Remote workers need more communication
I’ve worked from home for 11 years, and I have a few ideas about office communication in a world where there are no offices.
I’m talking about the basic “good morning” you exchange with your boss or co-workers; the “what are you working on today?” or “how are you doing on that project?” and even “hey, does anyone know how to spell ‘archipelago?’” (There’s no one here to talk with, and I had to look it up myself.)
It’s going to take a while to get it right.
When you work in a building with other folks, you get to know them. You get to learn more about your business outside of your own silo. The resulting collegial atmosphere makes it easier to get things done.
The Pain of a Long-Distance Relationship
Like a long-distance romantic relationship — communicating in a remote work environment is possible, but it’s difficult. In fact, it’s damn hard.
It’s easy to greet a fellow employee as you walk into the office in the morning. It’s easy to drop by a co-worker’s cubicle and ask a question, or to see that you’ll have to wait because the other person is on the phone. It’s easy for the boss to pop out of the office and gather everybody for a quick project update.
In a remote environment, a simple “good morning,” isn’t so simple. Do you send an email or use work chat? Do you say “hi” to everyone at once or individually? What if they don’t respond right away, thus delaying the gratification you feel when somebody replies in kind?
Phone, Text, Chat or Email? Oh My …
If you’ve got a question for the boss or a co-worker, first you have to determine how quickly you need the answer. If it’s not urgent, maybe an email will suffice (but you’ll still be checking for a quick response). If it is urgent, do you send a text? Use work chat? Try to use your mobile device as an actual telephone and call?
In all of those cases, you don’t know whether you’ll get a timely response. And what if you don’t? Do you ask somebody else? It gets complicated, right?
And conference calls or video meetings? They’re still a nightmare. And they’re a pain to schedule. You’ve got to open the software, fill in the date and time, then make sure everyone that needs to get an invitation actually gets one. (“Is Joe here? I’m sure I sent him an invite. Could somebody please text Joe?”)
Are these technical issues or people issues? Both. But it starts with people.
The Boss Will Talk to You Now
My favorite horror story is about an executive who professed an open door policy and eagerness to talk with employees about anything. But she also let everyone know that she was extraordinarily busy, often got behind on emails and would they please add questions to a Google spreadsheet? Uh, no. Don’t want to bother you, boss.
It sucks being in a work relationship with managers you never speak with. Imagine going a couple weeks without speaking to your boss. Yeah, sounds like heaven, but it’s not. At least not for me.
If I’m working for you, I want to know how I’m doing. Are you satisfied with the work? Are there things I should do differently? Was our customer satisfied with the work? As a manager, if you’re satisfied with someone’s work, don’t assume that person knows it. In a virtual work environment, and a physical one, too, managers tend to focus on employees who need to improve. Productive employees are left to their own devices.
You’re OK If I Don’t Say Anything
I’ve been guilty of that. As an editor, my job was to be a critic, to look for errors, flaws and things to improve. When a well-written piece crossed my desk, I often sighed in relief and then spent more energy and time on the stuff that needed work. The weak work got the attention while the strong work passed by, appreciated but not necessarily acknowledged.
In a virtual work environment, it’s more important than ever to schedule regular, one-on-one conversations by phone or a video chat software like Zoom, Facebook’s Facetime, Google Duo or Skype.
Talk to Me Every Day
These daily calls don’t have to be any more elaborate than “how are you today?” and “what are you working on?” You can even set a time limit — five minutes should be enough unless there are some other pressing matters or assignments to discuss. Make the calls even if you don’t have anything to talk about. And make the calls to all of your direct reports.
As a manager or an employee, it might seem like a pain in the ass to add a daily call when everybody is busy. But isn’t there a benefit in even a regular exchange of pleasantries and office news? As a manager, isn’t it worth it to say “hello” to employees you care about and want to do well?
Make sure your work-at-home employees know that even though they are out of sight, they are not out of mind.
This article in Harvard Business Review has more information about issues remote workers face and how managers can respond.