If you've found communicating with your manager or your team harder while working from home, you're not alone.
Communicating remotely is more difficult than communicating in-person, managers and employees both agree. In fact, our research shows that’s one of the only things they see eye-to-eye about right now!
That’s an issue, because effective communication is the lifeblood of an engaged, productive team and workforce. (And it’s even more of an issue if you’ve hired recently, because new hires need even better communication to onboard them into your business successfully.)
In this article, we’ll unpick six hurdles that make remote communication difficult along with practical steps to overcome them, to get your remote teams communicating as seamlessly as they do in the office.
1 – Infrequent manager availability
When we surveyed 3,000 employees, many said their managers were too busy; it’s too hard to find time to talk. Some said they felt awkward scheduling formal catch-ups and guilty for adding to managers’ workload.
That’s a big problem.
As we’ve said oodles of times, managers are overwhelmingly responsible for their team’s engagement, retention and productivity. (That’s how come great managers deliver 48% higher profit to the business than average managers.)
Managers aren’t actually busier than normal, our research showed. In fact, 45% say their workloads have decreased during the pandemic. That means it’s really a scheduling issue, not an availability issue.
Managers need to make themselves accessible and publish their availability for their team. Shared calendars can be a great option, or scheduling apps that allow bookings to be made direct to calendar (like you might already use for customers).
Schedule a recurring, regular catch-up for the team, so the onus isn’t always on employees to book time. (Our research shows almost a quarter of employees only have catch-ups if they request them – which is a great way to make your people feel they’re a burden).
When it comes to meetings, there is such a thing as too much order...and it can be restricting. If you're a manager who always books in meetings with a set agenda, start including unstructured time too so employees have space to ask anything that's on their mind.
2 – Lack of immediacy
In the office, close physical proximity means communication is much more immediate. If Abby hits a roadblock that’s slowing her down, she can walk across the office and grab someone.
You might not have realised until this crisis, how much your team relies on immediacy to get things done. Right now, when Anna hits a roadblock, she might not know where to turn.
Maybe she feels silly emailing, so she ends up wastes an hour researching workarounds. Or she does email, but then she’s stuck waiting for a reply that could take hours, if not days.
And her email recipient has yet another email to wade through. Not ideal given 83% of remote workers feel overwhelmed by email, according to the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM).
Multiply Anna’s experience across the whole team, and before long you’ve got a major productivity problem.
No one tool can be the ultimate, go-to for remote communication. Zoom is great – and let’s face it, every business in the country is probably using Zoom or equivalent at the moment.
But it’s not immediate. It’s a meeting. You don’t expect your people to wait until meetings to raise issues in the office – so don’t do the same virtually.
Likewise, email is great for sending lots of non-urgent information. But not so great for creative collaboration.
You need tools that replicate the ‘walk across the office and grab someone’ process – like Slack, or some other instant messaging tool. Encourage a culture of communication beyond serious 'let’s-get-down-to-business' meetings.
3 – Miscommunication
Depending who you listen to, somewhere between 70% and 93% of communication is non-verbal. That’s things like facial expressions, body language and eye contact.
Say you’re telling Janey you really need her slides for the deck by 4pm.
In the office, she can tell from your rueful look you know you’re asking a lot; from how you’re leaning in conspiratorially towards her that you’re on her side. She works that little bit harder to make it happen, because she knows you’re under pressure from the top.
But remotely, she has no context. She gets your email and is frustrated you’ve shifted the goal posts. She feels unappreciated – don’t you know how hard she’s already working? It’s you versus her, rather than you and her versus the challenge. So she makes no extra effort – why should she, when you’re being entitled and unempathetic?
ILM’s finding that 88% of remote workers struggle with miscommunication comes as no surprise, then. There’s scope for a million-and-one miscommunications like Janey’s when you’re communicating remotely. And each one threatens productivity, team cohesion and morale.
Overcommunicate, and promote over-communication in your team. It's impossible to be too clear and very easy not to be clear enough. Translate the nuances you’d normally convey non-verbally into verbal cues.
And sharing your context is crucial, says Trello. That is, letting team members know what’s going on for you, so they don’t make damaging assumptions.
Like thinking you’re being curt because you’re annoyed, rather than knowing you’re replying quickly because your daughter’s about to drop into overload because its snack-time.
Managers should encourage their team to raise and resolve issues openly - and be prepared to mediate if needed. Small problems can fast become big resentments if they’re supressed to keep the peace.
4 – Unclear expectations
When you’re communicating remotely, expectations and objectives can get lost in translation.
Especially during upheaval like this, when employees might be unusually unsure about their role and responsibilities. Especially if you’ve had new hires starting remotely, who’re even more unsure where they slot into the picture.
Read more: Remote onboarding 101
These uncertainties cause anxiety - ILM say 88% of remote workers struggle with inconsistent working practices, for example.
They also threaten productivity, as the chain of accountability’s more likely to break down. Who’s doing what, when? Who’s waiting on what? What’s the process to move forward?
It only takes one person to be unclear about the answers to those questions, and the entire chain breaks down. The project stalls; frustration flares; anxiety spirals. And in the case of new hires, maybe they join the 20% who resign within their first 45-days.
Create a master project plan that everyone has access to. Project management tools are the fastest, easiest way to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Increasing transparency means increasing accountability, empowering better collaboration and accelerating productivity.
Set clear expectations of behaviour, both at manager and HR level. Tell employees how to navigate this ‘new normal’.
- Should they dress smart for work calls?
- Do you expect them on email from 8.30am?
- What time should they take lunch? Breaks?
- How fast should they response to team emails?
And managers need to go the extra mile for new hires, who likely need more support than usual. (And if you’re a regular Enboarder reader, you’ll know new hires already need loads of support!)
5 – Technical problems
We’ve all been there.
You have a half-hour meeting at 4pm, but then Charlie can’t log-in, Lee can’t get his microphone working, Zoe got the time-zone muddled and Wissam can’t work out how to share his screen. Meanwhile Ellie’s twiddling her thumbs and getting increasingly frustrated. And then, by the time you’re all online, Matt’s got to dash for another meeting.
Technical problems with remote communication hamper productivity and cause frustration. Especially amongst younger, tech-savvy, workers, our research showed.
First, get your team using the right tools. If your business didn’t work remotely before COVID-19, you’re unlikely to be set-up optimally. Budget’s may be tight right now but scrimping on communication tools is a false economy.
Ask your people what they need.
Second, ensure everyone’s got the skills to use the tools. Don’t make assumptions; ‘obvious’ isn’t always. Pair tech-savvy team members with their not-so-savvy counterparts – it’s a double-whammy, encouraging camaraderie and accelerating competence.
6 – Lack of connection
If this stint of stuck-at-home has shown us anything, it’s that we’re social animals and bonding is way easier in-person. Lack of face-to-face communication can quickly erode trust and disintegrate connection, which ultimately corrodes culture and threatens loyalty.
Long-term, that’s not good. You could be on the losing side of the redistribution of talent we reckon we’ll see post COVID-19. And at the least, it’ll mean a longer road to business recovery.
Look for opportunities to recreate your office culture online. Could you hold mid-morning virtual tea breaks, for example? If you normally have a free drinks fridge, could you give employees a small beer fund? Small gestures can have a big impact.
One-to-one facetime is the best antidote to eroding trust and it's vital that managers build personal connection with their team (it's the foundation for engagement, productivity and retention).
Make sure you're scheduling one-on-ones, as well as group time, so nobody falls through the gaps. Worryingly, our research shows this isn’t happening nearly as much as it should - 18% of employees say they never have one-to-one time with their manager.💡
Effective communication is crucial for remote teams, both for short-term performance and long-term team health. And our research shows, it’s also the biggest struggle. Download the full report now, to understand how you can best support your people right now.