The transition to remote work was, in the beginning, all about flattening the COVID-19 curve. Now, it appears that even once we are out of the pandemic, the work-flex model will continue in large part.
According to HR consulting firm Mercer, 83 percent of the 800 employers surveyed said that they would continue allowing employees to work remotely. One reason for this is that the vast majority of businesses reported no loss in productivity as a result of flex work policies.
We should point out that not all workers have the luxury of working from their homes. Most work-from-home employees are white-collar workers, everyone from media and marketing folks to sales reps, government workers, teachers and educational administrators, and information services.
To thrive in this “new normal,” employees at all levels of an organization, but especially team leaders and managers, will need enhanced communication skills. This requires building a structure for remote team communication.
Here are nine remote team communication strategies for improving remote communication with and among your employees.
1. Establish Expectations
Establishing ground rules for remote team communication will help pave the way for better employee communication. After all, if employees couldn’t read your mind at the office, they certainly won’t be able to from the distance of their home. Make your expectations clear and specific and set the right tone, so all employees are on the same page when it comes to remote team communication:
- When will meetings take place?
- What modes of communication should be used to convey different types of information?
- What technology will be used?
- How should urgent matters be communicated?
- Will there be time set aside for informal conversation – and if so, when?
2. Talk About COVID-19
No use ignoring the elephant in the room: Every employee’s life has been impacted by COVID-19, some more than others. Employees want and need to talk about it. Most everyone has to multitask. More seasoned employees could be caring for aging parents, while millennials are likely to have an active family life with young children.
According to the Gallup Poll, remote employees have core emotional needs, which managers should always keep in the back of their mind: trust, stability, compassion, and hope. Even if your employees have not tested positive for COVID-19, it doesn’t mean they have not been affected by the pandemic. Fear of the unknown – what will the future bring and how will it affect their job security and the health of their family? – can cause anxiety and even depression.
What can team leaders do? Reach out to your team and to individual employees to offer support. Ask them, “How is this transition working out for you?” Be authentic and they will be authentic back to you. On the other hand, be careful not to let remote team communication deteriorate into a complaining convention. Acknowledge the pain points, but always conclude on an optimistic note.
When your team worked at the office, you probably assumed that most everyone was informed and in the loop. If someone missed an important memo, they would have found out about it during lunch with their coworkers or around the water cooler. With remote employees, you can’t assume everyone is up to date. If employees start to feel that they’re out of mind just because they’re out of sight, their engagement and enthusiasm for the job will diminish over time.
The solution is over-communicating. One of the most effective remote team communication strategies is to simply send out a weekly update that celebrates accomplishments and previews upcoming goals. When reviewing a project with a team member, assume at the outset that you’re not on the same page. It may seem like you’re repeating yourself, but taking the time to provide a remote team member with all the necessary information will reduce confusion among your employees and pay dividends down the road.
Make it a habit to touch base with your remote employees at least once every day – and depending on company size, you may want to consider leadership meetings once a week as your check-in. Just remember, though, that there is a difference between reaching out to support your team members as opposed to micromanaging them.
4. Leverage Technology and Social Media
Imagine what remote communication must have looked like pre-Internet. But now, because of the cloud and the obvious growth of Internet culture, companies can share information with employees anywhere, anytime. Younger employees who grew up on technology have quickly embraced the freedom and flexibility that remote work affords them. Millennials and the even younger members of Generation Z move easily from one device to another, utilizing the cloud, video conferencing, mobile apps, and chat. Collaboration tools like content management and project management platforms, as well as synchronized document sharing, can enhance employee communication and help bridge the remote divide.
At the same time, it’s important for team leaders to acknowledge that all employees are not from the same generational cohort and may have different communication preferences and comfort zones with technology.
In an ideal world, managers would have all the right tools in place before transitioning to remote work. But as we know, COVID-19 didn’t give companies much time to prepare; many managers are still playing catchup as they try to build a communication structure that works for remote employees. If you are not sure what tools and technologies are right for your team, a good place to start is by asking employees about their needs.
When companies invest in tools and technology that improve employee communication and engagement – like content management systems and online employee training – their return on investment is significant.
5. Match Your Communication Mode with Your Purpose
Some communication channels and methods are more appropriate than others, depending on the situation. It’s important to align the mode of communication with the purpose of the communication. In-person communication, for example, relies on nonverbal conversational cues; it’s not difficult to tell if one of your team members is stressed out or unhappy when in-person. When you’re communicating by text, however, context and tone are missing, and this can cause confusion.
To improve remote-based employee communication, team leaders should evaluate each communication opportunity on a case-by-case basis, and choose the mode of communication that is least likely to cause confusion or misinterpretation. When urgent issues arise, it might seem faster to send out an email or text, but what you gain in speed you may lose in comprehension. Instead, try bringing your team together for a quick video or conference call.
If you have a quick question for an employee, an instant message is appropriate. Informal and less urgent information can also be conveyed via project management and collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack, or Basecamp. If you need to delve deeper into an issue, a one-on-one video call is effective. A video conference is also the right mode of communication if your purpose is to encourage social interaction and create a greater sense of connectedness among your team members.
6. Listen Better
More than half of good communication is listening and ensuring your team members feel heard. Listening has always been an important skill, but it has taken on a newfound importance in the wake of COVID-19 and the transition to remote working.
There are different ways to listen. Some organizations do their listening by sending out a survey, but real listening works best with a rich, deep, and open-ended conversation. Active, empathetic listening can help your team members feel like they’re part of the team and less alone. But keep in mind that when employees open up to you about their needs and challenges, they expect to see follow-up action taken to address the issue. When it’s not, their engagement in their job takes a big hit.
7. Emphasize Accessible Online Employee Training
Online employee training should be available and accessible to employees via mobile device. Companies that invest in employee training systems, especially for remote workers, will see improvements in employee engagement and a significant return on investment.
8. Lead with a Story
Buzzwords, spreadsheets, and data points all have their time and place. However, if your goal is to improve how remote employees communicate – not to mention comprehend and retain information – then it’s time to learn the art and science of storytelling.
What kinds of stories should leaders tell to enhance remote team communication? Stories that demonstrate compassion, explain work culture, reduce fear, instill confidence, and show a way forward for your organization. We’re not talking War and Peace, but a tight, one- to two-minute story where your organization or employees are the hero.
A good story has a structure: It starts with a protagonist/hero (an employee or company) who faced a problem or opportunity. The story shows how they solved the problem or met the challenge, who helped them along the way, what the outcome was, and how the journey or experience changed them or taught them a lesson.
Here are four stories that all team leaders should have in their story quiver:
- Stability Stories
Leaders need to tell stories that show resilience and stability. How has your company – and the CEO specifically – dealt with and overcome challenges in the past? What were the lessons that the company took away from those experiences?
- Empathy Stories
The point of an empathy story is to show employees that your company understands what they are going through: “We are with you. We’re going through it together.” Tell the story of a current or past employee (with their permission, of course) who suffered setbacks, such as the loss of a loved one, and how the company supported them until they were able to return to work. Ultimately, empathy stories are stories of hope.
- Trust Stories
A story that shows vulnerability and authenticity will show other employees that it is okay to be open with their feelings. Being open and candid with team members helps build trust. But don’t overdo it. Too much authenticity can lead to negativity. Trust is important but maintaining employees’ hope and optimism is just as important.
- Future Stories
Future stories are stories of hope. Tell a story that helps your team visualize a better future. Though it may seem counterintuitive, you actually tell a future story by telling a story about the past – how your company, for example, dealt with the 2008 recession, made adjustments, and paved the way for a brighter future.
Use every opportunity – in one-on-ones, in videoconferences, and in group emails – to share these stories. And once you do, watch other members of the team join in and start to share or swap their stories – that’s a healthy sign that it’s working.
9. Optimize Communication in Meetings
The extroverts in your company won’t have any problem giving their two cents. But if you want to optimize communication in your next video conference, make a point to pull out the introverts so they participate and feel a sense of belonging. We are social animals after all, and prolonged loneliness takes a toll. Employees who feel they don’t belong or who have low engagement or poor morale may end up leaving your company. Keep an eye on them!
Having an agenda to keep you on track is very important, but don’t forget to put time aside for friendly banter and chit chat among the team. Improve employee communication by using aides like virtual sticky notes and whiteboards to brainstorm and express ideas. At the close of every meeting, restate what was discussed and agreed upon, then send out a recap or recording of the meeting so employees who weren’t present can get up to speed.
And while team meetings are a good opportunity to communicate information, don’t forget to schedule one-on-one video conferences with each member of your team. Unhurried face time with a manager is always important, especially for remote employees.
Employee communication should promote trust, transparency, and stability while offering compassion and hope. Once implemented, these remote team communication strategies become part of a new workplace culture that is not only more flexible and convenient for employees, but also more productive.
Gary Valkenburg; CEO and founder of World Manager; a platform to allow every CEO to train, track and communicate with employees, plus control company compliance nationally and globally.