If communicating well is the key to successful relationships in every area of life, there can be fewer situations that merit more attention than remote working.
Think about your personal life. If you have a friend who lives in the next block, communication is not just easy, but misunderstandings are usually simple to resolve. If you’re on opposite sides of the town, it’s a bit more difficult. Lack of proximity makes it so.
Now consider the situation where you’re co-workers and you only meet at work. Well, that’s a different scene, because not only are you limited by time, but the relationship is more formal and on a business footing.
Now take it further: you’re co-workers, but you work in different states or even countries. How often do you communicate, and … just suppose something goes wrong … how do you fix things? It can be tough. Certainly tougher than if you’re living in the next block.
And although it may be cheaper and more convenient for a company to have its staff work from home, remote working creates a number of problems that are counterproductive.
Communicating with your peers
You all have a job to do. It’s structured, so what can go wrong?
Well, plenty actually. You may ask for something to be done, or be asked to do something, but things don’t turn out right. Maybe it’s a team project where one person falls behind. A deadline is missed, or the work isn’t up to standard … or just altogether wrong. Everyone wants to cover themselves, so a “blame game” may be played. Not a good idea.
Communicating with your staff
You give instructions, and they’re followed. It’s simple, isn’t it?
Not at all. The same things can occur, but the “self-preservation” element is stronger because your staff may feel threatened … or just inadequate. You may find, despite your conviction that your instructions were crystal clear, that your staff secretly blame you. It happens.
Communicating with your manager
Again, it’s straightforward enough. You recognize that you need to carry out instructions, so what’s the problem?
Well, your boss may not actually have had time to fully explain, or their style may be vague … or things move and you’re not told. There are a whole host of scenarios where it may be felt that you haven’t hit your objectives.
What are the problems?
Don’t think you’re on your own here: a study of 60,000 Microsoft employees found that remote work threatens long-term innovation. And, of course, reading into it, it’s all about communication.
The fundamental issue is that remote communication is fighting against a number of big obstacles.
With telephones, there’s no visual element and the voice quality is poor. It’s easy to miss points – on either side – so people don’t have the same ideas of what’s needed. “Upgrading” to a Zoom or FaceTime call will introduce the visual element, but it lacks the immediacy and intimacy of an in-person meeting. Deciding to go towards email may put everything in writing, but who’s to say that everyone’s interpretation of the words is the same?
What’s the Missing Element?
The solution is actually very simple. With remote communication, you don’t just need clarity, you need reinforcement. And in writing. So you need email – or a board that gives you the ability to post messages that others can read.
So no matter if you absolutely must have those Zoom meetings, or long telephone calls, because they’re more “personal”, you must confirm things in writing. Clearly, completely and succinctly.
But communication is a two-way street, so no matter how wonderfully clear you may consider your message, ask (no, demand) that every recipient replies to confirm their understanding, and to ask any questions they may have. Make sure to say that “no question is too small” so people feel happy to ask. A good way of forcing a response is to ask a question yourself, and a “help me here” tone will motivate people to chip in.
And finally, insist that you’re updated with any changes to this understanding, so you’re not wrong-footed if things move. Even with your boss – though here, it may be a request rather than a demand…
Communicating with remote employees can easily become a headache, and there’s no single solution that will cover every problem. But if you keep to a positive, energetic two-way flow of messages – especially in writing – you’ll find that many of the potential challenges don’t even see the light of day.
Now that’s a happy thought!