a great way to see exactly what the moderator of the call is talking about—it is especially helpful for visual learners.
To ensure that a remote team of employees or volunteers are engaged, it is important to have regular scheduled meetings, and not just meetings for the sake of meetings. For years we have been pushing our association management clients to schedule regular committee and board calls, as it is always easier to cancel than to schedule them. Regular check-ins help to push things forward and to make sure that deadlines are met.
Despite the advances in video conferencing technology, and despite the declining costs, there is still nothing that beats in-person, face-to-face meetings. Our two staff members who work from home in rural Manitoba come into the office once per week, and our employee based in Montreal has begun to come to our office quarterly for in-person team meetings. In addition, our team members find that traveling together to association conferences is a good opportunity to bring together our distributed staff team. When possible, in-person meetings can be an enhanced and effective way to connect remote team members with each other.
In addition to group meetings of association leaders, leaders, whether the chief elected officer (chair) or chief staff officer (executive director), need to make themselves available to the people that they are leading. Leaders should be reaching out on a regular basis to their teams to make sure that they have the support that they need and to help where it is required. I have begun having meetings every two weeks with a new key employee to make sure that she receives the attention and support that she requires from me.
Email, yet another way to connect with remote teams, has become the way many of us communicate, sometimes to our detriment. It is important to consider what should be communicated by text, email and phone. Organizations are now struggling with moving some email communications into chat systems such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. Whether using email or a chat system, rules should be established about which communication platform should be used for what type of internal communication.
Remote teams of volunteer and staff aren’t going away, and in fact globalization means that they will become even more common. Like everything else, successfully leading remote teams means communicating well, and taking advantage of useful tools that will support regular communication and connection.