Deborah Ostreicher of Distinguished Communications: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
INCLUSION. It’s easy to fade into the background when working remotely. A good manager will intentionally engage every member of the team as much as possible. Those who are unlikely to chime in on video calls or email chains can easily feel forgotten in the remote environment. Working remotely means no impromptu hallway chats, so it’s important to reach out to team members outside of scheduled meetings.
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Ostreicher, Owner of Distinguished Communications.
Deborah Ostreicher spent over 25 years in leadership positions around the globe, including as Marketing Director for a multi-national hi-tech company in Central Europe, as Events Manager for Prince Charles in the U.K. and most recently as the Vice President of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. In every role, she saw how effective communication could make or break careers and companies. She created Distinguished Communications to help individuals, teams and entire organizations access the secrets to effective communication, productive meetings and unforgettable speeches.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I never had a chance to be nervous on stage. I was thrust in front of audiences at five years old during dance and piano recitals. When my music met my dancing, I performed in musical theatre and later turned to comedic plays. Entertaining audiences always was, and still is, my happiest place.
Assuming I couldn’t make a living in performance, I earned a Liberal Arts degree from the University of Maryland; an MBA in International Marketing from the American University in Washington, D.C.; and a Leadership Communication certification from the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Early in my career, I spent ten years living and working abroad in England, France, Israel and Hungary in technology, marketing, advertising, event management and tourism. In every job, and in every role, my communication skills defined me. Organizations turned to me to be their key presenter, message creator and meeting facilitator. After spearheading a communication culture shift for the entire City of Phoenix government, I started being contacted by other organizations, requesting that I do the same for them. And that’s how Distinguished Communications was born. What began as a side job grew so fast that I left my position with Phoenix, partnered with some other incredible communication professionals and went all in.
Helping people and companies develop their message, supporting timid presenters to find their voice and guiding seasoned speakers to reach new heights gives me great joy every single day. I find it thrilling to see those transformations happen, right before my eyes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I literally have hundreds of stories, from working for Prince Charles (Duke of Windsor) and several US Presidential teams, to being the lead spokesperson for an airport during numerous crises, and traveling the world to meet with airline executives. But one of the most interesting times in my career was when I began work in Budapest, Hungary, shortly after the fall of communism. My job as Marketing and Customer Service Director of the Central Europe computer company partly involved leading a team of male technicians. I didn’t speak Hungarian at the time, female leaders were very uncommon there, and work ethic was quite different than in the United States, so the challenges were significant. The way I survived was to find a good translator, learn Hungarian and hold my ground when challenged. It wasn’t easy but it provided an incredible development opportunity for me (and hopefully for the Hungarian staff!)
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The cornerstone of my communication belief is summed up by Maya Angelou in her famous quote: “People will forget what you say. People will forget what you do. But they will always remember how you made them feel.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I didn’t realize growing up how fortunate I was to have two loving parents who always insisted that I could be and do anything I wanted. They gave me security and confidence. It wasn’t until I began volunteering with at-risk youth that I truly realized that my parents gave me a unique gift. They opened many doors for me but always insisted that I walk through them. Their guidance and mentorship made me who I am today.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
Communication is about so much more than words. When we are together, all of our senses can be activated and contribute to our interaction. Sitting around a table with our colleagues provides sensory stimuli that we just can’t get on a conference or video call. For example, if a team member is exhibiting subtle body language that tells you he/she is not comfortable with the direction of the meeting, you are likely to pick up on that and adjust accordingly.
Also, when we are in the same space, chit chat happens before and after meetings. These impromptu conversations in the hallway or at the coffee maker are more valuable than people realized before the pandemic. In addition to catching up about families and weekend plans, colleagues often discuss business that’s off topic from formal meetings, which can contribute to workflow. And just chatting casually in the hallway can inspire all kinds of creativity, as this is often where unplanned brainstorms take place. These are real benefits of being together.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
The same things outlined above as benefits of being together are challenges when we are not. Those casual conversations are unlikely to happen when teams aren’t physically together. Even during those awkward moments before or after a virtual group meeting, when participants are encouraged to chat freely, there is no one-on-one privacy. There’s an audience of our peers. We may see someone on the screen and think, “I should call her later about X.” But do we follow through and do it? Has the moment passed?
All of the body-language and sensory cues that are available in the physical space are almost non-existent when we aren’t together. Email strings provide only words, which can offer little in the way of the context offered in person. The tiny picture of a colleague on the screen (if their camera is even on) likely doesn’t allow us to see the true look in their eyes. In fact, there may be 25 people “in” the meeting, and we can’t see any of them because the whole screen is filled with a slide. There’s no way to read a room in this situation, making communication and cohesiveness a true challenge.
In fact, even though many of us are in our sweatpants, communication has become quite formal in the virtual space. Meetings with more than one or two other people are managed and moderated in ways that don’t allow for the easy flow of conversation. Management is a necessary evil because otherwise people are just speaking over each other, but it adds a formality that can be inhibiting.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Managers wishing to be effective in the remote space must Flex their FISEP!
- FACILITATION: Become a skilled proactive facilitator for your own meetings and be sure to engage effective facilitators when you are not the meeting leader. Good facilitators include everyone in the conversation, they keep things moving, stay on task and stick to the time.
- INCLUSION. It’s easy to fade into the background when working remotely. A good manager will intentionally engage every member of the team as much as possible. Those who are unlikely to chime in on video calls or email chains can easily feel forgotten in the remote environment. Working remotely means no impromptu hallway chats, so it’s important to reach out to team members outside of scheduled meetings.
- SOCIAL TIME: We’ve noticed a lot of clients lamenting about forced social exercises on video. Whether it’s scheduled “coffee chats,” happy hours or forced games, many people dread this interaction. Consider an ANONYMOUS survey to ask the team if and what they value from these types of activities, then increase the positive and decrease or eliminate the negative. (Sample survey available here if you want to link: https://www.distinguishedcomm.com/effective-webinars
- EXPECTATIONS: One of the challenges with remote work, and especially with video calls, is that people don’t always know the expectations. Is video required? What is the dress code? What’s the format for contributions and questions?
- PHONE: With video fatigue being so rampant, consider converting remote meetings with three or less participants to telephone only. Then when you do set up a video meeting, it’s time to actively engage with everyone on camera. If possible, suggest taking a walk during the call or even having a walking meeting if participants are in the same city.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
A lot of issues were impacting clients in the beginning, from employees wanting to be reimbursed for the internet that they already had at home to security issues working on their own computers. Once it became clear that working from home was going to be for more than a few weeks, most companies we work with allowed staff to take their office equipment home. That took care of the security issues. We haven’t heard of anyone being reimbursed for home internet.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
Virtual meeting software such as Zoom, Teams, WebEx, etc. have been incredible during this time. Platforms that were once intimidating to many, became part of everyday life almost overnight. I don’t think that any one is particularly better than the other, but rather how they are used. Nothing is the same as being together in the same space, but a good manager will make specific efforts on these platforms to make everyone feel included and that their time is well spent.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
The pandemic forced the world into immediate quarantine and business has adapted. At the time of this writing, some businesses are already back in their offices, at least in part. Others have decided not to bring staff back until at least mid-2021 or later. My concern is that once it’s totally safe to be together, many businesses will keep their teams 100% remote.
While remote work has proved to be possible and clearly can save a lot of building-related expenses, I believe there will be intangible costs. Human beings need interaction to form solid, well-rounded connections. These human connections promote support of each other and a team spirit that can’t be the same for people who are never together. The same risks hold true for client relationships (B2C).
Team building and relationships between colleagues and with clients aren’t important for every kind of job, but when they are, I believe going 100% remote will have a cost..
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
Knowing that so many people are “trapped” on video calls all day, I have intentionally been scheduling phone calls whenever possible. Clients really appreciate this because it gives them a break from sitting in front of their cameras. Sometimes a video meeting is not necessary to accomplish the goal of the call.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
Giving and receiving feedback can each be difficult. If we all focused on giving and receiving feedback more often, this wouldn’t be surrounded by so much negativity. Feedback is the cornerstone of what we do at Distinguished Communications and it’s just not the same in the remote space. There are three key things I’d recommend regarding improving the feedback experience.
- As a manager, encourage feedback from your staff and also model for them how to take feedback in a constructive way. For example, encourage staff to give you feedback. And without being defensive, thank them for the feedback and be sure to call their attention to any changes you have make as a result of their feedback.
- Old school philosophies often say to sandwich any negative feedback between positive pieces of feedback. I disagree. At Distinguished Communications, we focus on what people are doing well and encourage them to do more of that.
- In the virtual space, it’s so difficult to connect with people. One thing that we find really helpful is to look directly into the camera when speaking. It seems awkward at first if you aren’t used to it, but it makes an enormous difference in the ability to connect when you aren’t physically together. Connection during the feedback process is really important and this is the best we can do in the virtual space.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
As discussed above, rather than forced web social hours, which can be awkward and difficult on video, consider other options. Encourage one employee a week (or whatever makes sense) to send the team 100 words about the most interesting thing they’ve done during Covid, or over the weekend, etc. People can choose to read the email or not, but the forced pressure on both sides is removed.
There are also fun and interesting games that can be played on one’s own time, such as “Guess Who.” Each participant shares a little-known fact about themselves and everyone has to guess who the fact belongs to. Even a team challenge of Words with Friends or similar games can create a camaraderie.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am creating a Good News station to report on the great things happening around the world. We will cover innovative ideas, discoveries, accomplishments and success stories that I hope will inspire viewers to see the good in the world. These types of stories currently make up a very small percentage of news stories, creating the perception that the world is mostly full of crime, tragedy and sorrow. Perhaps seeing and hearing more of the good will create a positive outlook that will enable more people to create a positive impact on our world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Or follow us at Distinguished Communications on YouTube and LinkedIn for tips and videos.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.