"Digital Communication" photo courtesy Bongkarn Thanyakij

Keep Those Lines of Communication Open

Adjusting to working from home

by Joe Honton

If you’re new to the work-from-home routine you may be wondering how to handle communication when the other half of your conversation is not present.


If you're new to the work-from-home routine you may be wondering how to handle communication when the other half of your conversation is not present.

My vantage point is from three decades of personal experience. I began working remotely in 1992. Needless to say, technologies have come and gone, but the one thing that's remained constant, is that proper communication is always an essential ingredient to success.

Allow me to outline an approach that will help you to get off to a good start. I'll consider this from two perspectives: the manager and the individual contributor.

Managers

When you have a project team that depends on you for tasking, scheduling, prioritization, or similar activities, and you're suddenly working from home, you'll need to adjust your routine a bit. There's two things to consider: your responses to queries from your team, and your method for broadcasting information out to your team.

The idea behind the first concern is easy to state, but not always so easy to carry out. It is simply: keep your channels open and respond immediately. It means that the needs of your team take priority over your own needs.

Failure to respond promptly can be damaging. If you don't provide the answers or instructions that are being asked for, then your team members may be sitting idle. Or worse. They may start to go down the wrong path, and produce something that eventually needs to be undone.

One technique to forestall that and to still make headway on your own work is to give a tentative response, something that acknowledges that you've heard them but can't give a full answer right this minute.

Of course when everyone is working under the same roof this kind of response can happen with a simple hand gesture or a quick smile. How you remotely accomplish this friendly acknowledgement is a matter of personal style. The goal is to give yourself time to finish the task you're working on. However you do it, these acknowledgements are not real answers, so you'll need to answer them properly before they become moot.

The second concern is how to broadcast information.

Outgoing communications need less finesse than incoming communications, because it's you that's initiating the conversation. You can take your time to shape your message carefully. You can edit your words to be as clear as possible. And you can adjust your tone of voice to match the imperative of the message.

But you'll still need to handle feedback. Each of your team members will read or hear your broadcast differently, and many of them will have follow-on questions.

A good approach is to schedule your outgoing message to reach its audience when they will be most ready to engage with it. Be sure to block out some time immediately afterwards, to respond to the incoming feedback. And if you anticipate that one individual in particular will need extra clarification, go ahead and initiate that yourself.

The key to getting this right is not really about timing, or even the message itself. Even bad messages can be well received when done thoughtfully. The trickiest thing is conveying your positive attitude without the benefit of those non-verbal clues.

Without the personal touch, chats and emails can easily become stiff. I always read the messages I send both before and after they've been sent. So if I catch a blooper, I can follow up right away.

Group videoconferencing may feel like it's a good way to handle this, but it often isn't. The social inhibitions that keep people from speaking up in group meetings are amplified when microphones and cameras get in the way. Outspoken team members may monopolize the speaking space, leaving little time for the quiet half of the group.

If you haven't heard from everyone on the team before the videoconference is over, then you may need to make one-on-one follow-up calls, or for a lighter approach, a quick chat session with an opener like, "was there anything else you wanted to add?"

Much of this is the same as when you're managing an in-house team. But for colleagues that are new to remote work, you'll want to be a bit more patient as you coach them into a workable routine.

But the bottom line is the same as when you were all in the office together: remember to keep those channels open.

Individual contributors

If you work in a team where each of your teammates has defined responsibilities that are task oriented, you'll need to consider two different communication challenges: letting your colleagues know what you're currently working on, and letting your team leader know your best estimate for completing your current task.

The first one is the nitty-gritty stuff, where your expertise comes into play.

Some of your colleagues may have enough knowledge to meaningfully help shape your work, so sharing with them, using the jargon of your trade, is pleasant and easy. Setting up private instant messaging channels for this is a common approach that allows you to freely converse throughout the day.

Other colleagues may be quite distant from you technically, but still need to be kept informed of progress. For them, you'll need to explain what you're doing and how it impacts their work. So your challenge is to find simple words to explain the problems you're working on and the solutions you're proposing.

Email messages are a better medium for these types of communications. It signals to them that you care enough to share, but you're not necessarily looking for critical feedback. A simple, "sounds good to me" response, means that you're not encroaching into their world, so carry on.

Either way, your colleagues deserve to be kept informed. Just remember that their time is valuable too, so don't over do it.

When you're both in the same room, it's easy to see when they're busy concentrating, and when they're ready to goof off for a few minutes. Remotely, you don't have those visual clues.

For some people, setting the chat channel status to "busy" is a subtle hint to not interrupt them. In practice though, those same people generally don't ever switch that status off. You're best bet is to open the chat with, "Do you have a minute?", before launching into anything substantial.

Your second communication challenge will be with your team leader.

They don't want to know whether you're working every minute, so throw away that mistrust from the outset. Instead, they need to know what obstacles you face and what they need to do to help you.

Do you need clarification on some detail that's not fully spelled out? Do you need someone else to finish their work before you can proceed with yours? Or is everything fine, and you just need time to work through it.

Bring those questions to your team leader as early as possible. But remember to be considerate, because they may not be ready for interruptions at the very moment you choose. Try reaching out with a chat that suggests that you need their undivided attention for a bit, something like, "Can we talk for 5 minutes? I'd like to ask for your opinion on this."

Opening an immediate communication channel, such as chat session, can be a source of friction. You don't have the visual clues that you would normally have in the office, so there's no way of knowing what's happening on the other end. Be patient, and assume that you'll get a response as soon as reasonably possible.

Other than conflict resolution, your team leader's other big job is to schedule things. To do that well, they need to hear from you, so "how's it going?" really means, "is everything OK for an on-time completion?" Let them know about progress and setbacks with that in mind. Sure, they will be empathetic to your challenges, but don't dwell on them. Their bottom line is: how soon will you be free to take on the next thing in the queue.

Status reports with estimated completion times are best done by email, that way they won't be forgotten among all the the other verbal remarks, or get lost in the endless scroll of an online chat session.

Work-from-home

Two other final thoughts on making the best of this situation. First, establish a work area where your devices and papers can be spread out and organized for long term use. If children are at home with you, they need to know that the boundaries to their play area don't extend into your work space.

Finally, remember to keep regular work hours. Your commute time is shorter, but be sure to get to work at the same time every day. And be sure to "go home" at the end of the day: stop reading emails, texts, and IMs at a designated time every evening, shut down your devices, and close the door to your office if you can. You are no longer working from home.

If everyone on your team approaches their new remote work situation with a positive attitude, a lot can get done. Many people are at first surprised at how effective work-from-home can be. They are amazed that they can get more done in less time.

Keep Those Lines of Communication Open — Adjusting to working from home

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