Communication skills for remote workers.

Early in my career I worked at an ad agency that was unusually strict about time management. One day, I was standing by the cubicle of two female art directors who were telling jokes. I laughed just as one of our employers made his way toward us.

I was busted. For fun, I pretended I wasn’t actually laughing; I was coughing. The boss responded with this little beauty:

“Oh you. Ohhhh, I can just imagine you having sex and faking it”.

Ahhhh, those days of awkward lawsuit moments.

Clearly this said a lot about his character and professionalism, or lack thereof. That aside though, it also showed he really didn’t know us very well and had no idea how inappropriate he was being.

For remote workers, not knowing your colleagues, and their boundaries, is a challenge they face every time they connect with a colleague on the phone, on video or in email.

Working from home can leave you out.

Working from home provides fewer occasions to communicate with colleagues and bosses. In turn, it provides fewer occasions get to know them; fewer opportunities to pick up on non-verbal clues; personal boundaries; and develop sound interpersonal skills in general.

Consequently, remote work has the potential to create miscommunication between colleagues.

In my experience as both a coach and a communications expert, I can attest that a lot of our conflicts come from not understanding the perspective of others, as well as not communicating clearly. 

You can get so comfortable working from home that you take basic communication skills for granted.  The following information may not be news to you, but it provides a number of good reminders to enhance your experiences and minimize conflicts as a remote worker.

Why work relationships matter for remote workers.

There are a number of reasons why work relationships matter even if you spend most of your time away from colleagues.

  • Bonding with others can create positive alliances that provide help, support and references when you need them
  • Positive alliances tend to respect you, your opinions and your ideas when working in teams or during presentations
  • Positive alliances are more likely to cut you some slack on days when you’re not working optimally
  • Bosses have more opportunity to discover skills outside the parameters of your job, which could lead to advancement
  • Getting to know others includes being able to better identify colleagues who can be slackers, backstabbers and blamers.

With fewer communication opportunities to connect with colleagues, remote workers have to master the art of speaking, listening and reading the room.

This brings me to my first piece of communications advice (specifically, it’s a marketing technique): “Know your audience”.

8 communication tips for remote workers.

Learn the technology

Viral videos about Zoom bloopers are hilarious. A blooper can generate laughter and goodwill between teams. But they can backfire as well.

Seniority, length of time in an organization and comfort level with your teammates can all affect just how acceptable technological oopsies are.

I have a lot of empathy and a sense of humor when kids and pets disrupt a meeting, but I’m not so forgiving when someone comes unprepared for the technology.

Imagine being swamped, with a limited amount of time, only to have to wait for someone to figure out mute and video options. It’s not okay.

Before your meetings, find out how to master the videoconferencing platform you’ll be using, as well as other technology like screen share. Research the how-tos and troubleshooting tips. Learn everything you need to know.

Double check that everything is working long enough before your meeting that you have the time to fix it. Be sure to turn off phones.

As an aside, you might want to keep instructions nearby so that you don’t have to try to remember everything every time you logon.

Check out this article on time management.

Know your audience

Getting to know the people you videoconference with, speak to on the phone and connect with over email comes down to learning about others through questions, conversations, non-verbal clues and listening.

But how to get to know someone without snooping, stalking or creeping?

The best way to get to know others is by actually focusing on them. Don’t fiddle with your phone or fidget with your pen. Don’t worry about how you look or sound. Just pay attention to them.

This is important in any exchange. It’s especially important for remote workers who don’t have luxury of picking up on daily cues about the personalities of their colleagues.

Ask open-ended questions

Ask what they did on the weekend or what they’ll be doing on the weekend. Try to keep it to questions that elicit more than yes, no or “fine”.

Over time, you might pick up on some of their hobbies, which can bring on a slew of other questions and opportunities to bond.

Chances are they’ll ask about your hobbies too. Maybe you’ll discover a mutual love of opera or country music.

You might also find big differences in taste that expand your perspective and introduce you to new things.

If you speak after lunch or closer to dinner, ask them what some of their favorite foods or restaurants are.

Ask questions regularly, but not so often that you spend too much time talking and not enough time working.

Also, don’t ask questions that are too personal. Unlike my former boss, I assume you don’t need to be told not to ask about faking during sex.

Notice how they respond

When you ask questions about them, do they smile, get enthusiastic, lean closer to the screen, sound more upbeat or do they flatline?

If it’s the latter, then the topic or angle of that topic didn’t resonate with them. It could also be they’re introverted and not very quick to engage.

Getting to know others takes time. Don’t expect to make headway immediately and try to avoid assumptions.

Clue into their environment

Remember that hilarious BBC interview? In a matter of seconds, we learned he had two young children, a wife and a great sense of humor.

If you’re on Zoom with me (and I hope you will be), you’ll see that I love colour and love to paint. You’ll see a wall full of old cartoons (my great uncle had a syndicated comic strip). You’ll notice that I like plants.

You might even see my cat Soda Pop speeding down the hall.

So make sure to pick up on all the visual clues you can because they hold the potential for bonding and dialogue.

Be culturally literate

A lot of organizations pick global talent which means that you might be teamed tup with colleagues from around the world.

This can create an exciting work culture, but it can also present problems with communication, not to mention cultural ‘faux-pas’.

Do searches and try to learn everything you can about a team member’s culture before you work with them. Once you have a general idea of etiquette, ask questions and take the opportunity to learn.

Write clearly and carefully

Communications tips

Remote workers rely just as heavily on text and email communication as they do video and phone. Emails and texts are notorious for causing miscommunication.

Here’s how to avoid it:

Be succinct, but start and end in a friendly way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written an email that went straight to the point, but stopped myself from firing it off before beginning with “How are you?” and ending with “Hope you’re doing well”.

I’m sure this has prevented untold assumptions that I might be angry or sarcastic (even when I have been angry or sarcastic).

Set up the context of your email by providing a brief summary of what you’re addressing. If you expect a specific outcome, then mention that too. Once you’ve set up the context, you can expand on it in the next paragraph. End the email with action steps and remember to sign off in a positive manner.

Read before you send the email and picture yourself receiving it. Check for any word that can be taken the wrong way and pay attention to the overall tone.

Never use email for emotionally charged issues, never ever. Instead, deal with the issues by phone or video, then recap the issue and the resolutions in an email. And remember – be friendly.

Read objectively

Assume the best from whomever is sending you the email even if, deep down, you think otherwise. It’s easy to misinterpret words and tone. This is especially true when it comes to people and topics that elicit a negative reaction from you.

Carefully ask for clarification. Don’t just reply with “I don’t understand what you’re suggesting” (for instance) because that could be read as “your suggestion doesn’t make sense”.

Instead, reply with “Thanks for the suggestion. Would you mind explaining it a bit further?”

Better still, call them because (this bears repeating): Never ever handle contentious and sensitive issues or people over email or text.

In summary

Working in your own environment can provide a level of comfort that makes you lose the formality and cues you might have when working directly with others. So keep these basic suggestions in mind to avoid conflict and enjoy positive alliances.

If you do find yourself having conflicts and communication challenges, contact me and let’s work together to resolve them.

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