Virtual communication, especially with growing trend in remote teams, offers many benefits in productivity, in the number of people we can reach, and the speed at which we can do so. However, this can lead to the pitfall of becoming the sole path through which a manager interacts with their team.
I’ve learned that, in communication through a computer screen, you typically only see what the other side wants you to see. In face-to-face visits, you see everything you want and need to see.
This feature is a part of the irreplaceable “front-line presence”, which peaked in the 1970s. Senior management and even board members of large Japanese retail chains would stand in stores observing and serving customers.
This concept brings back some intriguing memories. On one occasion, when I took over the leadership of a company that sold heavy equipment with a profitable after-sales service operation, we were losing a significant portion of these customers at alarmingly high rates.
My predecessor had nearly forty years in the company, in various parts of the world, and was about to retire. How could I presume to know the business better than him and find the solution the challenge demanded?
Hybrid: Simpler solution?
After reviewing dozens of reports, speaking to local headquarters leaders, and holding numerous virtual meetings, I decided to do something simple but laborious: personally listen to the field technicians serving these customers, in most of the twenty-five branches scattered throughout Brazil, a country the size of continental USA.
We held round tables during the usual 7:30 a.m. morning meetings before they went out for customer visits. I received invaluable insights about our logistical failures, how these employees were evaluated and motivated, and the emotions of being heard for the first time by the company’s CEO.
To cut a long story short, over the course of two years, many processes were changed to the point where we received global quality awards from the company. Same team, same employees. They were just heard directly from the source, where the action took place.
This reminds me of the power of a Spanish proverb that says:
“It’s very different talking about bulls than being in the arena”.Spanish proverb
I’ve always made it a habit to visit clients facing significant issues with the business I was leading. In another company, I visited a major customer along with the technical salesperson serving them. The products and services were targeted at the manufacturing sector, but we hadn’t received an order in quite some time.
I noticed our representative had an excellent relationship with the technical staff. However, upon reaching the Purchasing department and, just as I handed out my business card, he did the same. It was clear that this area received no attention from us.
Again, in virtual communications, you only see what is shown to you. In person, you see what you wish to.
After the end of my career with multinationals, I worked alongside an entrepreneur, owner of one of the country’s largest real estate agencies. A Uruguayan immigrant with a captivating personality, he circulated daily in the office, exchanging ideas with employees at all levels.
On weekends, he personally visited upcoming real estate projects and spoke with many brokers. At Monday morning meetings, he was ready to make important decisions based on his observations and conversations from the previous week. For me, he was an exemplary role model, especially given his age of seventy.
Connection and trust
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Mark Mortensen, a professor of organizational behavior at the renowned INSEAD school, wrote about virtual work and his research findings. Some of his conclusions are:
“Research shows that a lack of close contact reduces connection and trust, key elements of a healthy culture.”
“There’s another significant challenge in remote and hybrid work: we have fewer face-to-face interactions with colleagues, and research indicates that it’s harder to resolve disputes (like those around toxic behaviors) virtually.”
“When we’re face-to-face, we have more interpersonal tools at our disposal.
We have better data as we can interpret facial expressions more easily and observe off-camera behaviors. We also have better tools since interactions allow us to collaborate in real-time to resolve differences.”
Another global sales leader, to whom I had the pleasure of reporting, said that when a salesperson underperformed, they needed more “windshield time”. This meant not just virtual or face-to-face conversations but also spending days working alongside that salesperson.
No matter how much new technologies bring significant advancements in business communication, nothing replaces a firm handshake or direct eye contact, conveying genuine emotions. The ability to perceive the environment and behaviors around offers invaluable insight for decision-making.
Virtual and face-to-face leadership aren’t mutually exclusive. They complement each other. The great risk is relying too heavily on the comfort of the former, relegating the latter to a secondary role. Both are essential.
To conclude, a quote from Colin Powell, one of the great military figures and modern influencers in leadership concepts, encapsulates this sentiment:
“Great leaders I’ve worked with are individuals with a deep sense of empathy. They can walk through a factory floor or a battalion and feel if something is off.”Colin Powell