Overcoming Hybrid and Remote Work Communications Problems

Some of the biggest challenges in remote work have to do with communication, whether in one-on-one conversations, meetings of various sizes, corporate newsletters, emails, memos, notes, phone calls or other formats. Some of those communication forms make an easy transition to remote, but others don’t. My company PeopleG2 has been remote for more than 10 years, and here are some of the things I’ve learned over that time.

Remote Work Communications Strategies

Use virtual body language

In a remote model, you often lose body language, facial expressions and intonation in most communication channels. You may have heard of the work of Dr. Albert Mehrabian (2007), who concluded that communication is 7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal and 55 percent visual. By “vocal” he means intonation, volume, etc. That means that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal.

The remote model allows for some nonverbal communication, such as intonation over the phone and facial expression in video meetings. For the most part, however, you have to be proactive about filling in where body language is missing. Emojis can be very helpful in informal communications, such as instant messaging. In addition, proofread and review emails and memos before you hit send, including putting yourself in the shoes of the reader. How might they misinterpret your message?

Balance your meetings

 You need enough meetings to get the job done, but you also should avoid scheduling so many that people experience what has come to be called “Zoom burnout” (Martins, 2020). There are advantages to having regular short meetings, like shift change downloads or Agile-Scrum standups. But if the information can be shared in an email or chat, that’s one less meeting on your people’s calendars.

In the brick-and-mortar world, managers can pop by an employee’s cubicle for a five-minute chat. But after going remote, many are scheduling daily 30-minute meetings. Instead, use platforms like Slack or Teams to replace the cubicle chat, and get the right balance of communication and productivity.

Account for Time Zones

If your team is spread across more than one or two time zones — and especially if you have team members on different continents — good communication requires careful planning. Some activities need to be done together in real time, like brainstorming. In this case, try to find the best meeting time for all stakeholders, recognizing that some people will be attending during their off hours. If that same group meets more than once, rotate the times so that the same people aren’t always inconvenienced.

There are some great tools available to facilitate asynchronous communication, including posting notes, questions and even videos. One example is Loom. Let’s say you are based in Chicago. You post information at the end of your workday at 5 PM on Tuesday. Your teammate in Singapore may just be waking up Wednesday at 6 AM. They will start their day by viewing your notes. You may sacrifice personal interaction, but you get to maintain your circadian sanity.

Use the right tools

Working remotely requires some unique tools, and I’ve already mentioned some. Some may be virtual versions of tools you have used, and some will be completely new. Communication tools to consider include:

Video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, etc.

Document sharing applications, like Microsoft SharePoint, Google Drive, goCanvas, etc.

Communication/collaboration/chat tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Chatwork, etc.

Promote good listening skills

Our world is full of distractions, and this is especially true when working from home. Other family members, TVs, smartphones, the temptation to surf or shop online — all vie for people’s attention. There are internal challenges to effective listening as well, including being tired or hungry, and the unconscious biases we all have. Some ways to ensure you are truly listening to employees, clients and others:

Set aside time for specific conversations, and during that time make sure family members know not to interrupt and put aside things that might distract you.

Resist the urge to respond too quickly and avoid interrupting the other person.

Repeat aloud what you hear to confirm you understand (this also helps you retain the information).

Promote good writing skills

Clear, concise written communication is essential to working remotely, because of the increased reliance on email and instant message channels. Without non-verbal cues to help, writing becomes disembodied words. Some jobs don’t require mastery in this area, but any job that requires a good deal of collaboration and back-and-forth communication does.

As you write, keep in mind the entire communication process. That is, you know what you are writing about, but the reader does not. They may know about the context, but if they already knew your specific message, you wouldn’t need to communicate it. To promote clarity, think of your writing as a map or guide to reach the message. For example, instead of just writing, “We need to move up our timeline,” share a little of the thought process you used to reach that conclusion. You might write, “Since the holidays are so near and our product makes a great stocking stuffer, I think we should move up our timeline.”

Don’t forget the water cooler

As you transition your communication processes and platforms from onsite to remote, make sure to include informal communication — if a lot of in-office communication happens around the water cooler, for example, you’ll want to account for that in your remote setup. At PeopleG2 we have a water cooler chat room in Slack so that any employee can pop in to share  an idea or issue.

As my coauthor Kim Shepherd and I argue in Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce, success in all aspects of remote and hybrid work requires a deliberate, thoughtful approach. Communication is no exception. Invest even a modest amount of time in ensuring you have solid tools and practices in place, and you will see positive results.

References For Remote Work Communications

Dyer, C and Shepherd, K (2021) Remote Work: Redesign processes, practices and strategies to engage a remote workforce. Kogan Page, London.

Martins, A. (2020) Tips on How to Avoid ‘Zoom Burnout,” Business News Daily, 3 June. Available from: https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/15728-zoom-burnout.html [Last accessed November 23, 2021]

Mehrabian, A (2007) Nonverbal communication. Routledge, Oxfordshire