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Finding Your Voice in the Virtual Workplace

| February 23, 2021

by Laura McCain Patterson

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Laura Patterson, Leadership Coach and Consultant at MOR Associates.  She previously was CIO at the University of Michigan. Laura may be reached at [email protected].]
There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and the experiences of the past year are going to have a long term impact on higher education. Universities are experiencing effects of the pandemic differently based on their location, demographics of the student population and workforce, revenue sources, history, and their pandemic response plans. But as we emerge from the pandemic one thing is certain, the period ahead will be a time of significant change for everyone.
My concern for higher education is that many of the barriers that were being recognized and addressed through diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the physical workplace are now being magnified in the virtual workplace. Given the incredibly complex pressures of the times and the anonymity that the virtual work world enables, leaders may be leaning on the long standing relationships and networks that got them to where they are rather than calling on the diverse experiences and perspectives of those that are best able to take them forward. In many of my coaching sessions of late, both men and women have confided that over the past year while working in the virtual workplace, they have lost their influence on decision makers in their organizations.  They have lost their leadership voices.
What can you do at this critical point in the history of higher education to ensure that your voice is heard?  How can you influence the strategies that are being developed to reshape both the workplace of the modern university and the delivery of the mission?  How can you, leading from where you are, find and use your voice to both influence the changes ahead and advocate for yourself and your team? And if your voice is being heard, what can you do to amplify the voices of others?
In today’s Tuesday Reading, I am going to put forward strategies you may adopt to help make your leadership voice heard in the virtual workplace. The following tips will help you find and use your voice to influence decision makers and build a more inclusive culture as your organization defines the workplace of a post pandemic world.
1. Maintain a Positive Powerful Presence
Presence still matters. In the workplace of yoga pants and sweatshirts, it is easy to let down your presence. Your virtual presence is even more important than your physical presence was when meeting in a conference room. There are fewer cues in the virtual world, so your presence has greater weight in how you are being perceived.  Does your presence project confidence and energy?  Be mindful of presenting your best virtual self.
Be present.  If you are reading email, Slack notices, and text messages, you aren’t present and others can tell.  If email is more important than what is being communicated in the meeting, decline the meeting and read your email. If you join the meeting, be present in the meeting. Your nonverbal virtual presence when you aren’t speaking influences whether others will listen when you do speak.  Don’t let your nonverbal presence weaken your voice.
2. Build Your Self Confidence
Building your self confidence allows you to let go of self-imposed restrictions and the need for approval of others. As your confidence grows, the opinions of others will weigh less on you and you will be more willing to assert yourself on the things that matter to you. Before you join a virtual meeting, pause to think about your intention.  What do you want to accomplish?  What do you want to contribute? Practice the words you will use. Take control of clarifying expectations and asking for what you need or want.
Journaling is an effective way to build confidence. Reflect on your performance in a recent important virtual meeting. Analyze what you did well and what you could have done better. Write down actions that build on your strengths to build your confidence going into future virtual sessions.
3. Learn When to Speak and When to Listen
Knowing when to speak and when to listen is a critical skill for understanding and influencing others. If you have a unique perspective to offer, try to speak within the first 10 minutes of the meeting. If you know that others in the meeting have deep expertise and influence, you may choose to let them speak first and then amplify their position. In all cases, whether you speak early or later, words matter.  Be concise, clear and to the point.
In a poorly facilitated meeting it may be difficult to contribute to the discussion. Don’t give up and don’t go silent. Speak up. If you find that ideas you put forward go nowhere, only to be claimed later in the meeting by someone else, assume no ill intent, and don’t let it go unnoticed. Thank the individual for restating the idea you presented, and then elaborate your thinking on it.  And do the same for others who have spoken but whose contributions are being overlooked. Amplify the voices of those who aren’t being heard. 
4.  Tell Your Story and the Story of Others
Successful people advocate for themselves, and you can, too.  Many of us, especially women, are not comfortable talking about our accomplishments, and the virtual world makes it even harder, given there is less opportunity for informal interaction.  Don’t let “out of sight/out of mind” in the virtual environment hide your success. Keep a journal of your accomplishments and the accomplishments of your team. Weave the success stories into your conversations with your boss and others of influence and share stories about the positive impact of the outcomes.
Results matter even more in the virtual world.  Claim your successes and give credit to your team. If you haven’t already, establish a monthly or quarterly scorecard of metrics for your boss and your stakeholders. Tracking and reporting on results is even more important in the virtual world than in the physical where “rears in seats” was considered a measure of performance. Focusing on results was important in the physical workplace, it’s a requirement for success in the virtual workplace.
5.  Expand Your Influencing Repertoire
Build on your emotional intelligence skills to increase the strategies you use to influence others.  Consider the perspective of the person you are trying to influence and apply the influencing strategy that best meets them where they are. It may be that in the virtual environment you are relying too much on a single strategy that works well in the physical setting but isn’t as effective when engaging on video conferencing, especially with those you don’t have a long standing relationship with.  If your influencing skills are limited to a single strategy, learn and practice different strategies that will increase your effectiveness.
6.  Master Group Processes
Learn more about group processes and develop your skills for facilitating group interaction to bring out the voices of all social identities on your teams or the teams that you are a part of. In the virtual environment it may be harder for all members of your team to engage fully.  Focus on creating the virtual safe space that encourages and supports participation by everyone. For example, you might ask people to use “chat” to make it easier for everyone to engage. And ask people NOT to use private chat for sidebar conversations that exclude others. 
7. Bring Your Whole Self to the Virtual Workplace
In the virtual setting it may be easier for your social identity to go unnoticed or unrevealed than in the physical workplace where photos and other artifacts on your desk help to tell your story.  Sandra Cha and Laura Morgan Roberts report research findings that many professionals of color have succeeded in underrepresented fields by shining a light on their differences rather than trying to fit in culturally.  They do this by offering a unique perspective, providing quality control, planting seeds of rapport, and bridging differences. It may be difficult to shine a light on your unique experience and perspective in the virtual workplace,  but by doing so, you help not only yourself, you help others. By thoughtfully mobilizing what is unique and special about you and encouraging others around you to do the same, you can have a significant effect on how your organization capitalizes on the promised benefits of diversity in the workplace. 
8.  Own Your Future
Don’t let the demands of today and the anonymity of virtual work hinder your career growth. Think about the future and the opportunities that will come with post-pandemic life. If you continue to work remotely, what is the path for your career? Where do you want to be in three years? What gaps do you have for the next role you want and how will you fill those gaps?  Find professional development opportunities that will help you grow and ask to engage in them. Your boss doesn’t own your career, you do.  Don’t let the virtual workplace sidetrack you.
In closing, as we come out of the pandemic and enter a period of transformation for higher education, I encourage you to exercise your leadership voice and give voice to others. When all voices are heard you can leverage the promise of diversity, a culture of inclusion can be realized and the post-pandemic workplace will be even better than the one you came from.
If you feel you are losing your voice in the virtual workplace, I’d like to hear from you.  Send a note to me at [email protected]
References and Suggested Reading
1. Woolston, Chris.  Career Feature, “It’s Like We’re Going Back 30 Years; How the CoronaVirus is Gutting Diversity in Science”. Nature. July 31, 2020.
2. Ammerman, Colleen, Goysberg, Boris. Why the Crisis is Putting Companies at Risk of Losing Female Talent. Harvard Business Review, May 5, 2020.
3. Cha, Sandra, Roberts, Laura Morgan. The Benefits of Bringing Your Whole Identity to Work. Harvard Business Review, September 19, 2019.
4. Hutchinson, Lee, Going all-in on remote work: The technical and cultural changes, ars TECHNICA, August 2020.
5. Shephard, Rachel, Let’s Stop COVID-19 from Undoing Diversity Gains, TechCrunch, July 2, 2020.
6. Gorman, Carol Kinsdy. How to Project Leadership Presence in a Virtual Environment. Forbes, January 27, 2019.
7. Estrada, Sheryl. The Pandemic Puts Women’s Careers in Crisis.  How Can Employers Help? HRDive. January 27, 2021.
8. Duggan, Leann.  How Successful Women Advocate for Themselves at Work- And How You Can, Too. Refinery 29, March 14, 2019.