This past December, Fast Company announced that 2020 would be the year of working remotely. Well, the magazine’s editors may be right about that — but not for the reasons they expected. Instead, growing concerns about Covid-19 have prompted many organizations, both global and domestic, to start talking about protocols for sending their workforces home and ways they can maintain high levels of operability should they do so.
While there are many business logistics and legal/employment issues to discuss during this type of transition, the Fringe PD team can’t help but focus on best practices for communicating effectively while working remotely. We know firsthand the value of — and barriers to — making remote interactions work because we all work remotely.
Regardless of global health concerns, the following tips are worth keeping top of mind as teleworking continues to gain momentum among successful 21st-century organizations. These four practices can and should be applied anytime you are communicating with your colleagues or professional contacts without the ability to be physically present.
1 | GET ON VIDEO
Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t deny that video conferencing is the best alternative to communicating in person. That’s because the biggest challenge with communicating remotely is the inability to read tone and expression through body language. Additionally, our natural hardwiring to scan for threats in the absence of other information often leads us to subconsciously superimpose a negative tone on to an innocuous email or phone call. When we are able to see our colleagues and watch their reactions and expressions in real-time, we leave far less room for incorrect interpretations.
Communicating via video also increases employee engagement. When asked to join a conference call or passively watch a webinar, we tend to drift into multitasking mode — which, neurologically speaking, isn’t possible. Our brains don’t let us do two things at once successfully. (Not to mention, turning back to that spreadsheet when someone stops by your desk in person would be incredibly rude.) By being accountable to a video feed, you can focus more fully on the conversation and person in front of you before moving on to the next task.
*FRINGE FAVE TOOL: Web-based video platform Zoom allows you to meet from any device.
2 | DEVELOP A SCHEDULE
Speaking of tasks, we know that most professionals have a steady stream of requests delivered to their inboxes throughout the day. The urge to respond right away when you’re already on your computer is tough to ignore. We may feel a need to be “on” the entire time in order to prove our productivity to others.
But the reality is that carving out time to field calls and respond to emails is actually critical to ongoing productivity so that you don’t fall behind on your core responsibilities by trying to constantly (and futilely) multitask. Since you can’t just close your door or put up a do-not-disturb sign when you’re working remotely, you might instead think about the person or group you communicate with most regularly when you are in the office, and then proactively get time on the calendar with them — each day, weekly, or however often you need. Now for the hardest part: once you schedule that time, make every effort to avoid getting pulled into unplanned conversations with them unless absolutely necessary. We at Fringe like to capture all our questions, thoughts, and ideas on per-person sticky notes to go through with them the next time we are scheduled to meet together.
Finally, be specific and transparent about times when you will be unavailable for interruptions. Place visible holds on your shared calendar so that people know exactly when they should or should not reach out to you since they won’t have the option of just popping by your office.
3 | BE EXTRA DESCRIPTIVE
Most professional writing training advises you to eliminate as many words as possible from your emails, even cutting as many as half of the words from a draft version. While that may be solid advice in general, when you are working remotely, you should be very specific with the words you do choose to include. Are you leaving room for misinterpretation? Is it possible to read different tones into the message? Using extra words, punctuation, emojis, and even gifs — for the right working relationship (if you have to question it, don’t use it) — is OK, so long as you think it will reduce the chance for misinterpretation.
*FRINGE FAVE TOOL: Grammarly’s tone detector tool gives you insight into your emails.
4 | SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS
Any type of workplace culture change requires thinking about the standards and expectations we set for ourselves and others. If you manage a team, spend some time considering your ideal communication norms. You might want to take a page from the playbook at Merck, which has created very specific standards and shared vocabulary for digital communication. Employees can flag emails with “4HR” (a four-hour response time) and or “NNTR” (no need to respond), for example. Setting specific expectations like this reduces ambiguity, supports a more productive workflow, and minimizes stress when working remotely, whether during times of crisis or as a standard form of operation.
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