According to research done by Forbes, an online study in April found that over 62% of Americans who are permanently employed were forced to work at home due to the pandemic.
To put this into perspective, it is a number that had doubled from March. This has resulted in some unique challenges that people now had to face, whether they wanted to or not – miscommunication namely.
Virtual communication in the workplace can be an extremely frustrating challenge to many people. This has been even more so true in recent months due to the pandemic. People in all positions have experienced some sort of frustration in trying to communicate virtually for work.
People have had to learn to adapt and be more intentional in their communication. This means that people have had to think more about what they need to say versus what they want to or normally would. People have also had more time to think about what they need to talk about virtually.
This is known as asynchronous communication. What is asynchronous communication exactly? It is simply communication where the people communicating have time to prepare their dialogue – kind of like an email or voice note. Something which almost 60% of American workers use daily.
What Exactly Is the Problem with Remote Communication?
The data is quite clear, remote employees, managers and founders all struggle with virtual communication in the workplace. But what is the issue exactly? Some of the most common problems of remote communication include:
- Not being heard or listened to in meetings as a remote team member – meaning there is less influence than compared to co-located members
- Communicating across different time zones that vary greatly
- Staying in the loop on what is currently happening within the company
- Not getting as quick replies to questions and help with problems as would be possible in the office physically
- Not being able to have casual conversations with fellow team members
In the following sections, we will introduce and explain the three main pillars of remote communication. We have extracted this information and put it together by talking with some leading remote teams.
As the name suggests, these are three pillars which are all equally necessary for remote communication to succeed in any way or form. These three pillars are actually the best communication tools for business. Let’s begin.
Pillar 1: Asynchronous Communication
The biggest chunk of your communication should happen async. What does that mean exactly? Let's do so by starting at the other end of the spectrum - synchronous communication. Synchronous communication describes literally anything where a message is received roughly at the same time as it is sent.
Good examples of this form of communication are a phone call, a video conference or an in-person meeting. These are all synchronous, and do include the instant messaging forms of social media like Slack – if used correctly that is. Anything that expects a receiver to respond as soon as is possible can be considered a synchronous communication tool.
A Proper Definition of Asynchronous Communication
On the other hand, asynchronous communication does not expect the receiver to respond directly. Ideally, it doesn't even trigger a notification or create a feeling of urgency. A great example is email as we said above, but Slack can also be considered – if its notifications are turned off.
Email mainly relies on people not being expected to reply right away. With the rise of remote work, more asynchronous tools are popping up too, like Doist's Twist. Like with most things, this is a mindset change rather than a toolkit change.
Embracing asynchronous communication as the main way of communication (face-to-face meetings and calls are inevitable at some point, just not as the main form of communication) means empowering your employees.
It empowers them to work at any time in which they feel productive. This can be when others are not awake and can help with remote communication across any time zone. This helps in keeping everyone in the loop no matter where they are.
Is Asynchronous Communication Effective?
It is reported by the good folks at TechSmith that over 40% of people consider emails as a means of effective form of virtual communication in the workplace. This should indicate to anyone reading that people need help in understanding how to better utilize the different forms of asynchronous communication.
Current search engine trends have shown search results like discussion tools or virtual communication tools where people understand that they are missing out on some key point. And they are realizing that they can use tech platforms to bridge the gap.
Using Technology to Bridge the Gap: Slack
One of the best platforms out there is Slack. It helps to seamlessly reduce the amount of communication that deters from actually getting the point across. It allows for public or private chat groups that help with specific projects or departments within the company.
What also makes it great is its ability to integrate with other social media platforms. One can also use the dropbox feature to transfer large files quickly and safely. There is a pricing plan, but if it is going to be used extensively, it is well worth the price.
Pillar 2: Remote-First
We talked about remote-first before in a previous article, but even if your company is not remote-first (meaning that a larger part of the company works from a co-located office), your communication should be.
Most, if not all, company-related discussion and communication should be publicly readable and not happen only amongst co-located team members. This helps to keep everyone within the information loop and can help prevent any potential issues down the line. Prevention is better than cure.
How To Conduct Remote-First: a Virtual Communication Checklist
Conducting your communication remote-first in practice usually means the following:
- Putting all major discussions on a medium that remote employees can read and preferably also participate in whenever necessary.
- Documenting and summarizing in-person brainstorm sessions with references to specifics
- Leaving time after longer threads for remote employees to get up to speed and reply before taking any measures that would influence them or have them be part of it
- Recording or avoiding all spontaneous meetings that can happen. Preferable to record them as this could leverage certain situations unfairly to remote workers.
- Creating a level playing field for all employees in face-to-face meetings so they can participate equally with their remote counterparts
- No large meeting rooms with 3+ co-located members who can attend. Keep things small on purpose
- Preferably have all members joining on their own device that is either subsidized by the company or allowing private devices
- Leaving enough time for everyone to have a word (receiving, realizing, unmuting, speaking can often take 3-4 seconds). This is just to create a standard remote meeting etiquette
- Idea exchange, strategy planning and key decisions only on async communication
- If remote employees are part of higher-level decisions, always conduct discussions on an async medium that allows for time to process the information and make for better decisions
- Do not allow co-located team members to have a higher influence than those who are remote as this can cause unnecessary friction and could cause serious issues
- Problems, discussions and outcomes need to be documented and put on a platform in which they can be referenced properly.
Part of this is also being mindful and aware of the working situations of others – being courteous. Make sure to not call meetings that work only in your time zone and assume that others are okay with being up late or getting up early. Or, if you do so, don't be surprised if they don’t show up. This does of course not include any emergencies, but rather a general day to day working practice.
Try to create a working environment that takes in account the fact that people could be taking time off from their work. And don't expect them to reply just because they are still at home in the same general area where they now work.
Pick Your Virtual Team Communication Tools Wisely
This is very important as it can help remedy some issues like how to have meetings that incorporate everyone. For example, if you have a platform where everyone knows that any information discussed on the platform will be taken into consideration for any decisions. Anything discussed out of that would be invalid.
This would then allow co-located members to realize that they have to incorporate remote members just as much as themselves. This will increase the awareness that others have of other’s working conditions.
In a survey conducted by TechSmith, it showed that 44% of survey respondents said communication barriers led to a delay or failure to complete projects, 31% cited low morale, 25% missed performance goals, and 18% lost sales. This shows just how important it is to incorporate the right tech platform to ensure clear communication. If not done, it could be to the detriment of the company.
Pillar 3: Being Completely Comprehensive
The two prior pillars we have gone through do not work if the last and third pillar is not implemented. The third pillar is all about giving comprehensive and possibly even exhaustive replies.
Remote communication cannot work if individual replies lack any substance and need clarification constantly. Always assuming that you'll only receive a reply in 8+ hours, you will need to make sure that every single reply counts. When a person waits that long for a reply, it has to be complete and even answer future questions that could arise before they do. That is how comprehensive it must be.
Even synchronous communication like video conferences or instant messaging can not work with remote employees if the individual responses lack important details. Not only will it waste everybody’s time, but it also makes it incredibly hard to communicate. What is the point of messaging or calling if nothing of value is added. Purpose is the key to being comprehensive.
How To Be Comprehensively Purposeful
Here are some measures that can be used to ensure that your messages are comprehensive:
- If drafting an asynchronous message like an email or discussion board message, don't be scared to make it overly long. Include as much detail as possible in each of your messages. That way you can be sure that people will have no excuse as to why they didn’t get the purpose of the message. Be sure you did everything well on your side.
- Before calling in a meeting, make sure you know what to talk about. Do not call in a 30 min+ meeting for the sake of having a scheduled meeting. Be sure that you can fill it with usable content. Don't be scared to keep a meeting 15 minutes or under.
- As someone calling in a meeting, make sure to moderate it too. Move longer discussions to another medium or create another meeting to address that.
- Be sure to create a meeting schedule and keep to it! This is vital in ensuring the correct flow of the meeting. A person can also hand out the schedule beforehand and allow everyone to go through it. This should prevent any surprises.
- Casual conversations are okay, but don't keep your remote employees at night to talk about the weather. It can be inconsiderate to keep them up longer than necessary. It does go without saying that if people want to stay on and engage further, let it happen if it doesn’t affect work.
- Prevent getting into fired up conversations on instant messengers. It's incredibly difficult to get up to speed the morning after and is still considered unprofessional as people can say things online that they wouldn’t otherwise in public.
- Should things get heated, make use of emojis and proper punctuation. It might sound odd, but it can be incredibly helpful for the people on the other end of the line to figure out what you mean.
- Be sure that if things get out of hand to leave the messaging medium. It is considered a workplace and anyone that steps out of line can be called in for disciplinary hearings. And in situations like this it is a lot easier for HR to see who said what as it is all written down.
- Double-check your messages for proper grammar, punctuation and tone. They way you type a message can be seen very differently to how you would say it.
Concluding Thoughts on Remote Communication
Remote communication has been shown to increase production output. However, it may not be for the reasons that you think. A survey from TechSmith has shown that production increased by 13%, but 9% of the 13% was due to the fact that people actually spent more time than their allocated shift to do work.
This is not quite right and should be communicated properly. We have discussed in this article how to prevent situations like this. As this can cause a person to burn out or develop feelings of resentment about their company.
Remote communication is a two-way path, people from both sides of the spectrum need to take the other side into consideration. This is done by being clear in both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Some points may need to be emphasized by repeating and should not be used as grounds for complaints.
As the last few years have shown, there are several technology platforms that could be used to help companies of any size to integrate their in-house teams with their remote teams. This will help to bring about cohesiveness and ensure that the company can be successful. And a company can only be so successful thanks to its employees. The better they communicate; the better things will be.
The three pillars of remote communication are an ongoing work in progress and may change a little bit over time. However, it is at this point as a result of surveying and talking to over 100 remote team members, managers and founders about remote communication. The results of that were then boiled down into 3 concrete points. If you have any additions or comments, let us know at @nohq on Twitter.