Effective communication is essential to any team, which is especially true in the business world. Poor communication among team members or different layers of management can lead to a host of problems, including incorrect deliverables, lost productivity, decreased morale, and poor customer service. Communication challenges can arise in any business setting, even within teams that are physically located in the same room!
As one can imagine, the challenges of interoffice communications are magnified significantly when most staff are suddenly shifted to a remote setting.
Managers in companies that are now predominantly remote can no longer quickly pull together a handful of team members for a quick scrum by walking around to a few desks and grabbing a conference room; gone are the often surprisingly productive break room, hallway, and watercooler chats; and gone are the opportunities to socialize with coworkers in the lunchroom or at an office party to celebrate a birthday, retirement, or team achievement.
With more people working remotely for the foreseeable future, organizations need to take steps to ensure that communication channels remain open; that information can flow in multiple directions between those in and out of the office; and between remote workers, wherever they are.
In this feature, we discuss some best practices for boosting communication between on-site and off-site staff, including input from industry experts and practitioners.
First, it’s important to acknowledge the incredible advances in telecommunications technology that have been made in the past 20 to 30 years. Remote collaboration is easier today than it has ever been thanks to such technologies as teleconferencing, document-sharing, and even e-mail. But in order to take full advantage of those tools, companies need to ensure they have sufficient infrastructure in place.
“The effective management of company communications is particularly important given the increased separation and multiple concerns caused by the Coronavirus,” says Melissa Cadwallader, MBA, PHR, an Austin-based HR leader currently working at ZenBusiness.
“However, there are a variety of digital tools that can be used for the purposes of team engagement and collaboration,” Cadwallader adds. “We have implemented a crisis communications plan; ensuring that employees have access to file sharing systems, key software, and real-time collaboration tools. Use has been made of web-based chat and video-conferencing platforms for the purpose of maintaining the involvement of workers at all levels.”
Assuming the requisite infrastructure is in place, what are the organizational tools that should be implemented to ensure solid communication between on-site and off-site teams?
Jim Guilkey, PhD, author of M-Pact Learning: The New Competitive Advantage—What All Executives Need To Know and president of S4 NetQuest, notes that setting expectations is a key element of any communication strategy, especially when it comes to availability and responsiveness.
“It is vital that employees know what is expected of them,” Guilkey says. “When will you be available? How long will it take to get back to someone?” Without being able to stop by employees’ work spaces, it’s important to know if and when they are available to engage in collaborative work and discussions.
Establish Regular Touch Points
Many companies already had regular team or one-on-one meetings before the pandemic forced a large-scale shift to remote work. But when everyone is working on-site, it can be easy to cancel an occurrence of a meeting if there isn’t much to discuss.
Small, one-off items could be addressed by walking over to someone’s work space, for example. With staff now dispersed and remote, these regular touch points are even more important and should be respected even if there isn’t much to discuss. They can help make up for the lack of face time that could otherwise be had with on-site workers.
Use Video When Possible
Speaking of face time, we encourage companies to use videoconferencing when possible. Sure, not everyone likes being on video, and it might cramp the style of those who like to work in their pajamas, but remote work is a necessity; it isn’t intended as a relaxation of expectations for professionalism.
Video has many benefits over real-time communication by voice alone. Primarily, video allows participants to see facial expressions and body language. These nonverbals are a key element of communication that can be lost over voice-only communication.
Don’t Forget the Personal Element
Finally, it’s important not to leave out the personal element. While not necessarily productive in an immediate sense, those coffee breaks, office parties, and happy hours can be crucial for staff to get to know each other, understand communication styles, and build up internal capital to build strong working relationships.
“Project meetings are fine to ensure productivity, product standards, etc. But a large percentage of communication needs to be personal/social,” says Guilkey. “Your employees need to know you care.”
Guilkey offers this example: “I hold a weekly video meeting attended by my entire team. It is focused on positivity. People are asked to share things such as what they’ve been doing during quarantine, creative things they’ve done (painting, photography, etc.), jokes, good restaurants/takeout, and other assorted non-work-related activities. Those with the best stories, creative works, jokes, etc., are given prizes. I also use this meeting to gauge morale. How is everyone feeling on a scale of 1–10? Why are you feeling that way, etc.”
“It’s really interesting; I know so much more about my people than I did before they started working from home and our team is actually much tighter,” Guilkey adds.
Twenty to 30 years ago, the transition of the majority of a company’s staff to remote work would be a nightmare and logistical chaos. Today, there are still challenges, particularly when considering the sudden nature of the shift experienced by many organizations. But new technologies mean it’s possible to virtually replicate many aspects of in-person communication in a remote environment.
Assuming companies have the necessary infrastructure in place, the challenge then becomes identifying what best practices are needed to boost communication among remote staff and between remote staff and those who may still be working on-site.