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Remote Communication – Best practice tips for staying productive, engaged and connected

Remote teams are the future of work. The Global Mobile Workforce Forecast Update estimates that over 40% of the world’s working population will be mobile by 2022.  In highly developed countries, the figures could soon reach 75% (International Data Council (IDC)).

With social isolation measures in management of Coronavirus, remote communication is now more important than ever.  The way that we have been compelled to quickly embrace remote communication means that it has not been planned or tailored to individual business needs, or designed in a way that necessarily promotes employee welfare and ensures that local policy and procedure also protects staff in a remote, working from home environment.

It is also the case that the types of different communication have significant implications for employee productivity and ability to progress tasks.  Think about those long email chains involving multiple decision makers that take a whole day for a position to be reached! Or what about the sheer email volume that managers are having to deal with because staff are reporting by email where a tasks list or other reporting mechanism, such as a videoconference with checklist could take less time.

Sit back and have a think about just how your staff and teams are working remotely and communicating, and what resources you have that might streamline and reduce frustration in that process.  There are so many tools available to suit modern business needs, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other Office 365 products, whole remote access platforms to simulate office environments such as Citrix, cloud based collaborative working environments and project management software.  Businesses need not be pigeonholed to telephone, email and videoconference remote working.

Have a think about how staff are interacting and what might be the most productive, interactive and organic way of working.  What are your default remote communication methods and what works best for the business?

Effective remote communication methods

There are 2 types of remote communication. Synchronous and Asynchronous. When considering these types of communication, we also need to think about contingencies where those forms of remote communication are not working and what to do then!

Synchronous communication is where 2 or more people agree to communicate using the same method at the same time. It is a good option when things need to happen more quickly, or when it’s important to ask questions and get immediate answers or enable participants to bounce ideas off each other and get active feedback. These include emails, live chat, video calls or meetings, online voice calls, phone calls of joint work on documents using collaborative platforms like Office 365 online Microsoft Word and Excel.

Asynchronous communication. This is the backbone of many distributed teams, especially those spread across multiple timezones. As the name suggests, asynchronous communication isn’t synchronised. Instead of a live conversation happening in real time, it’s a back-and-forth exchange, in writing, that happens as each person’s schedule allows.

For remote teams where most collaboration happens online, this would most likely look like one person leaving a note in a messaging app, where the other person can read and reply at their convenience. For that reason, this method is best used for issues or conversations that aren’t time-sensitive. Examples: email, direct messaging, posting updates or issues on project management platforms (SMS, GitHub, Trello, Basecamp, etc.)

Emergencies

So what do you do if you’re experiencing a major disruption in service and the team needs to be able to act quickly? Have you thought about emergency communication protocols for situations like when mobile telephone networks were overloaded, or your business had a network malfunction or application problem?  What about when individual employees have access problems and they are left at home with nothing but their computer – do they have local resources and tasks they can work on where remote engagement isn’t working? It’s useful to think about contingency communication plans where standard or the default modes of working remotely are not working.

Resourcing and Safety

Employee resourcing, training, comfort and welfare should be primary concerns, with careful regard to how work and performance can be supervised remotely and staff can be engaged.

Implement tactics to follow such as:

  • Providing good home office support (reliable hardware and IT support, office furniture (ergonomically suitable);
  • Make sure staff know about applications and resources available to them, and provide adequate training
  • Ensure network and data security and confidentiality are maintained in remote environments, and employees are mindful of this as an issue
  • Consider if the business should contribute to remote work expenses
  • Keep careful records of equipment and software provisioning
  • Develop shared company values and language, along with communications protocols that suit your business
  • Offer training and development opportunities
  • Make time for fun and ensure welfare checks on staff with simple questions about the functionality of the remote environment and employee welfare.

Best practice strategies

Listed below are WEIR’s tips for successful remote team communication

  1. Hold regular live meetings

Complement emails and messaging apps with regular video conferences and collaboration software if that works with your business model.  Trust is vital for success and regular videoconferences helps strengthen and build relationships. Create opportunities for workers to connect as people, so they remain inspired, connected and motivated. Remote teams can’t bond over lunch or after work. Human connection leads to increased productivity and reduces the feeling of distance, creating a sense of community. Suggestions: Set up a virtual break out area by creating an online space (a chat room, blog, Facebook group, etc.) for sharing non-work-related and just-for-fun information.  At the same time be mindful that some personality types may struggle with this communication and be overwhelmed by dominant personalities.  Have a protocol which gives everyone a voice.  Also be sure to ask employees how they feel about online conference environments and how they think it can be improved upon. 

  1. Invest in messaging technologies that drive collaboration

Set up some code language ahead of time, that will help workers understand each other’s needs when communicating via text or email, so that offence won’t be taken to communication that could be perceived as abrupt.  For example, emails without gratuities “Dear person” / “Yours sincerely” or pleasantries like “How are you today” might be perceived poorly without context.  Remember also that employees that are friends will engage in email banter over the course of email records that may then be forwarded in the course of work to other employees, making them feel marginalised or isolated.  If you have guidance about communication protocols you can manage perceptions and time wasting by having to ensure emails have 4 lines of gratuity or pleasantry, or you can expect that all communications will be in a more formal, friendly style based on business need and team cohesion . An example used by one company is the code words ‘tree time’. If someone needs time to put their head down and concentrate on getting a piece of work done, they can communicate this message quickly to their co-worker with the reference to needing ‘tree time’ and the co-worker will immediately understand.  Other options may be to use availability and offline statuses on messaging systems, or calendar availability to explain no-participation and ensure busy time is not interrupted.

  1. Set up good communication guidelines

Emails are good for information, not collaboration. If the topic requires clarity or sensitivity, or needs energetic chat, schedule a call or other collaborative method.

  1. Emphasise the purpose

Clarify how the worker’s individual purpose fits in to the bigger picture. This helps workers feel they are contributing to something bigger than today’s deadline.

  1. Manage by objective

Give people goals and let them figure out the smaller stuff themselves.

Ways to improve remote communication

Teach people to contextualise communications. When you are communicating digitally, you never quite know what the other person is doing at that moment. A person may only be responding “Yes” to your question and not elaborating because they don’t have time. Without understanding the other person’s context, you might think that person doesn’t care about the issue you brought up, when they’re really just trying to complete an urgent task or in our Covid times, manage their child’s home schooling.

That’s why remote teams need to overcommunicate and avoid making assumptions. Psychological safety is important: many people will say “Yes” out of habit, but it’s critical for them to say when they’re confused, distracted, or even offended. Resentment builds over time due to underlying issues not being addressed. Misinterpreted digital communication can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

A useful philosophical concept to remember, particularly when communicating via text with co-workers, is Hanlon’s razor. Always assume ignorance before malice. If someone does something wrong, don’t assume they purposely meant to hurt you. It’s just as likely (perhaps more so) that they simply made a mistake.

Watch your tone when communicating digitally. One of the biggest pitfalls of written communication is its susceptibility to being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Without visual and verbal cues like facial expression, body language, intonation, and other signals we use to determine meaning, messages can sometimes come across as terse, angry, or rude when they weren’t meant to be. That’s why it’s worth going the extra mile to review each message before sending, maybe writing a little more than you might be inclined to — overcommunicating — just to make sure your meaning is as clear as possible.

Many remote teams find that using emojis can sometimes help humanize, clarify, or lighten up the tone of a message, but of course this will depend on your company’s culture and what is or isn’t considered professional.

Co-authored by Jackie Gallo and Amanda Harvey.

Jackie Gallo is an expert legal recruiter, her expertise is of particular utility in assessing requirements in recruitment and selection processes by government departments, universities and in other regulated environments, and can also make recommendations regarding compliance.  She is invaluable in assisting Senior Consultants during investigations and provides assistance in witness co-ordination and interviewing.

Amanda Harvey is an experienced employment lawyer and workplace consultant with qualifications and experience in psychology and social welfare. She has acted both for and against many government agencies, departments and local councils.

WEIR can assist in helping you set up effective remote communication practices within your business.  Please get in touch if you need assistance with strategy, policy development or employee management in this space.

WEIR can assist in reviewing your team’s culture and provide strategies such as leadership coaching and restorative services such as facilitated discussions, mediation and conflict coaching for situations where staff are struggling with remote communication.

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