We’ve heard the term, “unprecedented times” so often in recent months that we’re all totally over it, but it is true: even if we’ve experienced a crisis before, we haven’t experienced an event exactly like this, and none of us all have all the answers.
Still, our work requires us to come together and collaborate each day. In this “new normal,” that means communicating with a wide array of digital tools. We’re being asked to employ these tools as efficiently, productively, and seamlessly as possible in lieu of in-person contact.
For the most part, we actually have been dominating the virtual meeting game, but if something still feels off with your team’s communication, you’re not alone.
Let’s start by recognizing that while the new normal presents challenges in workplace communication, it also provides opportunities. Learn how to identify these and make the most of any remote work arrangement with the following tips for effective workplace conversation:
1. Consider what the word “unprecedented” really means — and not just from your perspective.
Your team members are struggling to maintain a functional workflow amid countless changes at home. Beyond the universal strain of childcare, limited workspace, and constant distraction, everyone is facing unique personal challenges, too.
Show your support by plugging into your empathy at the beginning of each interaction. Rather than broaching personal subjects in conversation, though, you can let team members know you’re here for them with actions.
That means allowing a little extra time, patience, and understanding within collaborative work projects; it means considering whether a themed meeting might add more stress or be less inclusive for some of your colleagues. You don’t have to restructure your entire process or plans for spirit week, but try to be more fluid when setting and communicating expectations — both with colleagues and yourself.
2. Don’t use the screen as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations.
It’s easy to think that tabling small problems for now will help everyone get through this time more quickly and easily, but in reality, it rarely works out that way.
We already know that overlooking conflict leads to resentment, and while working remotely, team members may be even more likely to assume or make judgments that lead to conflict. That’s because we’re feeling more isolated than usual, as digital communication makes it harder to recognize another person’s intent.
Luckily, remote communication also provides new opportunities for conflict resolution. Because you have multiple means of connection available, and less time in larger groups, you may feel more confident to speak your piece before it leads to a bigger issue. Plus, most team members will understand the importance of human connection during this time, and be more eager to work to maintain trust as a result.
3. Every form of communication comes with benefits and drawbacks, but none can replace face-to-face conversation.
Keep this in mind as you communicate through your team’s chat, phone, video, and email channels and be willing to switch to another when one no longer feels productive.
For example, we tend to over-explain in text. Without voice tone, this can come off as corrective or condescending. Whenever one side of the conversation becomes unproductive (in this case: with multiple questions or one-word answers on the other end), try changing the medium.
Switching to video or phone in stagnant moments can save time and frustration for all parties involved. Make sure you let others know you think you can express yourself better with a different medium, then ask if they’d be willing to change.
4. Don’t forget to keep it casual — at least for a little while.
Video conferencing makes presenters/speakers feel on-the-spot, so they’re likely to rush forward to their core point of the meeting. This may sound efficient, but it’s just another way in which remote work can take the humanity out of our day-to-day operations.
Before we worked remotely, we rarely began a meeting without checking in first. While not the primary takeaway of any professional gathering, this small talk helped people transition to “meeting mode” more naturally and create emotional connections that foster productive dialogue and psychological safety.
Incorporate this practice into digital meetings by opening up the floor or providing an opportunity at the beginning for participants to speak; there are tons of resources out there to help get this practice going. Remember, casual relationships in the workplace help us feel human, connected, and more trusting of each other — even when we don’t realize it at the time.
5. Embrace the awkward.
Even if every team member practices these tips, digital communication will still be a little uncomfortable. Nothing feels as natural as in-person communication in the office — and that’s okay.
Adjust your expectations before each interaction to avoid holding yourself or others to unrealistic expectations. So what if it took a few minutes to set up your computer audio, or you accidentally turned yourself into a potato on your zoom call? Work is still being done, people are trying, and slip-ups may even help colleagues commit the meeting to memory.
In reality, we can’t fill the void of a smoothly-running office environment, so it’s okay to let changes happen as we learn to communicate in a different (virtual) way.
In fact, seeing evidence that we’re all experiencing the same roadblocks can help us feel connected — perhaps even more so than being in a room together.
When communication is properly facilitated in a remote environment, you may find that your team will come out of this more trusting, effective, and positive than ever before.