Executive coach and former Chief Compliance Officer Amii Barnard-Bahn responds to your anonymous questions on some of the grayer areas compliance officers face, such as culture, hiring, training, and ethics. Click here to submit your own for inclusion in our next edition.
Q. Am I alone in pushing back against the “let’s try the home office thing permanently” trend that I am seeing? There’s still value in having face to face conversations, face to face collaborations. Especially the tough conversations that compliance officers have to have. How can those effectively be done remotely? From my experience, it’s hard to set the right environment and the right tone virtually. –John
Amii: You are not alone in your stance, but we are in a unique point in time where there is still a lot of uncertainly and anxiety about going back into the office. Personal contact is important for building and maintaining relationships and influence, especially when having difficult conversations. Research has shown that the method of communication is important. Behavioral psychologists call this “media richness” and correlate the degree to which misunderstandings and escalations can occur in communication depending on whether the discussion is in person, on the phone, on video, or in written communication such as email. Face-to-face discussions are “media rich”—they provide us with immediate feedback and social cues. On the other end of the spectrum, written communications provide us with the least context for interpreting the message.
We are living through a business experiment that is unlikely to end soon. This pandemic will bequeath some permanent changes in the way we live and work. In June, the CEO of CalPERS said it expects half of its workforce to work remote after the pandemic ends, both to trim costs and because “this pandemic has shown us that our productivity numbers are actually higher.”
Given that many important conversations must and will happen virtually, here are five strategies for maximizing your virtual communication (adapted from Matt Abrahams, who teaches communications at Stanford Graduate School of Business):
1. Set up your professional work environment: Dedicate a quiet location, and as much as possible, create a neutral background with good lighting (no shadows—you may want to borrow a table lamp from elsewhere in your house or a space-saving light ring to fill in shadows). For tech equipment: reliable internet, a solid-quality camera, and consider investing in a quality noise-cancelling microphone or headset. Arrange your camera at eye level (you may need to raise your camera). Record yourself first—check if you like what you hear and see. Also check with HR or Finance regarding whether the company will subsidize or help equip your home setup.
2. Manage your presence: How are you showing up remotely? Eye contact is critical for establishing credibility and trust, so train yourself to look straight at the camera (not at the thumbnail pictures!). This is a learned behavior and a little odd at first, so consider taping a photo of family or friends right behind your camera lens. If you have the option, stand up when you present. This enables you to use your hands more, and if you present a lot, get a slide advancer so you can stand farther away.
3. Keep engagement high: Use vocal inflection and emotional expression in your voice. We are wired to pay attention to variation and change. If you’re not sure, record yourself and listen.
4. Leading group discussions: Use your meeting invitations to set expectations of meeting purpose and desired outcomes. For groups, include helpful prompts, such as questions to think about in advance, and include rules like using the chat feature to post questions, group rules of conduct like full attention (turning phones off), all participants having video screens on (we are wired to pay attention to faces), and muting to avoid background noise when not speaking. Respect the audience, and change speakers or engage with questions approximately every 8-10 minutes when attention wanes.
5. For challenging discussions: Spend time on both preparation and delivery of your message. For preparation, give advance warning to psychologically groom your audience (ex. “Normally we would have this conversation face-to-face. I’ve got some bad news I need to share”). This helps reduce potential shock and the negativity recipients may feel when they hear the information. For a better delivery, rehearse the conversation and your talking points. Doing so will help you project the right balance of confidence, humility, and gravitas—and is proven to both enhance your credibility and to reduce the considerable emotional distress that can accompany challenging discussions.
Q. We’ve had to furlough workers during the pandemic and are just starting to bring them back. Our CEO says we are doing so on the basis of how much of what they do is becoming more necessary to the business … but should we be taking other things into consideration as well? Like, for example, should we consider hiring back parents in families in which theirs is the only income? In other words, should I raise my hand and ask if we should be taking humanity into consideration here? Or maybe there’s some combination? Is anyone doing this well that I could point to? –Elida
Amii: Wonderful that you are able to bring employees back from furlough while there is still so much economic uncertainty and anxiety facing employees at this time.
I appreciate your empathy and concern around who to bring back and why. However, I do not recommend using perceived personal financial need when deciding which employees to bring back to work from furlough. It’s impossible to know (and for privacy reasons, you shouldn’t know) and weigh individual circumstances. Making subjective judgments of this nature is likely to lead to perceptions of favoritism, possibly involve unconscious bias, increase discrimination risk, increase politics and lobbying, and ultimately cause hurt and resentment during a time when you need everyone to pull together as a team.
Make employment decisions based on objective business criteria. Compliance Week recently published an excellent article that provides the legal factors to consider both when bringing employees back from furlough as well as how to best handle layoffs. I hope for you (and all of our readers) that your business returns to profitability and you can bring everyone back to work.