March 14, 2020

By Leah Bonvissuto

The professional impact of keeping a healthy distance (and tips for remote team meetings via video).

As Coronavirus continues to spread globally, millions are joining an impromptu remote workforce overnight. It's more important than ever to know how to communicate effectively when working from home.

Most organizations with work from home policies haven’t had this many people working remotely at once. Companies can minimize miscommunication, hurt feelings, and confusion by proactively putting processes in place to help people communicate well, especially right now.

This is an everyday part of my work helping people talk to each other and have better conversations in the workplace. I build processes for individuals and organizations to improve confident workplace communication, which includes remote conversations and meeting over videoconference. The differentiator today is fear: People are anxious and afraid. Their daily lives are being interrupted, which makes communication more convoluted and unclear.

Communicating remotely is not the same as being in-person, because 93% of communication is non-verbal–we rely on body language, eye contact, facial expression, and tone of voice to discern emotional signals when interacting with others. When any of those indicators are absent, we fill the void with our own perceptions. Right now, those perceptions are more likely to be negative.

More and more, the bulk of my organizational work today focuses on helping remote teams have more productive meetings, conversations, and presentations via VC (videoconference). Even in organizations spearheading this technology for remote team meetings and communication between satellite offices, hurt feelings and miscommunication happen constantly. Someone in Austin is swiveling in their chair during a remote team meeting and someone in San Francisco assumes that person is disinterested or doesn't like them when they're really just lost in thought like the rest of us. And this was before Coronavirus complications (see my tips below for how to best communicate via videoconference).

With clear communication from leadership, organizations can minimize miscommunication and hurt feelings. It begins by understanding how your team best communicates and being intentional about processes to do so.

Here are some tips for communicating effectively while working from home:

Over-communicate: Prioritize clarity and compassion

I always advocate for over-communication, but it’s especially important in turbulent times.

  •     The first step should be to set up a remote team meeting to talk about how to communicate while working from home. If your team size is under 20, this can be a collaborative experience. Brainstorm a list of common interactions, modes of communication, and audiences you interact with daily, internally and externally. Make collective decisions on how to handle interactions in each instance. For larger organizations, this can be a collaborative experience for the leadership team and clearly communicated from the top down. Let this be a living document, open to changes in real-time (check out Sarah Milstein's 29 Tips for Very Effective Remote Managers and Workers for practical and actionable ideas).
  •     Devote time to talk about talking. During the above remote team meeting, if two people speak at once, create a rule on-the-spot for how to signal you are ready to speak via video. Decide upfront how to handle technical difficulties and poor connectivity. Acknowledging difficulties in-the-moment helps people feel heard and a part of the process.
  •     In remote team meetings, make it a priority to hear from as many voices as possible. People may be less likely to speak on videoconference than IRL, so it's essential to mandate time for this purpose.
  •     Make decisions by prioritizing non-verbal communication. As a rule, any complicated information should be communicated via videoconference, especially if there is an emotional subtext (see my tips below for communicating via video). If videoconference isn’t an option, opt for the phone. Over-communicate each choice so that everyone is on the same page.
  •     Written communication, especially short-hand systems like Slack and texting, can lead to miscommunication and confusion. Try to reserve email and Slack for super simple communication. Of course, it’s not always possible to get on video or on the phone, and this is where over-communication is essential.
  •     No matter the mode of communication, articulate an objective for yourself and others. Begin a remote team meeting by clearly articulating your goal for the meeting: “My goal today is for us to walk away with clear guidelines on which modes of communication to use while working from home”. It may seem like common sense, but prioritizing clarity immediately aligns intention and attention. This is especially important if people are distracted by the state of the world. And if you can't find a clear objective for the meeting, it's possible that the meeting should be an email.

Videoconference tips and tricks: Make the most when interacting over video

Late last year, I contributed to an article by the wonderful Rachel Sklar on how video chat is the new public speaking. Check it out for tips from some of my favorite leaders on how to show up on video chat.

Video is a microscope for body language. It picks up on every small movement and amplifies it. Organizations can minimize miscommunication and hurt feelings by understanding how videoconference differs from in-person communication and clearly communicating how and when people should use it.

On video, I recommend the following:

  •     Treat remote team meetings like in-person meetings. Don't leave the frame without over-communicating why. Prioritize presence, especially when other people are speaking.
  •     Over-communicate anticipated interruptions, extraneous noises in your environment, or connection issues upfront so that everyone feels included.
  •     Cultivate stillness as much as possible. Settle your physical energy by using a prop or another physical anchor, like feeling your back against your chair. If you are in a chair that swivels, keep it steady. Don't have your laptop on your lap where erratic movement is more likely.
  •     Position the camera so you are taking up 3/4 of the screen and so that the camera is at eye-level. Make sure you are fully in the frame. Beyond that, try not to look at yourself.
  •     Keep the background minimal and intentional. Make sure you are lit from the front and not the back.
  •     Prepare a shortlist of bullet points you want to address and keep them open in a sticky note on your desktop.  
  •     Avoid anything that makes noise, like bangles or plastic wrap, so that you and your audience are not distracted. Mute yourself whenever you're not speaking, especially if you are on-the-go.

Leading with clarity, assume best intentions whenever possible

There's so much uncertainty right now. Because emotions are running high, assume best intentions, especially if you are taking something personally. If you're waiting to hear back from someone who is working remotely, it's possible they had to go pick up their kid from school or go to a last-minute doctor's appointment. Over-communicate your concerns while acknowledging the situation: "I know you are probably dealing with something important, but I'm feeling pressure to get this out by end of day. Can you let me know an update when you have a chance?" Ask people their preferred modes of communication. Check in with your clients and colleagues and ask how they are handling everything. Beginning with an assumption of best intentions and clearly stating your good intention helps avoid hurt feelings as much as possible.

Remember that we're all figuring this out as we go along.

Comment below with your questions and observations about working from home. What do you want to talk about and what did I miss? Follow PresentVoices on Instagram where we're talking about talking and remote work.

About Author

Leah Bonvissuto

I help people talk to each other at work and have more meaningful conversations.

It's more important than ever to communicate effectively when working from home, whether you're new to remote work or not. Here are my tips for minimizing miscommunication, hurt feelings, and confusion while keeping a healthy distance during COVID-19.

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