The abrupt shift to working from home means that many of us are rewriting the rules for business communications in real time. As we are figuring out what our new normal looks like, it's reasonable to feel overwhelmed, but it's also important to keep our wits about us and preserve the things we know work.
In particular, competent communications are as important today as they were two months ago. And although the tools, techniques and workflow we’re accustomed to using may be evolving, the principles of strong communication remain key to staying productive and connected.
Because many businesses are figuring out how to work virtually, it seems appropriate to share some tips that may support your efforts when communicating with virtual teams.
A virtual mindset
Before sharing tips, I’d like to point out something that you may not have considered: We all work virtually, whether we realize it or not, so don’t be intimidated by a way of working that might seem foreign.
Consider the salesperson who’s on the road two or three weeks a month traveling to different territories to check on clients. Or a federal contractor coordinating activities and training among different regional, national or international offices. Both work virtually much of the time.
Perhaps you have been part of a pitch team and have spent several weeks and many long hours at a hotel or conference center as you prepare for a client presentation. That’s virtual!
You may be part of a core of full-time employees normally working together in the same physical space, but your company uses contractors or freelancers, and you regularly interact with people working from home offices. Even though you may not have previously thought of your work as “virtual,” it is.
Working virtually for most of my career, I have come to realize that not SEEING co-workers throughout the day makes me more intentional in my communication. Here are some lessons learned for your consideration.
1. Proximity affects culture
When you go to the same space each day 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 turn to Suzanne to get her opinion about something you’re working on.
Additionally, when we’re all working separately from home, we quickly revert to our own M.O. and personal communication styles. And despite what some might think, how we work isn’t influenced so much by the laundry that’s calling our name or the family members who may need us.
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 the new workspace.
How? Initiate a conversation about the technology 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 day care 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 videoconferencing tool (Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, FaceTime)?
- How can we secure and share digital files?
2. Close loops
Working with others at a distance makes closing loops more challenging. Since you won’t be running into your co-workers in the hall, cafeteria, 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 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
While it is important to accomplish the task at hand it is equally important to keep your working relationships strong. In times of stress or crisis, it can be frustrating to get things done—especially things that would be easy under different circumstances. However, extending a bit of grace to colleagues and clients can go a long way.
For example, given the number of people trying to figure out how to juggle working at home sequestered with family members, it’s a question of when, not if, your videoconferences and phone calls will be interrupted.
When this occurs, you can graciously pivot by having a simple plan: if you hear a baby crying, pause and ask if they need to tend to the child. If a spouse appears on a video call, the dog starts barking or the doorbell rings (it could be GrubHub), roll with it. Your colleagues and clients will appreciate your flexibility and ease.
- Remember: What used to be a no-brainer now may take extra effort because of extenuating circumstances (e.g., IT support isn’t available). Patience is the best gift you can offer to yourself and others.
- Look for opportunities to help colleagues and raise your hand. Just because we are practicing social distancing doesn’t mean you’re alone. Now, perhaps more than ever before, connection and collaboration are key.
On a personal level, tending to your relationships applies to your friends and neighbors as well as your colleagues. There are almost certainly people around you who need help. There are many opportunities to safely contribute to your community; take some time out of your day to do so.
Perhaps you can assist elderly neighbors struggling to get the essentials. Or call someone you know who may be struggling with the sense of isolation. Do good deeds and talk about them. You never know who’s watching or listening and may feel encouraged to join in as well.
As much as the global pandemic has disrupted our lives and the way many of us work, it doesn’t need to disrupt our communications. With a little extra care and attention, we can make our virtual connections as strong as our in-person contact. We are all in this together!
Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.