Jo Stevens, Client Practice Lead at Infinity Works, discusses our final event in the Leeds Digital Festival calendar, hosted at our Leeds hub.
Our recent Women in Tech Networking Breakfast was one of the final events at this year’s Leeds Digital Festival with a big focus on collaboration and conversation. The insightful meetup explored the importance of communication in an increasingly diverse tech community.
As a woman in the tech industry, I’ve often found myself as one of few women at an event. So as soon as I heard we wanted to create an event for Women in Tech at this year’s Leeds Digital Festival, I was more than happy to be involved. Infinity Works has long been about building communities. Despite the fact that many other women have been a part of tech initiatives in the past, we felt that we were being underrepresented still and – in typical Infinity Works fashion – we wanted to correct that.
Keen to make this event valuable to attendees, we centred our event theme around communication – recruiting Erskine Nash Associates to come along to the event and give people practical skills and advice that they can use in their day-to-day lives.
We then recruited other women across the tech industry to form a panel discussion continuing on the theme of communication – but focusing more on the experience of our panellists and our attendees. Eager to share my own experiences, I jumped at the chance when the team suggested I also join the line up.
Leeds Digital Festival flew by so quickly and the event day soon rolled round. With an impressive sign up list, I was a little apprehensive about speaking in front of so many people, but all those nerves washed away when we were greeted by the warming and excited faces of our attendees.
During the networking breakfast, we had the chance to connect with an impressive turnout of women from multiple areas of the industry, in different roles, and at various career stages. As well as long-standing tech experts, we met tech newbies and recent grads, freelancers from across the UK, and representatives from the public and private sectors.
The supportive atmosphere bloomed naturally, with chatter and new connections helped along by a breakfast spread courtesy of local business, Sociable Folk. We enjoyed croissants, coffee, and granola – which received high praise.
Three steps to improved communication
Sean introduced us to three key steps for efficient problem-solving.
- Start with your mindset, not your behaviour.
When starting a new habit or resolution, it can be tempting to take immediate action. However, a single behaviour can’t create long-term change on its own.
Sustainable change requires a mindset shift to go beyond the surface level and achieve success. Sean recommended making sure your mind is focused on the right attitude and intention before taking action to pursue a goal.
- Seek to influence outcomes, rather than persuade people
The word ‘influence’ has multiple meanings. Audience participants suggested nudging, persuading, encouraging, inspiring, leading, convincing, cajoling, coercing, and wooing as synonyms. Everyone had a different perspective of the same word, loaded with varying levels of assertion.
In a working environment, colleagues’ perspectives also vary. Rather than seek a middle ground between opinions for the sake of ‘fairness’, Sean recommended we genuinely listen to the views of others and entertain the possibility of being entirely wrong.
If your satisfaction lies in positively influencing the outcome of a conversation rather than persuading others of the superiority of your viewpoint, you’ll work much more productively towards the optimal result.
- Reach out to people in their style, not yours
Sean introduced us to four generalised communication style categories:
While everyone has elements of every category in their style, one dominates as your preferred approach. Personally, I fall into the Green camp!
When you know your own communication style, try to figure out the style of the person you are communicating with. When communicating in a group, temper your style, dialling up and down your responsive and assertive behaviours to respond to others’ preferred styles. Asking questions and showing an interest in other perspectives is the best way to encourage effective communication.
Speaking another person’s ‘communication language’ can help to make them feel that their opinion is valued in a team, and make them more open to listening to your own.
After a short break, my time was up and I took to the panel alongside Sean and:
- Gabrielle Earnshaw – the CTO of a start-up mobile app company helping people living with chronic illnesses. Previously Mobile Practice Lead at Infinity Works, Gabbie has hands-on engineering knowledge and specialises in leading teams to deliver valuable tech to end users.
- Magdalena Halay – a Software Engineer for NHS Digital. She entered her current tech role through a graduate scheme after completing a degree in Music at the University of Leeds. Her current focus is the digitisation of the online GP registration process.
Despite being a relatively quick panel discussion, the conversation quickly evolved into an organic discussion involving participants with a broad spectrum of perspectives. Here I’ve outlined some of my key takeaways from the session.
Navigating non-verbal communication
When thinking about communication, we often fail to neglect the power of non-verbal communication – eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, and general body language.
Although as panellists and audience members we had varying styles, we were in agreement that making body language appropriate to the message you’re delivering is key. Human beings tend to get uncomfortable with a mismatch in messages. Things like room positioning, sitting vs standing, and leaning forwards or backwards, can entirely change the tone. When asking questions, sit down and invite with open body language. When introducing a view or opinion, stand up and maintain strong body language.
In a one-on-one conversation, mirroring people, listening, and directly responding is easier than in a larger group. Members of the panel who described themselves as less dominant personalities recommended physically moving around the room and engaging with other quieter people to boost confidence and amplify more assertive behaviours in a group.
Working remotely throws up other challenges to navigating body language. With visual cues removed from a lot of communication scenarios, our panel debated alternative means to communicate efficiently and effectively. In-person body language can’t be replicated on a video call, so tools like collaborative documents can open up an even playing field for communication.
Getting the most out of virtual meetings
Conversation quickly focused on communication challenges that arise from virtual meeting formats that have become the norm.
Recreating body language cues on Teams is close to impossible. Our panel concluded that we shouldn’t expect the same level of warmth and community from video calls alone. Other tools are needed in combination to amplify our ability to engage remotely, and building connections between colleagues ahead of calls gives everyone the confidence to collaborate and innovate effectively online.
Diversifying the way we work and communicate can help make more people feel engaged. Activities like splitting larger calls into smaller focus groups or breakouts to encourage active participation can be effective to include more people. While it may feel less efficient, it can help people feel less like passengers and more actively involved.
However, possibly the most important takeaway is that we mustn’t try to find a solution that suits everyone. Both the panel and audience members shared their preferences to this new working world. Many of these conflicted with one another, and that’s OK.
Balancing communication styles when remote working
While communication styles can be easy to read and adapt to in person, working remotely adds another layer of complication and restriction to the adaptations we can make. We could have had a whole panel discussion on this topic alone.
One of the positive outcomes of this discussion was about how remote working and communication has helped to improve the sense of engagement for introverted personalities. Unfortunately in a sector where a vast majority of people identify themselves as an introvert, those personalities were frustrated with traditional forms of communication. They have instead found video calls to have a less competitive environment for introverted personalities, thanks to the ‘hands-up’ function equalising chances to engage.
But we are a diverse sector, and the discussion swayed to discuss how we balance the needs of differing individuals. For me what became clear is that choosing the right role for you is important. A fully-remote role within a small company isn’t for everyone – the same as full time office working alongside groups of colleagues isn’t right for others.
Many companies and leaders are seeing the value in increased flexibility, allowing people to opt-in to the meetings that would be insightful for them. It’s the responsibility of those in leadership positions to work out how to get the most from their teams. Flexibility is the future – readers are exploring new ways to communicate that work better for different people.
Managing the ‘cameras on’ vs ‘cameras off’ debate
People have adapted to video calling with different levels of enthusiasm. What now feels normal to some can pose accessibility issues to others. We heard some interesting personal insights from our audience on this issue.
One contributor said they find it challenging when some of the team never want to turn their cameras on, and was keen to hear the thoughts of the panel and audience on how the discomforts of others can be managed.
Anecdotal stories enriched this discussion. One panel member told us about a colleague who has to minimise the time he spends with his camera on as it can trigger migraines associated with a health condition. Another contributor described their language processing issue, which makes it very difficult to interpret auditory information when she can’t see colleagues on screen. A lack of awareness from others can make video calls very difficult.
We concluded that the perfect compromise comes from communication. The issue linked well with Sean’s earlier talk – asking questions, showing curiosity and empathy are key to creating understanding – even if it comes from a place of frustration.
One panellist even commented that her company’s camera-on policy had challenged her to engage more, as there was less temptation to multitask while on calls.
Talking through an issue can make it seem smaller from at least one of the perspectives. It’s ultimately for meeting attendees to decide their level of engagement – that can’t be forced.
Reintroducing small talk to the working day
Informal chatter about the weather, family, hobbies and life events is part and parcel of the office experience – but there is rarely time or space for it when working from home. Ensuring that home working isn’t all about working is important, but reintroducing a social atmosphere to remote and hybrid working patterns isn’t always easy.
Many commented that the trade off of working from home is that you can fit in more meetings and tasks, but it’s more energy-consuming to communicate effectively as there’s no social respite. Back-to-back diary loading makes remote working lead to time poverty and people no longer make time for purely social interaction. This makes it harder to truly get to know all colleagues. While the return of icebreaker comments was largely unpopular, leaders must find ways to make discussions about more than just work without putting people on the spot in an uncomfortable manner.
One of the other issues raised with remote working is that you are less able to ‘read the room’ – you are unable to see when an individual is burnt out from calls or needs a 10-minute break in the same way that you would in an office space. Checking in with your team and allowing them to set their own boundaries is therefore more important than ever.
At Infinity Works, our community is hugely valued. Now that we can, we put a lot of effort into engaging in person with events that aren’t necessarily related to work, which is one of our solutions to the social isolation of home working. However it cannot be the only solution, with many reasons why people might not want to engage with social activities.
The panel concluded that reinjecting sociality is a cultural adjustment and every company will fund a different way forward – whether through added tools, or stripping working patterns down to the basics.
We left the event feeling that we’d opened up valuable space for conversations between women in tech. While the industry hasn’t quite cracked the code to perfect collaboration in a home working world, we’ve learned that communication is a continual lesson.
Unfortunately like many other tech businesses, at Infinity Works we still have an under representation of women. But instead of complaining about the lack of availability of female tech talent, we’ve made it our mission to change the course of this.
In 2022 we have implemented a range of ongoing events and initiatives to ensure that women are not only celebrated and represented, but to break down some of the barriers for women entering the industry.
Through a range of career change programmes, mentoring and advocacy initiatives, we hope to redress the gender imbalance not just for Infinity Works but across the wider tech industry. Community-building is a core mission at Infinity Works, and it’s fantastic to be able to share those values across other employers and individual talent.
Infinity Works is proud to have sponsored and taken part in the Leeds Digital Festival 2022, which has been a momentous celebration of growth in the Leeds tech scene over recent years. We’re excited to see what’s next for the festival in coming years, and can’t wait to be a part of tech innovation in Leeds – wherever it takes us.
Delighted with the initial success of this event, we will be bringing it back to Leeds very soon – to hear about the next event please register your interest here.
About the author
Jo Stevens is a Client Practice Lead at Infinity Works. She started her career in engineering, before moving into business analysis, product leadership, and consultancy en route to her current role.