It’s almost impossible to work effectively with other people if you don’t exchange information and ideas. This could be in support of solving a problem, or it might be to generate new ideas or ways of doing things. It could be to learn from others or to listen to feedback.
Whether information is disseminated one-way, two- or multi-way, exchanging information and ideas is a fundamental part of workplace communication. Think of it as the fluid that oils the wheels of the organisational machine. Without the oil, things would clog up and stop working.
Effective workplace communication doesn’t just rely on the exchange of information and ideas. It relies on making sure that the messages sent are the same messages received. In other words, for communication to be effective, the sender must think carefully about what they say and how they say it, making it clear and understandable. And the receiver must listen carefully and check back to ensure that what they have heard was what was intended. This is why you will often hear people talk about ‘closing the communication loop’.
The importance of effective communication in the workplace
Effective workplace communication is important to all businesses – big and small. It supports:
- Storytelling by inspiring and guiding around mission and purpose
- Clarity and alignment through setting clear goals and objectives
- Productivity by helping people understand what needs doing
- Building trusting relationships through open conversation
- Health and wellbeing and giving people space to express themselves
- Development through participative and individual learning
- Reward and recognition through celebrating success and acknowledging what needs to improve
When workplace communication is effective, people share what is needed, when it is needed. Teams work collaboratively. People listen and respond to each other.
Technology and effective workplace communication
Maintaining effective workplace communication is not a new demand. People have been working out how to stay in touch, share stories, manage and lead through conversation, for all of time. When workplaces were less distributed, communication was distinctly simpler – people sent memos by hand or post, groups gathered together in one space to discuss issues. Telephone conversations took place.
Since the fourth industrial revolution and the introduction of smart technology, workplace communication has changed dramatically. Of course, all the standard forms of communication still exist, however, these are now supplemented by technology-based exchanges.
Virtual meetings can be held over video. Messaging apps allow important workgroups to stay in contact. Cloud-based technologies provide shared spaces for people to upload and download information relevant to a project. We are literally able to share information and ideas 24/7, around the world, with almost anyone we need to connect to. With machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics, our conversations are now also human-to-machine and machine-to-machine, as well as just people based.
Remote team communication
Technology has certainly enabled us to communicate more easily. The days of simply waiting for an order to be passed up and down the chain of command has all but gone. Workplace communication now happens anytime, anyplace and anywhere. People work from home, coffee shops, hot desks, offices, the beach… anywhere they choose or that might be deemed acceptable.
The global pandemic has for many made working from home a prerequisite. Where companies had previously been struggling to adopt collaboration technologies, roll forward a year, and use of these technologies is now the norm.
But has technology adoption improved workplace communication? Are leaders and managers better at communicating because they have more channels to communicate through?
The answer is perhaps unclear. Good communication isn’t just about how easy the channel is to access. It’s about the quality and clarity of the exchange. It’s still about whether the message intended was the message heard. And when communicating remotely and therefore by default, over some sort of technology, you cannot leave things to chance.
Top 10 tips for effective remote workplace communication
Think about quality over quantity
When Covid-19 hit the world in 2020, and people were forced into remote working, an immediate reaction from leaders and managers was to over-communicate. This might have been driven by the need to work out new ways of staying in touch, keeping on top of work. Perhaps it stemmed from a fear that people were being idle or distracted at home.
As a result, people found themselves sitting on Zoom or Teams calls, ten hours straight, every day. This very quickly led to what we like to call digital fatigue. Sitting in one place and looking at a screen for hours on end, is not healthy. Effective communication remotely, therefore, needs to focus on the quality of the call, not the frequency. Pick topics of key importance to bring people together. Ensure the topic is relevant to the audience, rather than generalised. Have a plan for how the meeting will run and how you will ensure everyone has a chance to be involved.
Take detox days
Smart employers are already ordering ‘digital detox’ days, where no virtual meetings are allowed. Instead, people are given time to work on projects, process ideas or simply mull things over. To create ‘aha’ moments innovation needs space to breathe. It means keeping people off emails or other communication channels too.
Of course, this isn’t limited to remote working. Office-based employees suffer the same fate in a culture of back-to-back meetings – leaving little space to actually do any work. The difference is that in the office, natural downtime moments occur – a chat around the coffee machine, a walk to the sandwich shop. When working remotely, it’s easy to get stuck in a routine with few breaks or downtime.
Support the creation of a healthy work environment
Very few employees are likely to enjoy the luxury of a purpose-built home office. Instead, people have been perched on uncomfortable chairs, on edges of beds, screens and keyboards at the wrong height or angle. Sooner or later, health and wellbeing will suffer – and as it does, people’s capacity to communicate and work together effectively will diminish.
There has been a marked rise in back problems since people started working from home, and if employers don’t do something about the issue quickly, in years to come they are going to face court claims from employees suffering long-term chronic pain. Even if as an employer you don’t have the funds to supply appropriate working from home equipment, the least that can be done, is to supply information on good workplace ergonomics. Train people in how to sit correctly, and how to stretch, and offer more regular eye tests to help keep people healthy.
Be extra polite
When a working system (like working remotely) is forced upon people, it’s easy to pick up bad habits quickly. One of those habits is to forget the pleasantries and etiquette of communicating face to face. While polite banter among a group of ten people on a video call might be more difficult than a small group of people chatting around a table, it’s worth giving time to maintaining polite conversation, before you dive into that new project.
This can be done by giving people a chance to chat about non-work-related things. If working one to one, make time to find out what’s going on for the other person. How are they feeling? What are they thinking? What have they been doing in their downtime? Being polite is important – whatever the communication medium. That means also being considerate in what you write through instant messaging, in emails, on list servers and on calls.
Tune into others using empathy
Remote working can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness – especially if the home working environment is less than conducive. Picking up cues on people’s feelings over technology is hard to do. Over centuries of practice, our brains have gotten used to picking up physical cues about people’s thoughts and feelings when we are in the same room as them. Eye movement, facial expression, movement of hands and feet, sweating – all these things are subtle indicators of how people are feeling. These things are rather lost over technology which means everyone has to work twice as hard to try and tune into what’s really going on. It’s one of the key reasons we all feel so drained after a day of technology-based calls.
To help maintain effective remote communication you need to work harder at empathy. Slow down your response to the conversation – really listen to what is being said (or not said). Look for indicators that people are unhappy, less responsive or feeling down. And most importantly open up a variety of communication channels to allow people to reach out to you and share feelings.
Don’t adopt a one size fits all approach
Different people have different needs and like to communicate in different ways. If you’re new to working remotely it’s worth recognising how you like to work as well as noting what works for other people. Do you have a team member who likes to be left alone to get on with things, until they need help? How might you accommodate this? Do you have another team member who prefers constant check-ins, either via email or a quick phone call?
The key is not to assume that one way works for everyone. Remember to ask people about their preferences and where it’s possible to be accommodating, do just that!
Set a good example
It doesn’t matter your job title or level in the organisation, when working remotely, it’s important to set a good example when communicating. Don’t be the person firing off emails (and expecting a response) at 10 o’clock at night (unless that’s what’s required of your shift pattern!).
Don’t send emails instructing people to take action, without checking in with them that they agree and understand what needs to be done. Don’t fill up remote working communication channels with information that’s irrelevant or overly verbose. Just because you’re not meeting someone in the office it’s no reason to expect them to read your fifty-page manifesto and respond to its contents immediately! Be thoughtful and succinct.
Listen and check-back
All forms of communication require you to listen carefully and check-back with the sender to ensure you have understood what is being communicated. When working remotely it’s even more important to do this, because as we’ve already indicated, things are lost over technology.
Remember to build in time to your remote meetings to check that people have understood what’s been communicated. Allow extra time for questions. If you are sharing information in the Cloud, don’t just assume that people have read and understood it. Find ways to discuss content and improve comprehension. And remember that for active listening to take place, you must avoid interrupting and quieten your own voice in your head. If you are constantly thinking about what you are going to say next, when it’s your turn to speak, then you are not actively listening!
Have fun with being remote
When remote working is forced on you, it’s easy to find the things that annoy you, rather than see the positives. To prevent this from happening it’s important that you are still able to have fun at work – and enjoy laughter and light-hearted banter.
Use remote working technology for just this purpose. Set up quiz sessions (and allow people to join only if they want to). Bring your pet to work over Zoom. Go for virtual walks around your garden if you have one. Join in with team yoga or meditation. The key is not to associate remote working with just the hard stuff. Keep the fun going.
Encourage people to journal
Journaling is a form of self-care communication. The idea is to reflect on your experiences and then write down your observations, thoughts and feelings on those reflections. It might be writing a stream of consciousness, or it might be asking yourself questions about a particular situation.
During these periods of repeated lockdown, people have found comfort in private and assisted journaling. It helps the brain process experience, working out what information to keep, what to memory file and what to dismiss. It’s also a great way of letting go of negative thoughts and feelings.
You can journal on your smart devices of course, but the best journaling for many is using a notebook and pen or a mindfulness journal like Notebook Mentor. Journals with expert advice and content help you work through situations and scenarios by asking structured questions, offering tips, advice and challenges. To improve your own communication and communication with others, it’s a perfect solution.
Effective workplace communication in a remote environment is everyone’s responsibility. Keep it human, make it work by staying flexible and open, and most importantly really listen and respond with care.