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Why remote working requires a stronger focus on communication

If you’ve ever played a game of ‘telephone’—where a message is whispered from person to person down a line—you know how easy it is for the meaning to become unclear and even nonsensical.

It’s funny when it’s just a game, but lack of clarity in business communications is no laughing matter. It makes it tough for teams to do their best work, trust each other, and fulfil your company’s strategic goals.

Effective communication is a hallmark of high-performing teams. Good communication improves knowledge-sharing, teamwork, morale, and accountability. However, as businesses usher in remote working arrangements due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of face-to-face interaction presents a big communication challenge.

That’s because effective communication isn’t just about what’s said. Getting a message across hinges on interpersonal relationships, context, body language and expressions, our ability to connect and persuade, and listening, too—so we know we’ve been understood.

While that’s easier in person, the reality is that workplaces may be virtual for the foreseeable future. So it’s more important than ever for your team to be ‘on the same page’. Remote working necessitates new approaches to how your team communicates, both day-to-day and at a strategic level.

Rethink daily communication for remote working

Working from a home office (or kitchen table) means employees can’t just visit someone’s desk for a chat, business data may be less accessible, and the distractions of home or family are harder to avoid.

Lack of structure and the ability to engage personally may lead to feelings of isolation—or conversely, feeling overwhelmed as channels like email/chat are saturated with information that might otherwise have been shared verbally.

It’s important to use tools that support effective communication. Video conferencing is the closest approximation of in-person interaction, so it’s a great way to get people engaged and facilitate open dialogue.

However, ensuring effective communication during a virtual meeting depends on team members:

  • Actively participating and feeling committed to the objective of the meeting.
  • Feeling comfortable to share ideas, raise concerns and ask questions.
  • Believing their input and opinions are considered valuable.

If video chats are poorly managed it can result in people losing focus, introverts being ignored, too many people talking over each other, or a small group of people dominating. That can affect productivity and leave people feeling unclear or even resentful.

How do you keep a video conference on track?

Facilitation tips to keep people engaged during virtual meetings include:

  • Smart scheduling: Choose the most relevant tool, ensure everyone is available, consider IT limitations.
  • Set an agenda: Knowing the specific action items you need to address saves time. Share the agenda with enough advance notice so people can come prepared. Build-in time for small talk to foster a congenial atmosphere.
  • Assign meeting roles: You’ll need a facilitator, a timekeeper, and a note-taker. Switch up the roles each time.
  • Clarify expectations: Remind people why you’re meeting and that their contribution is both valued and expected.
  • Encourage engaging approaches: Ask people to provide visuals or animations to support discussion, hold mini quizzes to test understanding, or use icebreakers or games to encourage involvement.
  • Use open-ended questions: Facilitators should foster interaction and sense-checking by asking open questions such as ‘How do you feel about this decision?’ Or, ‘If you could change anything, what would it be?’
  • Always include a recap in the agenda: Schedule time in every virtual meeting to reflect on what was agreed, what the next steps are, and ask for feedback on how the meeting was run and what could be done differently next time.
  • Follow-up in writing: The facilitator or notetaker should send a written overview of the meetings discussion points and further actions. This gives people another chance to speak up if there’s confusion and reinforces the importance of the activity.

Be strategic while working remotely

In-person communication among the C-suite is also affected when you move to remote working. The need for executives and senior leaders to effectively communicate strategic intent is as relevant as ever, however, it’s no longer feasible to get everyone together to hash out important plans that influence your company’s future success.

Yet, the impact of coronavirus on supply chains and global economies has many business leaders considering a strategy pivot. Business decisions can’t be put on hold because of remote working, so your communication approaches need fine-tuning. Putting effort into thinking about how this needs to be achieved in a remote working paradigm will enable organisations to better adapt to the changes ahead.

To prepare for large-scale strategy meetings while working remotely, we recommend:

Placing an emphasis on pre-planning:

  • Allow more time than normal to account for technology set-up.
  • Flexibility around scheduling to ensure the right people are in the virtual ‘room’.
  • Check people’s equipment and firewall constraints beforehand.
  • Have back-up options in case of tech issues to avoid wasted time.

Strong facilitation and self-management:

  • Define clear roles including dedicated facilitator/s.
  • Manage time precisely to ensure all planned activities can occur.
  • If breakout sessions are required, consider using separate dial-ins coordinated by multiple facilitators using a shared chat room.
  • Encourage the group to lean into challenging discussions.

Adding variety and engagement activities:

  • Warm-up the group with an icebreaker.
  • Allow time for deep dives into different topics.
  • Add more frequent breaks than you would during in-person meetings.
  • Give people a chance to stand up, move, and give their eyes a rest.

Keep your team informed and be empathetic

Remote working in the midst of a public health crisis also raises the issue of how effectively you communicate key business information across your team. Trust and psychological safety are built on the foundation of effective communication. Clear, concise, and consistent intra-company messages are vital during a period of uncertainty.

At the leadership level, effective communication with remote teams should involve:

  • Messages delivered by senior leaders to provide reassurance.
  • Positive stories and a caring tone to boost morale.
  • Delivery across diverse channels to reach all employees.
  • Practical information about what’s changing and why.
  • Reiterating key information multiple times in multiple formats.
  • Rapid updates if and when new information is available.
  • Transparency about challenges and issues being faced.

At the team level, managers of remote teams might consider:

  • Scheduling daily or weekly check-ins with individuals to check on progress and wellbeing.
  • Being more focused on how they can advocate for their team.
  • Paying more attention to potential issues and resolving disputes.
  • Remaining flexible about work hours in order to work around the needs of family in a work from home context.

Within teams working remotely, team members can:

  • Work together to agree on how they’ll communicate with each other.
  • Establish the tools and core working hours where everyone is available online.
  • Talk about each other’s remote working style and preferences.
  • Set boundaries around work hours, breaks, and response times.

Boost communication in your remote team

Remote working isn’t naturally conducive to effortless interpersonal communication. Nevertheless, with the right forethought and effort to engage your team, you can create a remote workforce that feels connected, informed, and aligned with your company’s vision.

Our remote agile practitioners are sharing and evolving approaches for effective remote communication and team collaboration across all our clients sites. If you need an experienced hand to guide you, we’re ready to help.