Debra Dinnocenzo discusses the challenges, opportunities, and solutions for bridging distance to create a meaningful presence in the remote/hybrid workplace. Leaders and teams are continually challenged to be both present and available through digital tools that provide CONNECTIVITY but that must simulate and replicate the human CONNECTIONS that are critical to team success. 

Debra offers a free resource to help leaders conduct effective coaching discussions. The “Virtual Meeting Icebreakers” is available for download at

About the Host:

Debra A. Dinnocenzo is president and founder of VirtualWorks!, a consulting and training firm that specializes in virtual work issues.  Debra is a dynamic keynote speaker, innovative educator, impactful coach, seasoned executive, and successful author.  She is the co-author of the recently released book, REMOTE LEADERSHIP – Successfully Leading Work-from-Anywhere and Hybrid Teams, as well as several other books on remote and virtual teams.  

Since publishing her first book on telecommuting in 1999, Debra has been a pioneer in the shift to virtual work and remote leadership.  Few practitioners in the field have the depth of knowledge and hands-on experience that distinguishes Debra in the hybrid workplace and remote leadership space.  As a nationally recognized expert in remote workplace and distance leadership, Debra has spoken widely on related topics, and developed and taught “Leadership in the Virtual Workplace,” an online graduate-level course offered by Duquesne University.  Previously, Debra was a teleworking executive and has worked from her home office for more than two decades.

Schedule a call with Debra HERE.


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Debra Dinnocenzo:

Welcome to the remote leadership Podcast. I'm Deborah Dinnocenzo and I'll be your host and guide as we explore new challenges and proven keys to success for leaders and teams who must get results from a distance. For more than two decades, I've helped organizations and leaders successfully go virtual. Now that we're all on a trajectory toward the next normal of work from anywhere and hybrid teams, I'm excited to share with you the insights and expertise that 1000s of leaders and teams have acquired through my books, coaching, training, and presentations. Join me to learn tips, techniques and skills that leaders and teams in your organization can implement now, to achieve effectiveness in our evolving remote workplace. Welcome to this episode of the remote leadership Podcast. I'm Deborah dinner Genzo and today, I'm sharing thoughts and techniques on creating presence from a distance. While facilitating a completely remote client event recently, it became clear that we all continue to seek ways to truly feel connected, aligned and engaged when we're involved in remote and hybrid meetings. I've mentioned numerous times throughout other episodes and during every keynote presentation I do that leaders must continually focus on creative ways to both replicate and simulate face to face interactions through remote methods of communication. So let's consider some of the challenges, opportunities and solutions for bridging distance to create meaningful presence in the remote and hybrid workplace. leaders and teams are continually challenged to be both present and available through digital tools that provide connectivity. But that must simulate and replicate the human connections that are critical to team success. I recently published with my co author Jason Moore wick, the book remote leadership, successfully leading work from anywhere and hybrid teams. You can find more information about our book at remote leadership In the book, we include a quote from Adam Goodhart, who previously wrote for USA Today Goodheart reminded us that, quote, connectivity is not the same thing as connection. So let's think about that for a minute. The challenge then, for leaders and members of their teams is to overcome the obstacles to the kinds of interactions we crave, we need and we want and that we remember from our onsite workplace days. These include the impromptu interactions, informal conversations meeting, and gathering and departing interactions, casual sharing of ideas, collective problem solving, creative ways to innovate relationship building, and the personal discussions and interactions that happen more easily in the face to face environment. Add to this, of course, are the difficulties we encounter in remote communication, such as missing nonverbal cues, the sense of isolation or just being remote problems with digital overload and screen fatigue, misunderstandings that can occur miscommunications that happen, and more often than we care to think about. The technology isn't always stable, consistent, clear or comfortable, and not always easy for people to use.

Debra Dinnocenzo:

By 2020, many organizations recognized the future direction of the workplace and had carefully built communication protocols, established a technology infrastructure, and began moving toward a remote first culture to support effective communication for their room. Increasingly remote teams, but many more organizations had not which we discovered during the pandemic, and the shortcomings in those organizations. And the shortcomings in their critical components became painfully clear when the pandemic hit. These organizations are forced to figure out new ways to conduct business remotely pretty much on the fly. In retrospect, though, we've been moving toward remote work since the 1980s. It's difficult to identify many organizations that remain untouched by digital commerce and remote communication. Technology has certainly altered how we work, how information reaches us reaches our homes, as well as the intersection between work and our personal lives. Many people really were already working from home or working remotely, working in different offices, different work locations before the pandemic. And as we're seeing very, very clearly, in the post pandemic era, many more people wish to continue remote work into the future. There's certainly been a notable increase in the number of workers who would even take a pay cut for the option to work remotely. Or at least work remotely part of the time, and increasingly most of the time. And so that shift has definitely occurred. So with this continuing, remote and hybrid work reality, how can leaders best create presence from a distance? So that's that's our question. That's our challenge for today. Like so many things, it really all starts with culture. It's a matter of the kind of culture that the organization is going to have, or it does have. As I mentioned, many organizations had been moving toward maybe not even as consciously, but now are more consciously moving toward a remote first culture. This means that organizations need to have certain things in place, they need to have the right tools they need to be using the right techniques, they need to ensure that people have the right skills. They need to have the proper digital communication standards or protocols. And creating a remote first environment means raising awareness, and increasing sensitivity to the communication needs of everyone on the team, and ensuring that all team members understand the impact on their communication methods and techniques. As we become more distributed, more remote and certainly more hybrid. It impacts everyone so certainly impacts leaders, but impacts team members as well in terms of how they work together and how they interact with each other.

Debra Dinnocenzo:

So some of the techniques that leaders and organizations need to focus on, as we think about creating this greater sense of presence, meaning that we are really more connected to each other in spite of distance begins with encouraging high levels of participation on the part of everyone. So for eight team meetings, for example, one way to do that to create more involvement is to road rotate roles and responsibilities for team meetings, assign someone to manage times and somebody else to track the agenda. Another team member to capture follow up actions. Ask a volunteer to summarize each of the topics or each of the action steps, of course, summarizing, and clarifying that everyone understands and agrees throughout a meeting is a good practice anyway. And that doesn't always have to fall to the person leading the meeting or the team leader. So those different aspects of of running a meeting can be assigned to different people, which keeps people more engaged. It's also important to provide time to ask questions to ask for input to verify understanding, as I mentioned by summarizing periodically, and certainly making questioners feel welcome, inviting questions and inviting sharing of ideas. It's also important to find ways for team members to become more comfortable engaging online. Even though we've been doing more of this, since during and since the pandemic, not everyone is as comfortable and certainly not with cameras on and we'll talk about that a little bit more as well. But it's important to involve everyone in in meetings and discussions, and to proactively seek their engagement to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and everyone feels included. So as we've done many, many, many more of these distance meetings, video has really become the norm. And that's been an interesting dynamic, because while it became the norm rather suddenly, during the pandemic, it's not necessarily everybody's preferred way of engaging in remote meetings. So let's talk about that for a minute. Why, why is video important? And why is it helpful? As I'm sure you can recall, prior to the time, when we had these great tools to enable these much more dynamic forms of engagement and communication and meeting through these distance dialogue, tools, we really yearned for the kinds of visual cues that we got when we were face to face. And we were doing primarily, then teleconferences tell them meetings, and we didn't have the the visual cues. So we missed we missed the nonverbal cues. We missed seeing people's reactions, we didn't have a sense of emotions. We didn't have a sense of if people were confused. So video, the the addition of video to our remote meetings, enables that it gives us many more of these nonverbal cues. It allows us to confirm engagement. It does help meetings be more efficient, it clearly replicates and simulates much more of what a face to face meeting is we really are face to face. In these kinds of remote meetings. Now we can see each other. And so it enhances interaction and engagement.

Debra Dinnocenzo:

And I'll talk in a bit about why some people don't want to do that and why I think that's a serious problem. And compromises in many ways the some of the paths forward that we've made in the in the distance workplace. So another technique is to have in terms of welcoming people helping people feel comfortable getting them familiar with technology tools, getting them to know each other particularly in in meetings or groups where people don't know each other. And certainly when we have hybrid meetings where some people are on site and some people are not using virtual icebreakers. Now, we're all familiar with icebreakers. In meetings, when we're meeting for the first time we do little games and ways for people to share information about themselves and to get to know each other. And so in our book on remote leadership, we've translated a number of those icebreakers. And we've made that available free and you can actually download that at at our website, virtual works Again, that's virtual works And just click on Resources, and you can download the virtual meeting, icebreakers. So, when we're using things like icebreakers, we're really trying to create a sense of being together. We are that's much of the purpose of those kinds of activities. And what we're really trying to do through distance meetings and distance interactions is to again simulate and replicate our face to face interact. shins. But this, this, creating a sense of being together. It is a challenge, the essential challenge of communicating from a distance is creating the sense of real presence through virtual technologies. So, which is not the same thing as virtual reality, I'll talk about that in a minute. When people are actively engaged with each other, they are being present in their interactions. When we interact with each other remotely, we are creating virtual presence. But it's still presence. That's the key thing, we're really focused here on creating a real sense of presence, to minimize the distance that is between people, and between leaders in their teams. So again, let's not confuse this virtual presence with the way the term is used sometimes for other technologies, where it refers to the in virtual reality, the ability of a user to feel that they are actually in a virtual location, such as a website or an immersive simulation, using technologies like virtual reality, or augmented reality. meeting participants, the kinds of meetings that we're talking about here, will always know that they're not actually in the same room, we can see that. But both types of virtual presence include the synchronous dynamic that creates the sense of being there, being there with others. And that's at a very fundamental human nature and human need. We do want to be together with each other. So how does this happen? And what steps can leaders take to both model and nurture a greater degree of virtual presence for remote and hybrid teams. So as I've mentioned, the best way to achieve virtual presence is to focus on ways to simulate and replicate the things that we do that team members do, that leaders do. And the way that we do them. When we're working together face to face, it's really important that all team members have the same experience as much as possible, that they all see what's going on, they hear the same things, they hear them, as well as everybody else hears them. So they hear at the same level, and that they have the ability to detect the behavioral cues that contribute to the sense of real presence. So let's let's look at some of the critical ways to attract, achieve a stronger virtual presence for leaders and the team. And, and some of the ways to avoid some of the pitfalls in that erode virtual presence.

Debra Dinnocenzo:

So, in hybrid meetings, in particular, it's important to in hybrid meaning meetings, meaning some people are on site, and some people are remote, which are, in many cases trickier meetings than when everybody is remote. So the tendency, and we still see this every day, the tendency is to engage with focus on have eye contact with the people that are in the room with you. When we're conducting a hybrid meeting, to really maximize the sense of presence of everyone involved, including those who are remote, it's important to do things like to alternate eye contact between on site participants, and the camera so that those who are seeing the camera, have a sense that we're looking at them as well. And not just that they're on camera. They're observing the meeting. But they're not really part of the meeting. The whole point of this is to have everyone feel a true part of the meeting. So well, it's natural and tempting to look at the other people sitting in the same room. It really requires a conscious effort to look at both the on site, members of the meeting, and to look at those who are joining by camera and that means eye contact with the camera. And this will help to ensure that remote team members feel included. It's also important to have a clear, strong voice. You want to make sure that people can hear I'm always amazed and I participate in a lot of remote and virtual distance meetings. How many of them how many of these meetings are still being conducted in In ways that it is difficult for people to hear. So this means that we really have to think about the equipment, the technology that we need to support these meetings to ensure that the technology is enabling the kind of connection through connectivity, that is facilitating the the kind of engagement that is allowing the creation of this sense of presence, it is really more much more difficult to do this with bad technology or the wrong technology. So for example, if you have people in a room, and you have only one microphone, and you have other people joining remotely, but there's only one microphone in the room, and somebody asks a question, and they're at the far end of the room far from the microphone, or there. And I've seen this happen, I presentation is made by that person at the other end of the room, we need to have the sense and remember to either move people to the microphone, move the microphone around, or invest in a system that allows microphones to be placed around the room. And so equipment is not to be overlooked in all of this. Some other techniques to keep in mind, which are just good meeting practices as well, of course, or to avoid side comments, particularly among co located participants. That just creates a sense of disengagement. For those who are not there who are aware that these side comments are and conversations are going on, and they can't participate in them. As I mentioned earlier, providing opportunities for questions, opportunity for sharing opportunities for input both from onsite and remote attendees. And, you know, I forgot to mention, and it should go without saying, but when we start these meetings, it's also important to clarify who is in the room, and who is joined remotely. Not everyone is always able to obviously see that if there's only your one camera, one computer that's managing the on site, a camera. So

Debra Dinnocenzo:

if you're not taking attendance, it's just a good practice to say, you know, let's just clarify who's here who's joining remotely. And so people are aware of who's participating, that doesn't always mean that they'll know who's making a comment. So it's always good to preface, if we're not sure that people recognize the voice to start with, you know, before we make a comment and say, Hey, this is Debra, just like to ask this question, or this is this is Deborah, I'd just like to, I'd like to make a comment about that. And so people know who is talking. So as much as possible, we want to, to make an effort to include everyone in discussions. And that means everyone has to be able to hear, and ideally everyone should be able to see. So again, depending on the technology, this can be easy, if it's the right technology or AT shore can be challenging. So one other strategy for this if the technology is not the right technology to facilitate this, in a way that it truly can be a more level playing field for a meeting. And I've seen a lot of hybrid teams do this. Even well, before the pandemic, this was a great technique. And it naturally happens with global teams, because everybody is remote, but just make everybody remote. So there might be three people who could meet in a conference room on sight. And for people who would join remotely. In cases like that, it might be smarter to just let the three people who could join in one room just join separately from their offices or their cubicles or their homes. And to create that level playing field and have everyone joining remotely. Therefore everyone's image is on camera, assuming we have a camera standard, and that that allows for more equity in the meeting and it's easier to manage in terms of engagement and participation. So people also need to be mindful and I was just doing a A client event today and I needed to remind people that, you know, when we're doing these totally remote events, we do have to be mindful of, of our presence, or we look on camera, when we're sitting in a room, we're not, we don't have a mirror in front of us. So we're not as conscious of how we look, we tend to make sure we think we look okay before we walk in the room. But this means being smart about, you know, how our camera settings, this means making sure that the camera is angled, so that, you know, it's, it's right in front, its framing our face, so that eyes and facial expressions can be easily seen, it's not angled up. So we're getting forehead and ceiling. Again, the objective is to simulate being together for a meeting, we're seeing faces and visual cues of meeting participants is an inherent part of the meeting. So we want to replicate and simulate that as much as possible by using our cameras smartly. That means also being a cognizant of the lighting that is in the room or around people individually, wherever they are transmitting from, so that they can be clearly seen, without a lot of distraction of light. That means making sure we have a non distracting background, there are some easy ways now to have a digital effects in team meetings in Microsoft Teams, or zoom or any of these other tools that we can use, that can eliminate the distractions behind us. And some of them can even, you know, make our makeup look better. So again, we're leveraging the technology to facilitate the the best kind of communication and interaction that we can have to create a a better, more powerful, stronger, more effective sense of presence. And, of course,

Debra Dinnocenzo:

it's important to bear in mind that throughout our meetings, while we're trying to get through our agenda and accomplish, the purpose of the meeting, is to keep people engaged and focused throughout the meeting. So while it's tempting, and we've all done this, to do other things, during pauses, or long explanations, or presentations, or boring PowerPoints during virtual meetings, we really need to discourage as much as possible, that kind of thing. And that means keeping cameras on. That means that that is how we ensure that people are there and present. That doesn't mean that they don't glance down at their phone, because they do that and face to face meetings, we know that. But what we want to avoid is off camera reading email, not really engaged, not really listening. So it erodes the sense of everyone's virtual presence when meeting participants disengage and turning cameras off is a strong form of disengagement. It's like having side conversations. It's like having talking on your cell phone in a meeting room of things that we would really never do. But we disable cameras. And so turning off a camera is akin to walking out of the room during an on site meeting. Now sometimes that happens, you know, you have an urgent call, you need to take a call you excuse yourself, you leave you go do that, but you come back in. And so but for remote meetings, for a maximum sense of presence, it is highly recommended that cameras stay on as a really important aspect of creating the kind of presence and engagement that keeps people connected. Of course, there are ways to also replicate the fun of face to face interactions. And technology tools can be deployed to simulate these as well. So as we wrap up, I just want to remind everyone to remember to have events like recognition events, parties and celebrations when there is an opportunity and that these are some of the best ways to create the level of presence from a disk ans that truly keeps remote and hybrid teams engaged and committed. These are the things that we have done that we continue to do that we wouldn't do if we were face to face. And looking for ways and creative ways to do that, which I'll I'll drill down a little bit more on that in a future episode. Because there are some some great tools for doing that. And so I just like to leave you with that thought to that. As we do more remote and hybrid meetings, we do tend to be very, very task focused. And we lose sight of the opportunity for celebration events, recognition events, and sometimes just a, you know, a fun event. Or just get together and use a remote meeting to have lunch together. Now, as people are moving back into the office, they're creating more opportunities to have some of that face to face time to meet some of those social and human needs. But that's not true of every organization, every team. And some, some teams can never do that, or can do it very, very rarely because they're drastically geographically dispersed. So keeping in mind that the importance of presence, and the ways to utilize technology tools to enable presence will make your meetings more dynamic, more engaging, more effective, and more productive, and will keep people engaged and more satisfied with their work. So I'll look forward to connecting with you on the next episode of the remote leadership podcast. And once again, I want to thank you for listening, and for always learning.