Face-to-Face Time with Employees Still Matters
Tell a group of employees you want more face time and prepare for sighs and eye rolls. Many see face time as a necessary evil because it can feel like time wasted, where they have to show up and be seen for political reasons, not to get meaningful work done in the most expeditious way.
Research reinforces what we know intuitively: Being seen connotes positive traits like commitment, even if we’re just sitting there. Now that remote and hybrid work environments are professional norms — and seemingly staying that way — employees are ready to relegate what we’ve traditionally known as “face time” to the archives.
Most often, the people asking for face time are leaders trying to get people back in the office, hoping to reclaim pre-pandemic patterns. I recently spoke with a CEO who lamented how much harder it is now to see what people are working on and to pop in for quick conversations. Despite establishing in-the-office guidelines, workers aren’t returning in force. His workplace, like many others, are finding that the return to “normal” isn’t going so well.
While the traditional type of face time is dreaded, we shouldn’t let it be equated with all face-to-face interaction, or we miss an important point: Interacting with people helps us understand what they care about. All of the subtle cues we pick up from someone — mannerisms, tone of voice, energy — provide clarity around their motivation and message.
We especially look to leaders in this way. As the late Sigal Barsade’s groundbreaking research showed, emotions are the primary conduit through which leaders influence other groups. Even the most well-worded email can’t convey emotions accurately.
As it turns out, it’s the leader’s face time that counts the most.
Especially in times of uncertainty, we use interactions with leaders to stay in the loop and map our behavior. If Sam looks worried at this all-staff, then I’ll worry. I want to hear Anika explain the restructuring before I decide what to do. When leaders disappear, we get really concerned.
With 2023’s economic capitulations and a remote/hybrid workforce, it’s important for leaders to be in front of their teams — and in person — as much as possible. This doesn’t mean rescinding virtual arrangements — all indications are that they’re here to stay as a preferred normal. Rather, for leaders, it means being creative and intentional to make sure you’re seen when it matters, rather than promoting a general “butts-in-seats” approach. This matters as much for the CEO as a first-time manager. Here are four visibility strategies for leaders of hybrid or fully remote teams.
Make hybrid in-office days about communicating key messages in person.
Companies are improving at using in-office days, but there are still too many complaints about being one of few in the office, having to sit at one’s desk and videoconference, or of days overpacked with in-office meetings. This is why coming into the office feels like bad face time — it’s unproductive.
Leaders should consider their office days as communication days. One of the best uses of this time is to talk about issues that matter, where context and clarity are important. Query employees ahead of time to see what they’re missing from leadership interactions and allocate your time carefully. Your in-person time may require a combination of individual and group meetings, office hours, and walking the halls. It’s better to have fewer days in the office with full teams present (a hub day) than a few people in on different days. Having good team representation on those in-office days will make two-way communication easier.
Embrace video as your backup.
Being face-to-face is best, but video is the next-best thing. For fully or partially remote companies, this may be the only option. Leaders should use cameras liberally as the way to be seen. Yes, we’re all Zoomed out. But even if others don’t, managers should still have their cameras on in most situations, and always when discussing a tricky topic.
The proximity bias, where we pay most attention to those in front of us, gets supercharged on video calls. We give far more attention to the people on camera (versus audio only) because they appear to be beside us. Remember the feeling of being in a conference room with a few people dialing in on speakerphone who you mostly forgot were there? It’s the same effect on a videoconference. Leaders will get — and keep — more attention for their messages by showing their faces.
Manage your body language.
If people are watching you in person or on video, you want to ensure you’re supporting your message rather than undercutting it. Much of this is determined by how you carry your words through your physical presence. When there’s uncertainty, presence matters even more.
We don’t often practice our delivery of more routine messages, and that’s to our detriment. This doesn’t have to make you feel self-conscious or over-rehearsed. Start by taking a moment before a meeting or conversation to determine your intention, such as instilling calm or generating excitement. Then check in with yourself during your conversation to ensure your body language is receptive and in alignment with your message. For example, if you want to show excitement, you should be smiling and animated.
Most importantly, don’t accidentally detract from your message. On video, common habits like slouching back into a chair or looking away at another screen can do more damage than you think. A simple acronym I use with clients for an in-the-moment body scan is OUT: Keep your body language open, posture up, and lean toward the other party (in this case, your camera). Also check your face to align with your intent: soften features, smile, or stay neutral, as appropriate.
Use your energy strategically.
One of the first aspects of a person that we pick up is their energy, and we pay the most attention to leaders. You know how your boss walks in the room much more so than how the intern does. As the saying goes, “the leader brings the weather.”
Leaders should recognize this and use their energy strategically in front of their teams. Energy exists on a continuum, and we can use it to bring others along. This is especially key when conveying tough messages, assuaging uncertainty, or gaining buy-in. This is why any complex message is better delivered in person, but in virtual settings, energy matters just as much or more.
I suggest thinking of your energy like a dial and aiming to be a few points above or below your audience. If you want to calm people down, come in a few points calmer than where your audience is. If you want to excite them, come in a few points higher. Any more variance and you risk looking clueless or out of touch.
. . .
When considering the need for face time, leaders should first look at themselves. It’s less necessary to have people in view at any given time than it is to make yourself visible to others when it matters. Instead of regressing into the trap of useless face time, try to surgically apply it toward engaging leadership and greater understanding.
This article also appears in Harvard Business Journal.
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