With stay-at-home orders affecting nearly all of the country, many of us have been forced into a work-from-home situation that relies on technology to stay in touch with our coworkers. And if you’re not used to remote work, having to email, direct message or video conference all the time requires a bit of a learning curve — especially if you thrive on face-to-face communication.
Whether you’re part of a team or leading one that’s entirely remote, here are some tips on how to communicate effectively while working from home so that the transition from office to living room goes a bit smoother.
ADJUST HOW YOU INTERACT IN VIRTUAL MEETINGS
Scheduled meetings provide some workplace normalcy, but technology blips and interrupting kids can make for awkwardness.
To make things run smoothly, start by being inclusive. “It can be difficult for everyone’s voice to be heard in online meetings because you’re unable to see body language cues, like when someone is beginning to speak,” says Kady Dundas, senior director of product marketing at Microsoft Teams, a platform that facilitates digital communication. “To ensure everyone’s opinions are being heard, periodically pause to let attendees share their contributions and to see if the group has questions.” Some platforms, including Teams, have features where people can click a button to “raise their hand” to signal that they wish to speak.
To make the meeting feel more like an in-person conversation, use video. When attendees are visible on screen, everyone feels like part of the conversation. Seeing your teammates can also create a more personal connection, which is particularly helpful if you are working on a creative or strategic project, or trying to work through a tough business problem.
Whatever the format of your meeting, distractions are a productivity killer, so find a quiet location if you can. Limit background noise by muting your audio when you aren’t speaking.
RESPECT YOUR EMPLOYEES AND THEIR TIME
If you’re a manager, it’s important to validate the fact that this is a challenging time for everyone. Make it clear to your team that you will support them, and then outline what needs to get done and acknowledge what won’t.
“We often try to pack too much into short meetings, which can make it difficult to have meaningful conversations,” Dundas says. To combat this, a list of discussion points ensures the conversation stays on topic, which is crucial when everyone is pressed for time and working on varying schedules. “Be thoughtful about the agenda and do your best to stick to it,” Dundas says. “If we don’t get through everything, I try to follow up with the group to check for additional insights. It’s an easy way to ensure everyone’s voices are heard and to make decisions that allow the team to move forward.”
It's also important to remember that everyone has a unique situation at home, and some of your employees may require additional flexibility. “Ask for clarity on when people will be available and when they won’t,” Dundas says. “Several people on my team split child care responsibilities with a partner and have established set ‘available hours.’ This lets the rest of the team know when we can expect a real-time response.”
HAVE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS OVER VIDEO
Many businesses are being forced to have difficult conversations, not only with employees, but with customers and clients as well. For companies that depend on social and client relationships, these conversations — while unavoidable — should be dealt with head-on, even when working from home.
“While I prefer to have difficult conversations face to face, we don’t have that luxury right now,” says Ali Grant, founder of digital communications firm Be Social. “My advice is to pick up the phone or request a video conference and be fully transparent about the conversation you’re having. We all know we’re going through a global pandemic and everyone is getting hit hard, so make sure you lead your communication with compassion.”
While having these types of conversations over video can be uncomfortable, doing so shows that you care and humanizes the interaction. “You’re also able to set the appropriate context, which can be lost in an email, chat or phone conversation,” Dundas said.
KEEP UP WITH YOUR OFFICE CULTURE
If your office culture is a social one, don’t limit your engagement to work hours. Dundas’ team schedules extracurricular meetings, too. “Because body language and facial expressions play such a huge role in communication, it’s been a game-changer to have video lunches and happy hours the same way we used to do them in person.”