Everything looks and feels different with offices running remotely, and no one can really predict when or if we’ll return to our regular desks.
The biggest challenge isn’t productivity, as many executives feared. Instead, it’s presence. We simply cannot be present online like we can in person.
And sometimes, that means you have to work a little harder at it.
But that’s not a bad thing. We’re in this unique space right now where things likely will never go back to the way they were. Organizations are finding that remote workers, especially knowledge workers, can be more productive than non-remote knowledge workers and teams can find creative ways to collaborate online.
Thankfully, we live in an age where technology has made the remote transition possible for many workers (I say possible instead of easy in light of how having kids attending school remotely impacts this).
With technology also comes responsibility. A responsibility to maintain professionalism and to ensure you’re communicating in a way that’s valuable for others. It’s easy to react to messages in Slack or email, but the tone of that message is easy to misinterpret by the recipient.
The Mehrabian Ferris study of communication that suggests that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal is often debated. But anyone would be hard-pressed to debunk the fact that so much is misinterpreted in writing because we can’t rely on body language, eye contact, tone of voice and intonation.
So how can you ensure you’re showing up online in a way that’s not offensive to others, while also not being robotic?
Establish Open Communication
Communicating in an office environment used to be as simple as popping into the office of a coworker when you had a question or a challenge. Just because we can’t do that anymore doesn’t mean we can’t still communicate and collaborate regularly and effectively.
Take advantage of asynchronous collaboration tools like MS Teams, Google Suite, Voxer or Slack if you can. Instead of knocking on an office door, you’re essentially “knocking” by sending a quick message and notification. You’re not getting the same real-time interaction, but you are setting up open communication that allows multiple team members to give input. And if more synchronous input is necessary, you can easily integrate Zoom with some of these tools and open up a meeting room on the spot. Or, you can set up recurring office hours on Zoom each week when team members can drop in with any questions or just to say hi.
Be Aware of How You’re Presenting Yourself
You wouldn’t show up to the office in sweats and a baseball cap or top knot. This shouldn’t change just because you’re working from home. And if you adopt the “business on top; casual on the bottom” attitude, be vigilant to ensure that no one can see your sweat pants (or lack thereof, like the poor reporter on Good Morning America). How you show up says a lot about your professionalism and yes, coworkers and clients will pass judgment based on your appearance–whether they admit it or not.
During meetings, pay attention to how you have your office set up for optics. You can find a lot of tips online available about how to set up a remote work space, including your background, lighting, etc., even if you don’t have a dedicated office space. You will also want to be aware of how you sound online. If your makeshift office has hard floors, you may echo or sound like you’re in a tin can, making it difficult for others to hear you. Wearing a headset will help.
Be Careful with Language
Because much of your day-to-day conversations happen in writing when working remotely, take some extra time with your language. When you give feedback, use neutral language and think in terms of making suggestions instead of corrections. If you’re the boss, your suggestions will be taken as requests or corrections.
Written words can have much more impact than spoken words, so beware of harsh or abrupt language. Remember that so much is missing when the recipient of your message is simply reading words on a screen.
Approach Communication with Curiosity
Not everyone excels in effective and empathic communication verbally or in writing. If you receive a message that puts you on the defensive, check your emotional reaction and ask for more clarification instead. Questions like, “Can you help me understand what you mean by this?” can help gather more information without making the other person feel challenged and defensive in turn.
Asking questions to clarify also lets the sender know that their communications may not be as clear as they thought. If you’re the manager, having a conversation about how messages come across is helpful because misinterpretation is not limited to you.
The fact that business and life has moved to socially distant and online can be frustrating, but it’s also opened so many doors for us to be able to work with a diverse group of people and organizations. Let’s celebrate that while we’re working through the frustrations of not being able to gather in person.