How to Improve Communication Working Remotely

Working remotely isn’t a new concept, but almost overnight, remote work has become the norm. Companies around the globe have promptly responded to COVID-19 by abandoning brick and mortars in exchange for make-shift home offices.

I’m a communications strategist who has been working remotely a thousand miles away from colleagues for over a year now. I’ll be honest, if working remotely is new for you, it can be a real challenge.

Remote Working Communication Suggestions

Communication is one of the biggest difficulties of working remotely. I’ll share 10 pointers on how to improve communication while working remotely to help you find the line between under-communicating and over-communicating, get the most out of meetings, avoid communication breakdowns, and maintain strong working relationships.

1. Clarify expectations for your team.

It all starts with painting a clear picture for your team of what successful communication does and does not look like. This may sound like corporate-speak, but setting the foundation with clear underperforming, meets, and exceeds expectations can really help define work standards and remove assumptions. Do you expect daily progress updates? Do certain high-priority projects require real-time, proactive updates? Once your team knows what’s expected of them, they can get on-board and start communicating with high standards.

2. Tell your team how/when they can reach you.

Letting your team know the best mode of communication and the best time of day you can be reached is helpful with a separated staff. Is lunchtime off-limits? Should they call, email, text, Slack, or video-chat you? (I like to do video screen-shares with IT issues and quick Slack messages with real-time progress updates.) The more guidance you provide, the fewer misunderstandings will occur and the smoother and more efficient everyone’s day will be. That’s a win, win.

Tip: Make sure your company calendar (we use Google calendar) is accurate and up-to-date, and either send a company-wide message if you will be unavailable due to a long meeting or toggle your Slack status when busy or on break.

3. Share the right amount of information.

As a rule of thumb: If you have a cross-functional team with diverse skill-levels, make sure you communicate to the weakest link. This may take a little extra time upfront strategizing your communication approach, but I promise you, it will pay off in the end when there is little-to-no confusion, and your team buys-in with clear understanding. Of course, it’s unlikely that all conversations will be 100% understood by 100% of your staff — so prioritize the critical information. And if it’s heavy, complex information, try to find a dynamic way to share the information that spoon-feeds various learning styles: visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic (a choreographed dance will surely be memorable!).

4. Set meeting agendas and meeting goals.

If you’re like me, meetings can sometimes feel like they eat up the majority of your workweek. And with COVID throwing a curve-ball into our normal communication systems, meetings might feel like they’ve increased tenfold. In the U.S. alone, we hold 55 million meetings a day with 50 percent of meeting agendas recycled from other gatherings.

A whopping 71 percent of senior managers consider meetings unproductive. A simple solution to improve meeting productivity is to begin sharing a specific, bulleted list of desired meeting outcomes. This list can serve as an tangible, task-oriented agenda. Just make sure to provide this agenda to your team ahead of the meeting so they have the appropriate time to prepare and digest the information. In other words, not 5 minutes before the call, Emily.

Example of a task-oriented agenda based on meeting goals:

  • Determine the direction we’re taking on June LinkedIn strategy for increased page views by C-suite audience
  • Agree upon a pillar blog title for our UX design definitive guide
  • Select the final design asset for our homepage hero creative

If improving meeting productivity is important to your business, check out this Freakonomics podcast episode about enhancing meeting effectiveness.

5. Make sure you invite the right people to the meeting.

More virtual meetings mean more calendar invites with visible attendee lists. While people generally complain about having a meeting, they complain just as much if they aren’t invited to a meeting. I get it, nobody likes it when they feel their input isn’t valued. But given this reality, here’s what we can do. If you begin to outline task-oriented meeting agendas based on desired outcomes (discussed above), you can share it with staff members that are adjacent to the meeting topic allowing them to decide if they should or shouldn’t join.

“Hey, I’m having a meeting, and here are the topics and outcomes we need from this meeting. If you think you can add value to helping us reach these decisions, please let me know and I’d be happy to add you.”

The more specific your agenda and goals are, the easier it will be for your co-workers to reflect and say, “I’m not actually relevant to this meeting.” Remember: why we work defines how we work. So don’t make exclusion personal, make it purposeful.

6. Reserve accurate time frames for meetings.

Getting the most out of meetings also comes down to the resource of time. Ah, good ole Parkinson’s Law. A law based on the theory that work expands to whatever time is allotted. So if you schedule for 2 hours, it’s going to take 2 hours. But if you schedule 17 minutes, it’s going to require 17 minutes.

Now, combine Parkinson’s Law with the personalities at your company, Joan is quiet and only shares what’s necessary while Calvin takes forever to get to the point, and set meeting times that are realistic, not pie-in-the-sky idyllic. “Gee, it would be nice to knock this meeting out in 30 minutes, but it’ll likely take 60 minutes.” Arrange meetings accordingly and it will help your team stay on track and keep communication concentrated.

7. Give proactive updates.

Remote workers need to be on their game with proactive updates. You might Slack real-time updates as they happen or send as an email summary at the end of the day. If you use task management software (like Trello or Asana) and assign task completion visibility to managers, getting a massive dashboard of completed and pending “followed tasks” can be overwhelming. In this case, it may be additionally helpful to share a short synopsis of accomplishments at the end of the day with a message in the project-specific group message board.

Tip: If your manager is also new to working remotely, an old fashioned phone call update at the end of the day can be a refreshing, humanizing gesture. It’s also good to remember that your manager might be managing numerous other staff members, so try to keep your updates organized, focused, and concise.

“While working fully remote, even if we aren’t getting to banter around the conference table, we’ve been super intentional about keeping each other updated on work progress, our day-to-day accomplishments, and celebrating little milestone victories.” – Kristin Bural, Brand Designer at Proof

8. Resolve conflict quickly.

One of the most important things we help brands get down is their intentional personality and tone. Making sure your tone is properly expressed, is also critical to working in a team setting. Although texting, Slack, G-chat, and other written communications give you the option of emojis and animations (I love a good GIF), they’re still prone to misunderstandings. And now with COVID forcing us all to send infinitely more messages, the rate of misunderstanding has also increased.

Let’s say your co-worker sends a seemingly rude note, always give them the benefit of the doubt. Always. You need the context of their designated tone in order to truly grasp the intention of their message. So if you want immediate clarity, pick up the phone. If there’s a tough conversation you need to have with a co-worker, pick up the phone. If you sense a communication breakdown is occurring, pick up the phone.

“Slack is a great tool, but a short 5-minute phone call is way more valuable. By creating these personal touch-points with the team, we remove misunderstanding and I feel much more connected.” – Nick Smith, Senior Brand Designer at Proof

9. Find ways to keep relationships alive.

Last, but certainly not least — maintaining relationships and friendships with co-workers is a critical element for optimum communication when working remotely. Although it may seem forced, every now and then giving a co-worker a quick call, instead of leaning to a G-chat or Slack message, is a fantastic way to personalize daily communication. If you ordinarily schmooze with colleagues in-person before a big meeting, do the same before dialing-in to a group conference. And if on Monday you normally chit-chat about everyone’s weekends, keep that custom alive too.

Remote Working Communication Takeaways

I hope these tips help you improve your communication when working remotely, especially during these challenging COVID times. Make it your mission to get the most out of every meeting, beef up your proactive update frequency, and try to follow the same communication habits to preserve relationships and maintain a sense of normalcy. And if all fails, for God’s sake, pick up the phone.

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