For many employees, working remotely is a viable alternative to what was the traditional office environment. With what may be a time-consuming or stressful commute eliminated, employees enjoy more time and mental space in their morning routines. Many also appreciate the added flexibility in their work schedules. But if you enjoy the camaraderie of being with colleagues or value the structure of leaving the house and going to work, it can be challenging to find your rhythm.
While it is difficult to replicate the comfort of being physically in the same room with your colleagues, many virtual teams I have worked with over the years have successfully stayed connected. These teams have found that although the tools, techniques, and workflow may differ when working remotely, the principles of strong communication remain fundamentally the same.
In fact, my remote teams and I have come to realize that not seeing co-workers throughout the day requires us to be more intentional in our communication. Here are some of our lessons learned to help you stay connected with your virtual team members.
1. Proximity Impacts Culture
When you go to the same space day in and day out and interact with the same people in a physical environment, certain cultural norms and efficiencies develop. We establish a particular way of communicating when we’re physically together during the work week.
Take us out of this environment and everything changes. All of a sudden, you’re not running into Adrian in the lunchroom and you can’t simply turn to Suzanne to get her opinion about something you’re working on.
Additionally, when we’re all working from home, we can easily revert to our own M.O. and personal communication style. Why? This happens because our behaviors are not only influenced by who we physically interact with, but also by our environments. How we work from home is different because our work-life habits and home-life habits are …well, different. So, it’s important to check-in with co-workers and discuss what can work, or not, given their workspace or circumstances. How? Initiate a conversation about the capabilities, preferences, and schedules of the people you work with.
- Is there something about your current workspace that would be helpful for me to know? When I asked a colleague this question, I learned that Sarah is now sharing her home office with her husband. And with daycare closed, both are juggling working and taking care of their child during the day. This opened the conversation, allowing us to adjust our work schedule and expectations.
- What’s the best way to contact you with regular requests (e.g., cell phone, landline, text, email, Slack)?
- How should we communicate if there is an urgent need?
- What is your preferred video-conferencing tool (Zoom, Skype, Go to Meetings, Facetime)?
- How can we secure and share digital files?
2. Close Loops
Since you aren’t running into co-workers in the hall, lunchroom, or on that afternoon trip to the coffee machine, closing communication loops is that much more important. While you don’t want to inundate inboxes, you do want to make sure communications are received and understood as intended.
Here are two communication rules my Uncle Ang taught me when I launched my career, and I still practice to this day:
- The 24-hour rule: Return all communications within 24 hours. Even if you need to send a quick text or email saying, “Got it and I will be in touch next Monday,” letting the sender know you are working on it will keep them from wondering whether you saw the message (and may well prevent additional unnecessary messages). Your rule might be slightly different. It may be the “same-day rule” or “by close of business rule.” Whatever it is, be sure to communicate your rule to manage expectations.
- The 3X’s and call rule: Similar to the “three strikes and you’re out” in baseball, if you’re emailing or texting back and forth three times and things still aren’t clear, STOP the written communications and call. Usually, a simple conversation will quickly uncover the issue, misunderstanding, or assumption that is causing the back-and-forth.
3. Tend to your Relationships
We have all experienced the realities of balancing work and home life when working remotely! And while it is important to accomplish the task at hand, it is equally important to nurture your working relationships. Look for opportunities to help colleagues and raise your hand. Even though team members may be in different physical locations, connection and collaboration are key.
Here’s a quick story to bring home this point. Years ago, a client commented, “your [virtual] team communicates better than our team and we are all sitting in the same office.” This was quite a compliment and made me grateful that they noticed the commitment and collaboration between our team members. It also made me realize how hard we worked to be intentional in our communications.
While working remotely offers its own unique challenges, communicating need not be one of them. With some extra care and attention, we can make virtual connections as productive, effective, and strong as in-person contact.