How to be a better communicator when your team is working remotely

Many of us are adapting to working exclusively from our homes at the moment. That mean’s we’re learning to communicate with each other all over again.

Earlier this week, I published some things I do to help telephone and video conference calls go a bit more smoothly, now that all our meetings are online. Then I stumbled upon this tweet from @DuncanWeldon:

Whilst I’d tweeted something pithy in reply, I thought a longer blog post might be helpful too.

Communications as a spectrum of disruption

Whether you’re communicating in person or digitally, all forms of communication introduce some kind of disruption to someone’s flow of activity.

Some forms are very disruptive because they are interruptive. Think of anything that pushes notifications on to your computer or phone screen, like instant messages, or that take over your whole screen, like phone calls.

Others forms of communication are less disruptive. In the office, it might be the chat with someone at the tea point. At home, the least disruptive things are probably more like pre-arranged phone calls, emails or even letters.

Being disruptive to someone’s flow of activity isn’t necessarily a bad thing but recognising that you’re interrupting someone else’s priorities is even more important when working remotely than it is in the office. It means you have to place a premium on how you get in touch with someone and which tool you use to do it.

Here are some of the things I’ve been encouraging teams I work with to think about and do, now we’re all working from home.

Pick your tools and their purpose

Agree what communications tools you’re going to use with your teams and what they will be used for. There are lots of digital communications tools available in most work places, and people will be using them more now they can’t speak face-to-face. Each of these tools will be more-or-less disruptive and trying to use them all at once will mean people quickly feel overwhelmed.

Pick the right tools for the right job. Aim to minimise the disruption you’re causing. The tools you’ll have access to will probably be different from the ones I have. Broadly speaking though, if you:

  • need a genuinely immediate response, ​call someone (but do this sparingly)
  • have a quick question for someone,​ use a text message or instant message
  • have a big task for someone, ​send an email
  • would have usually spoken to someone about it face-to-face,​ put some time in their diary for a call

Be brief and direct

Be brief and direct when you’re sending messages or emails. Put another way, get to the point quickly. Brevity is even more important for remote working than it would be in the office. When everyone is sending and receiving more digital communications, brevity helps people be more efficient (and get back to you more quickly). In practice, brevity means that if you’re sending an:

  • email,​ make your subject line specific and clear, including a deadline if applicable. Put your ask in the very first sentence after you’ve said “hello”. Use bulleted or numbered lists to organise your information clearly.
  • instant message or text message,​ try to get your entire ask into your first message. Don’t forget that the recipient gets a notification every time you send them an instant message, so they’ll appreciate it if they are only interrupted once.

Being direct doesn’t mean being rude. When you’re getting lots of digital communications, brevity is itself a form of politeness. You can still ask how people are feeling and you can still say “hello”. Being succinct is more about form than it is about tone.

Don’t spam people

Avoid sending people messages through multiple channels. This is just spamming people. Be respectful of other people’s workload and priorities; there’s very rarely a need to email someone and then immediately follow up with an instant message or phone call.

Choose one way to get in touch with someone and only follow up with another if it’s genuinely urgent. ‘Urgency’ means different things to different people but the rule of thumb I like to apply is that “your lack of planning does not create my emergency”. If you’ve picked the right way to get in touch in the first instance, you shouldn’t need to follow up immediately.

Target your messages

Target your communications as narrowly as possible, but as widely as necessary. Try to avoid sending emails to large copy lists and make sparing use of the ‘reply all’ button. Similarly, try to avoid sending messages in large group chats unless you have to. Make sure everyone who needs to see a message can, but don’t overshare. Where possible, try to make it obvious why you’ve copied someone in or sent it to a wider group.

Disruption doesn’t have to be disruptive

These are the things I think about when I’m communicating with someone through digital channels: being purposeful in my choices, being as efficient as I can be, and only creating urgency when it matters. These things won’t work for every person, team or situation — but maybe they’re a good starting point for discussing how your team should communicate with each other.

All posts in this series

  1. How to hold better video and telephone conference calls
  2. How to be a better communicator when your team is working remotely