Communication Challenges of Remote Work and How to Fix Them
Does remote work increase productivity? Many studies say yes, and others say no.
So which is it?
Well, it turns out, it depends on the type of work you’re doing. Jerry Useem wrote in The Atlantic:
If it’s personal productivity—how many sales you close or customer complaints you handle—then the research, on balance, suggests that it’s probably better to let people work where and when they want. For jobs that mainly require interactions with clients (consultant, insurance salesman) or don’t require much interaction at all (columnist), the office has little to offer besides interruption.
But other types of work hinge on what might be called “collaborative efficiency”—the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is—for the moment, anyway—still the office.
This is important to remember.
Making all team members virtual, or just giving everyone an allotment of remote work time is ineffective.
The ideal arrangement depends on how much face-to-face communication is needed for the best results.
Our brain is evolved to read and respond to other humans in person, in real time.
Our peripheral vision helps us notice subtle social dynamics in a room.
We also pick up and send out nonverbal cues, which facilitates greater communication.
Our vocal tonality, facial expressions and hand gestures all add extra information to our verbal communication.
All of these effects are curtailed in a remote, virtual setting.
Even a live video of someone will not provide as much information to our brains as conversing with them in the real world.
As a result, collaboration slows down, creativity slows down and productivity falls.
The solution is to over-communicate
What counts as “over-communicating” in the real world may be “just enough communication to get things done” in the world of remote work.
What does over-communication look like? Here are some examples:
- Asking lots of questions of remote meeting participants to keep them engaged.
- Checking in frequently with everyone to make sure they are on the same page.
- Giving lots of details and background information (don’t assume they know what you know).
- Using as many communication channels as possible: from project management apps, to video conferencing, email, file sharing, phone conferencing, and social media messaging.
- Making yourself available across as many channels as possible.
- Repeating your message multiple times across multiple channels.
- Hosting regular and frequent phone or video calls with the team.
These tactics are especially important for remote work that is collaborative and creative.