The rising tide of remote work shows no sign of slowing, as more and more businesses commit to permanent WFH environments. Remote communication is now the norm and learning how to navigate your office virtually poses new challenges.
In one day, an employee may be involved in conversations across Slack, Zoom, Trello, Google Meet, and a host of other platforms. Add in communication across time zones, client bases, and operating systems, and you’ve got a complicated suite of apps all competing for your attention.
What’s more, according to Buffer, 22% of remote employees report that unplugging after work is their biggest challenge. This means communication is sneaking up on us, beyond regular work hours, leaving us less time for ourselves, our loved ones, and our hobbies.
It can be incredibly difficult to avoid distractions as a remote worker, especially when most of those distractions are coming from your own teammates. What’s more, our remote communication systems are actually impairing our ability to optimize for deep work, making our output less effective overall.
If we really want our teams to be efficient, productive, and healthy, then we need to start thinking about remote communication etiquette.
By creating firm boundaries for ourselves, as well as our teammates, we can ensure we are building successful and long-lasting remote environments.
Remote communication challenges
It’s 8:30 am and you’re sitting at your desk, coffee in one hand, phone in the other. You’re on a Zoom call with your boss badgering you about your latest deadline. All of a sudden, you get a message from your girlfriend asking you to pick up milk from the store. You try to switch conversations, switch your focus, and give a quick, thoughtful response, but all of a sudden, four Slack messages come through. It looks like you forgot to snooze your Slack notifications and the team has just signed on. It’s Monday, and they want to schedule a stand-up to go over the latest project scope.
This is remote work.
In an office setting, you might be spared these details as your project managers chat in the corner, clicking through the team’s schedules to find an appropriate meeting time. You might have put your phone in your bag, or in your desk drawer, knowing that this is the time to click into work mode and not the time to talk about dinner plans.
In a remote office, the barriers between work and home are blurred. You know you need milk because you can see the empty space in your fridge where the carton usually rests. You feel that you can’t put away your phone because you might miss an important call and risk looking absent, lazy, or unproductive.
Instead of setting boundaries, you allow your focus to be repeatedly broken, shifting between numerous conversations on various instant messaging apps, all in the hopes of maintaining the guise of “Yes, I’m doing my job.”
The irony is, the more time you spend communicating, the less time you have for work. By attempting to be everywhere at once, we lose the ability to focus on our tasks. This system makes us less efficient, less productive, and ultimately less effective at our jobs.
Remote communication is challenging, not just because the people you want to talk to aren’t right in front of you, but because they are everywhere, all the time, and unregulated.
It’s time to ask ourselves what remote communication etiquette looks like and how we can ensure our teams are set up for success, in or out of the office.
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
Communication in the digital world is often praised for being convenient, quick, and efficient. But, is instant messaging really all that effective?
Read these two definitions and decide which one best fits your general communication style.
- Synchronous communication: communication that happens in real-time, with instant reads and responses.
- Asynchronous communication: communication that does not happen in real-time, where responses are intermittent.
It’s very likely that you picked synchronous because this is the kind of communication our current world values. Our phones send us constant, focus-breaking notifications about status updates, profile picture changes, and event invites. Our friends text us, our parents call us, and everyone wants an answer to their question now.
Likewise, business communication is all about timing. If you don’t reply quickly, you may fear a missed opportunity. Your boss may think you’re lazy, your team might be stuck without your response.
At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
What’s actually more common is something like the example above, where the pressure to reply to messages overwhelms you and stops you from doing your best work.
That isn’t to say there is no room for companionship between these two communication styles.
Synchronous communication is effective when we’re on phone calls, video calls, and in-person meetings. There are definitely times when it is beneficial to be present and other times when you need to take some space.
What we, as a society, need to work on, is accepting and valuing asynchronous communication just as much as synchronous communication.
What does that look like?
If you send your friend a message and they don’t get back to you until after dinner, you can feel happy that they dedicated their focus to their family.
If your co-worker doesn’t reply to your Slack message and you aren’t able to give your client an update before lunch, you can take comfort in the fact that they muted their Slack channels in order to do good work.
A mix of asynchronous and synchronous communication helps us make time for the things that matter to us, like rest, repair, and self-care. We don’t have to tune out everything, just the stuff that can wait.
Communicating across time zones
In the fall of 2020, Microsoft announced that it would be letting its fleet of 150,000 employees work remotely permanently. This is great news for urban sprawl and city density, but complicated news for remote communications.
As remote work continues to become the new normal, we will see our teams expand globally and be faced with conflicting time zones, working hours, and forms of communication.
Here are a few quick tips to follow when managing remote communications across time zones:
- Plan ahead: Understanding the working hours of the colleagues you want to contact is the first step in this process. Respect their time and their lives, and they will respect yours in return. If you need something from them, plan to send a request when it’s appropriate for them to view it. Scheduling messages on Slack is an easy way to do this.
- Leave extra time for project completion: There’s an old adage that says, “Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day.” While this is technically true, if your colleague is 21 hours ahead of you, then they’ve already lived part of the day you’re in. If you know you need support from someone in a different time zone, schedule extra time to account for the changing hours.
- Encourage calendar sharing: Calendar sharing is a great way to build trust among employees. It’s also an easy way to let people know you’re busy without pinging you on Slack. You can also use a smart calendar to automatically update your status or turn on Do Not Disturb.
- Set designated office hours: This is an important and simple way to set expectations within your team. If you’re transparent about your office hours being between 9 am and 5 pm, then no one should question your unanswered Slack message at 6:45 pm. Setting office hours is also a great way to maintain a regular schedule and stay on top of your time management.
Missing emotional context
One of the biggest challenges in remote communication is missing emotional context.
In-person, we can assess the way someone’s smile turns down, or notice changes in their body language that indicate they are happy, sad, or angry.
Digitally, we have no way of knowing whether someone is furious with us, or just tired.
Likewise, be compassionate with your timing and aware of your tone. Re-reading your messages before you send them can help you catch any unwanted phrasing before it goes out to your teammate.
Slack etiquette rules
Slack has been a great tool for staying connected as a remote team. But, like many of our valuable technological tools, it has the ability to steal our attention and distract us from the work we need to be doing.
Understanding how to use Slack effectively, both for yourself and for your team, is an important part of creating a positive, productive remote working space.
We created an in-depth Slack etiquette guide that can help you navigate your internal communications and get the most out of your working hours.
Here are a few important highlights to note:
- Use Slack threads in conversations
- Know the difference between @channel and @here
- Make your messages skim-friendly
- Keep Slack channels to a minimum
- Review and edit your messages before sending
Like all technology, Slack is only as effective as you let it be. Don’t let it overwhelm you, set boundaries, and stay focused.
Burnout is real
Bad communication can lead to unrealistic expectations, fear of failure, and an unhealthy relationship to work.
According to CoSo Cloud, 23% of remote workers say they work longer hours than they would in-office. Likewise, 53% say they're less likely to take time off than they would be if they worked on-location.
It’s important to remember that presence is not productivity. If you see a team member with an ‘Away’ status, respect that. Trust that your team is doing what’s best for them and for their work.
Personally, be sure to set boundaries between your working life and your home life. Simple things like only using your work devices for communication can go a long way in preventing burnout.
Dealing with communication issues
Even if you do everything right, there will always be remote communication issues that arise.
One way to minimize communication issues is to make healthy communication part of your company culture. That means not sending out internal messages after work hours, not celebrating overworking or hustle culture, and teaching your employees about creating boundaries between their work and home lives.
Here are a few tips for managers who are navigating communication issues:
- Say no to micromanaging: Trust that you’ve hired the right people and that they will do their jobs well. No one wants someone leaning over their shoulder, whether in-person or online.
- Bring up issues as they come: This is especially important for repeating issues, as individuals don’t always understand their learned habits. When you bring something up, do it gently and with care. Everyone has their own story and it helps to be supportive, rather than aggressive, when dealing with employee problems.
- Don’t penalize employee boundaries: Rather, embrace them. If you have an employee who never answers their phone past 6 pm, congratulate them. That’s really hard and something we could all benefit from. Likewise, don’t celebrate overworking or reward the hustlers. Good work is always appreciated, but not when it comes at the cost of employee well-being.
- Be compassionate, it’s just work: At the end of the day, we all just want to do good work and live a good life. Taking a human-centered approach to your business will help you connect with your employees and be better suited to support them if any issues do arise.
Making remote work more enjoyable for everyone
The future of work is empowering employees to do their best work, the way they best do it.
It’s clear that remote work isn’t just a symptom of the times, it’s something that people genuinely want.
The more we can find healthy, supportive ways of communicating remotely, the better equipped we will be for the future of remote work.