Remote work environments were trendy well before pandemic-induced lockdowns in 2020 – but they were still more of a novelty among teams that were either budget-focused, or were keen to offer their employees flexibility in their schedules. The software development industry was one of them. Software development in Sri Lanka, among other countries that are popular for software development, was particularly at the forefront – what with being an offshoring destination. Of course, this wasn’t possible without reliable cloud support services, as hosted solutions enabled teams to operate from one virtual location that was centralized on the cloud.
These are still just the technicalities, though. Once systems are configured well enough to be compatible with remote work, what about the intricacies which influence the dynamic among team members? We are all only human, after all – and lapses in communication aren’t obsolete even within close proximity.
In other words, what was once initially presumed to be a boon since commuting (and even facing other employees one may not have much of a liking to) would be problems we could say goodbye to, remote workspaces have now manifested a whole host of other communication conundrums that we are left grappling with.
On the other hand, we as a species have always been trying to learn how to communicate effectively – and not just in our businesses. Whether it’s asking for something at the corner store or in relationships, the focus towards making ourselves understood is a tale as old as time. Add technology as well as people distributed thousands of miles away, to this mix – and you have a combination of circumstances never dealt with before.
So how do we deal with miscommunications, or even communicating too much/too little in the remote workspace context? The key lies in understanding what the actual problems are, and why they’re really happening. Cause and effect, in other words. This isn’t rocket science, but delving deep into the socio-psychological push-and-pull of today’s remote workspaces might require a bit more perceptiveness, to really grasp where the loopholes are.
With most communication being non-verbal, it’s not hard to see why remote teams would feel deprived in this area. Eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and overall body language constitute the vast majority of even the simplest communication, with actual words spoken comprising only a fraction of the total picture. Speaking of words, again, it isn’t just what you say, but how you say it. Tone of voice and pitch also determine the sentiments behind what you’re trying to convey – and it’s not hard to see why this isn’t possible via an email or text message.
One might argue that video calls are as good as the real thing, what with being a means to actually see and hear the person on your computer screen. While this is a necessity and certainly helps remote teams to collaborate and thrive, it can cause communication gaps in the wake of poor connectivity, as team members keep appearing and disappearing. Even when connectivity is normal, team members still have the freedom to switch off their microphones and cameras, thereby allowing for limited visibility – even if they are participating in a meeting.
As trivial and innocuous as they may be, such variables can gradually add up over time, leading to gaps in transferring information, and possibly even causing misunderstandings. However, all hope is not lost. Remote work environments offer unmatched flexibility after all, and opting to work from wherever you like (or take your work with you wherever you go) is too tempting to ever pass out on.
With remote workspaces having turned into the norm for obvious reasons since 2020 and hitherto, this trend is bound to stay for a long time to come. As for the shortcomings pertaining to non-verbal cues, these can be circumvented with the right etiquettes, schedules and tools for maximum productivity and minimal misunderstanding.
By using a combination of strategies, here’s what you can do to make sure your team is competent yet comfortable within the remote dynamic.
Before you delve into addressing communication and collaboration mishaps, it’s necessary to ascertain whether a proper foundation for remote work has been established in the first place. Misconceptions cannot be handled in a vacuum; it is imperative to always backtrack in order to identify where information would have fallen through the cracks. So, a proper foundation includes the basics, such as:
Even if you feel like you’re all caught up, set aside at least 30 minutes on a weekly basis for team members to update one another about what they’ve been working on. Things may be getting checked off a project list, but regular, one-on-one updates will instil a sense of togetherness within an otherwise dispersed team – while also ensuring every team member is on par with what’s going on in other areas of the organization.
Collaborating through documents that are stored on the cloud is as easy as ever now, what with SaaS subscriptions on a variety of collaboration platforms now available at incredibly reasonable prices and with zero setup hassle. Cloud-based turnkey solutions have long since removed the headache of version control among organizations, and have further spearheaded the remote work revolution.
While SaaS solutions are easy to access, partnering with a cloud service provider (such as becoming an AWS partner, for example) can elevate your work processes since solutions can be sought for any requirement, at scale. This also includes integrations with existing solutions, to further leverage online and real-time collaboration – whether it’s for simple word processing or complex business intelligence.
Although the first two pointers are absolute essentials for any remote team, you can add greater momentum to your processes by adopting a task/project management solution that centralizes work across individuals, departments and the entire company. Heighten collaboration by forgoing emails, via automated workflows and alerts to team members who are due to be working on something next.
There’s no need to toggle between multiple applications when using a centralized project management system; simply add/edit/remove tasks and attachments to work within a single application. While this reduces the time spent in searching and organizing items during the typical workday, it also empowers your teams to focus on strategic duties, as opposed to administrative ones.
Oh, and did we mention that some of the most leading project management solutions are also powered by AI and machine learning? Workflows can be predicted based on previous activity, while also staying on top of budgets and other resources through real-time reporting dashboards.
Now comes the meat and bones of the whole collaboration situation within remote work teams. From matter-of-fact text messages to overall lack of in-person contact, numerous non-verbal cues can quickly accumulate over time, and take a toll on your team.
Provided you’ve had your bases covered by adhering to the technicalities mentioned above, here are some of the most common predicaments pertaining to remote workplace interactions – and how each can be counteracted.
Even the simplest and compact of workplaces has significant diversity in terms of skills and experience. While someone in sales needs to be adept at communicating intelligently, the accounting team requires strong cognitive thinking for maintaining finances. Not everyone can be held to the same standard of expression – and within good reason.
In other words, a sales agent may be able to draft an elaborate email about a brand new idea, while an accountant, with their mathematical forte, will only stick to email for formalizing invoices. With varying skill sets and the priorities that follow each person’s job role, this is very much understandable.
While this can be worked around in a conventional in-person business environment, everyone will need to step up their games while working remotely. With mainly written modes of communication available even for teams situated within the same time zone (apart from the regular video call, of course), it is imperative that everyone learns to express thoughts/ideas/feedback clearly and constructively via an email or text message.
This closely ties in with the above pointer. As different individuals express themselves with different styles and structures of writing, there’s the chance that something might stand out as too matter-of-fact or harsh. This has long been the case against texting – through words alone, it’s hard to gauge the sentiments and tonalities associated with a piece of writing.
It’s important to gather things into perspective here. Workplace communication channels are meant just for that – to share instructions/updates/feedback about getting tasks done efficiently. Channel other sensitivities across a separate route that’s meant just for banter; it will help team members to relax and flaunt their true personalities.
In a traditional workplace, it’s simple to walk over to another’s desk and ask a question for instant clarity, before escalating a task to the right people. But within a remote context, what do you do? Team members may not always be online, so immediate responses may not always be available. But time is still limited. How can you expedite an otherwise quick inquiry, while sticking to deadlines?
Some mindfulness is required here – even though there’s a time constraint. So stop for a moment, take a step back, and think about how you can execute this inquiry to save you and everyone involved precious time. For example, instead of sending a DM or email, it would be ideal to open a group thread with everyone involved on your IM application, to make the inquiry. This way, everyone’s updated – and there are no silos.
This is something that should be done in any workplace, irrespective of whether teams are remotely distributed or not. However, the stakes are higher within a remote context – especially if teams are cross-cultural with varying time zones. Since email may be the primary communication channel for sharing details about tasks and collateral, make sure you have drafted and attached everything before hitting ‘Send’.
Collaborate further with fellow team members, especially if you need to send something across to another department. Decide who will send the email, attaching everything in one go. Of course, this depends on individual circumstances, but receiving bits and pieces of a task from different people at different times can be confusing and inefficient – something you are better off preventing at all costs.
Working remotely has an art and etiquette to it, contrary to popular perceptions of convenience and autonomy. Perhaps the former is a trade-off for the latter. Pass the knowledge on, especially if you’re a senior member and have been accustomed to the daily dealings of your remote workplace. Junior members will especially benefit; many otherwise tiny intricacies make a mighty impression to coworkers, superiors and clients. Steer them along the right track to maintain decorum – and even establish a foothold of leadership for yourself within the company.
Remote work has long since been an object of desire for many a working professional – and this has skyrocketed in popularity as well, during the past year. As individuals around the globe have settled down to working from the sanctuary of their homes, this has led rise to a whole new set of predicaments around effective communication and collaboration.
Provided the foundation i.e. regular meetings and centralized document repositories are well in place, communication loopholes can be remedied with the right tools and techniques.
This also requires a recalibration of one’s approach to an otherwise unconventional work environment; if mastered, it can enable complete autonomy, as employees can settle down with working remotely even on a permanent basis.