Maintaining Effective Communications with Remote Working

Posted in : HR Updates on 3 April 2020
Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place - George Bernard Shaw.

Recent months have seen a dramatic escalation of the much-predicted practice of working from home. The reasons for the escalation will be well known and let’s try and avoid the dreaded C word just for a few minutes.

Many organisations have set out guidance to staff about how to make working from home (WFH) safe and productive. But what about the effectiveness of communication between colleagues who were previously sitting close to each other and could observe the communication signals that perhaps communicated more powerfully than the words?  We have all seen colleagues slam papers and files down on the desk in a fit of pique after a meeting and at the same time orally suggest they are ok. Their behaviour overwhelmingly would suggest they are clearly not, and we have all supported him/her to settle back into work. But how do we do that when we are in our own homes

It is generally felt that somewhere between 70-93% of all communication is nonverbal. However, there are exceptions, for there are many great speeches in the past which continue to inspire generations years after their delivery, and no-one can see the non-verbal communications of the orator, but they are so well structured and provide clarity in their message.

Whatever the percentage it is undoubtedly true that the effectiveness of our normal communications to our colleagues are affected by other issues beyond the words such as tone, facial expressions (my own failing). Body movements such as fidgeting, hand gestures, the pointing of fingers come to mind. Body posture and the distance between people also contributes. How many times have you been told something in confidence from a distance, normally people come close for that?

But when working from home we can lose so many of those essential clues to effective communication particularly if only relying on emails or telephone calls. The opportunity for messages to be misconstrued is much higher - so what can we do. In regard to emails, there are many products Like Grammarly’s tone checker which can show you how your emails read. (So far it tells me this is mostly formal but also a little optimistic and friendly.)  Well-structured written communications which are clear can be effective. It seems trite to suggest that each communication should have a purpose, a beginning a middle and an end but it is true. When writing to others let us try and keep emails to a minimum. One email covering all the facts rather than a slow feed of pieces of information will help us manage our time better and also try not to send emails outside normal working hours. Use the scheduled delivery functionality if you are working outside normal hours and need to communicate with your colleagues. 

Telephone calls similarly are problematic as people are not able to see what you are doing. I am sure like me that at times the kind words down the phone are matched by eye-rolling non-verbal clues which if seen would be seen as interfering with the message. It is important to be clear about the purpose of the call and speak and behave accordingly. Listen to the person(s) on the line and make sure everyone has something to say.

That leaves us with videoconferencing and there is some good guidance as to how to maximise the communication opportunities and effectiveness of video conferencing.

  • Remember you are being watched (not just by Big brother) and behave accordingly.
  • Be mindful of your body language, convey a sense of real engagement - don’t be slouching in your favourite chair, others are watching.
  • Put your phone down and try not to do your emails while participating in the meeting. If you have to respond to an email, please mute the microphone as your keyboard strokes will be a distraction to others who will also consider you to be not paying attention.
  • Look into the camera and also make sure the camera is at a level which shows you in your best light, let’s not try and have great pictures of some nasal passages.
  • Control the hand gestures and excessive movements. Unless you have great internet bandwidth. The more you move the more ghosting will be on the screen.
  • As in normal meetings be aware of facial expressions, they will be seen. 

I think we also need to recognise that most of our colleagues are currently doing at least three jobs, Parent, Teacher and worker with the potential of also being a carer all in an unprecedented combination within the normal working day and often without the social support systems that we have relied on in days gone by. 

All of these pressures and the concerns about what is going on within our communities will heighten the stresses on all our mental health. So, let us all own the responsibility of managing our mental health and not increasing the pressures on colleagues by poor and rushed communication. To paraphrase the carpentry profession “proof-read twice, send once” to make sure the tone of our communication does not become a problem.

When communicating with our colleagues at this time let’s really try to do it well and make it count. 

Finally, in these days with so many of us working distantly make sure you take time to communicate with work colleagues on a social basis, let’s be kind to each other and make sure that while apart we are still in this together.


Related Article

Homeworking May Be The New Normal, But What Are The Employment Law Challenges?


This article is correct at 03/04/2020

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Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive

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