How to Improve Communication in a Remote Workforce

working from home tips

Working remotely isn’t all bad, Not only are you relieved of a ghastly commute every morning but also there’s a level of flexibility that allows you to have a better work-life balance. 

Many have had this social experiment forced upon them these past few months, and they’ve been surprised by the results. Despite initial concerns to the contrary, remote employees are more productive and happier. 

Given the results, some businesses and organizations are choosing to continue working remotely. The public sector in particular are seizing the opportunity to streamline their operations. 

However, plenty of us have come to the realisation that there are also some challenges to sustained remote working. Today we’ll focus on one of them: the challenge of maintaining effective communication. 

Effective communication in the workplace has a number of significant benefits: better workplace relationships, less friction, higher levels of job satisfaction and increased productivity to name a few. 

Here are some of the main challenges to effective communication in a remote workforce:

  • Zoom fatigue is real. You’re not alone in feeling inordinately exhausted after a day of back to back video call meetings. 
  • More distractions. It’s much easier to disconnect
  • No water cooler moments. There are fewer to no opportunities for casual socialization.
  • Less direct communication. It’s harder to “catch your manager for a chat when they have a minute.” Some remote workers feel that their managers are out of touch with their needs
  • Job insecurity can prevent people from speaking up. This point is specific to the COVID-19 crisis, but it also points to a wider culture of mistrust in companies with poor communication.

So, what can we do to improve communication remotely? Here are a few suggestions


1. Decrease stimuli on videocalls. 


Videocalls are overwhelming. There are plenty of things to get distracted by, not least your own face staring back at you. The different backdrops of your varying colleagues are full of excess information that your brain is also having to process. What books do they read? What an odd choice of artwork! 

  • If you’re in the position to do so, request that people use plain backdrops if possible. 
  • You can also switch the video layout to “active speaker” so that only the person talking is visible to you. 
  • Hide your video from your own display so that you’re not tempted to look at your image and overthink your reactions. Just don’t forget that others can see you. 


2. Keep videocalls focussed.


You want to limit the amount of time spent on videocalls, so make sure they’re completely necessary. This will also help prevent participants from getting distracted. 

  • In advance of the meeting, prepare a list of points beforehand to make sure you keep address what needs to be addressed. Encourage other participants to do the same if necessary.
  • Avoid speaking for too long on any one topic. Make sure you include other participants in the conversation.
  • Be mindful of who hasn’t contributed to the meeting in a while. Some people find it particularly awkward to unmute and interrupt the conversation in a video call.


3. Check in with people separately too.


With that last bullet point in mind, it’s particularly important for managers and team leads to check in individually with their team members. 

  • Schedule in catchup calls to make sure they feel supported and fully informed.
  • People are particularly wary of speaking out if they feel their employment is at risk. So before any calls, it’s important to make sure you communicate that they are genuinely for their benefit. 
  • Keep calls regular and predictable.
  • Remember, half of communication is listening. Be present and focussed. 
  • During the call, only make promises you can fulfill. Trust is fragile and important. 
  • Send a follow-up email outlining what was said – this will help ensure them that they were heard. Include any actionables in the email and make sure you follow them through. 


4. Take particular care in written communication


Nothing beats face to face communication: intonation, inflection, body language, even the smallest facial expressions communicate more than words. In emails and chat messages, that arsenal is completely removed. 

  • Proofread emails before sending them out and make it extremely clear what you intend to convey. 
  • Consider the fine shades of meaning in each word you use and edit where necessary.
  • Taking that extra time will help you avoid time spent resolving errors as a result of miscommunication or even resolving conflict.
  • Accept the fact that wires will get crossed and be empathetic while addressing the resulting issues.


5. Keep social events short and optional


After a long day (and possibly even a day of back to back Zoom calls) the idea of a further hour of socializing with our colleagues on yet another video call might not be as appealing as intended. 

  • Whoever is running the event should make it clear that people are welcome, but they are not obligated to join.
  • Shorter social events are a nice way to quickly check in with everyone and talk about something other than work. If it’s short there’s more chance people will take part.
  • As with point 2, make sure everyone is included. Whoever is running the event can act as the facilitator, directing the conversation, and to avoid the group talking all at once.


6. Try to be patient and empathetic…


…at all times, but particularly during the crisis. There may be any number of circumstances affecting people’s ability to communicate effectively. It takes some people longer than others to adapt to working remotely, in some cases they never gel with it. 


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