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Twenty years ago, an organization based in Vancouver that had marketing manager Dean in Philadelphia, HR coordinator Julie in Seattle and business development director Raymond in Toronto was an unusual model that kept the IT team on their toes to ensure connectivity. Other than regional salespeople, this kind of remote workforce was uncommon and complex. Remote employees often felt like islands.
Within a decade, remote workforces became more common and easier to manage with new digital connectivity tools. Cloud collaboration, shared project tools and secure intranets made things easier, but in some organizations, employees outside of the “home office” still sometimes felt communication and connection were lacking.
Then COVID hit and pushed remote workforces and collaboration/communication tools into the mainstream. Today, everyone is more familiar with working remotely, interacting online and finding ways to stay connected. It is unlikely that workforces will ever go back to the way they were.
But, one of the biggest challenges is still the need to maintain efficient and effective, open communication among team members. How can this be done in a remote workforce?
Communication within the workplace is challenging at the best of times. There are diverse personalities, varying age groups, different cultural backgrounds and many other factors that can lead to misunderstandings, different work styles and conflict. Take people out of a common workplace and give them only digital communication, and the opportunity for misunderstandings and misinterpretations rise tenfold.
Not everyone has or wants to take a communication course to learn how to improve their workplace communications. While a communication skills course can be helpful for an individual to deal with coworkers and learn about personal communication styles, it can only go so far as to ensure open communication among teams and the workforce as a whole.
The organization’s leaders and HR professionals need to better understand the challenges around communication within the business and how best to resolve them. Managers, supervisors and HR leaders generally take business communication courses to ensure they can guide teams to work effectively and efficiently. These people can balance employees, tools, and workplace needs to develop the best communication approaches.
There must be an understanding that different age groups prefer to communicate with different tools. Gen X’ers tend to want email and intranet interaction. Millennials prefer texting and more immediate contact tools. While the millennials don’t mind being in touch all the time, Gen X’ers are more concerned with protecting their time and separating from the constant online interaction.
Business leaders must identify the key groups within the workforce and determine the best tools for communicating. This may bring about a need for different tools for workgroups to choose from. Still, having a couple of options company-wide and a few options each workgroup can use independently will go a long way to creating more open, regular communication. However, it is important to limit the number of tools anyone workgroup uses, as checking multiple platforms can waste time.
Regardless of how well leaders have identified communication needs, there will never be a set of tools that will make everyone happy all the time. This is a great opportunity to embrace “almost 100%”. This means that 80% of employees will be functional and efficient with the communication tools they use. The other 20% will struggle, complain and may refuse to use new tools. This 20% will need more guidance and support to help them see the benefits and ensure ongoing communication.
Of the 20%, 80% will likely make a move to the new tools, even if reluctantly, when they have support from team members and others. The remaining 20% will refuse to use the new tools and will always be a communication issue.
Depending upon the makeup of the workforce, there are some basic tools that an organization needs:
Determining the right digital tools for a team and the organization can come from an assessment of needs by an employee or perhaps through using a digital efficiency consultant. Regardless of what tools are selected, some employees must be given ways to create “do not disturb” blocks of time – the equivalent of a closed office door – when they are focused on something or are in private meetings. Creating these kinds of boundaries should be part of the digital assessment.
Several organizations have people both in a central location and those working from remote locations. This can be harder to manage and ensure good communications if there is an “us and them” attitude.
Some centralized employees may feel that remote employees have special privileges and may play passive-aggressive games such as withholding information or “forgetting” to invite others to meetings. In time, this type of attitude will fade as remote workforces become the standard. However, until then, there are cases where a communications skills course will help a supervisor/manager and/or HR professional identify the issues and help resolve them.
There can be a belief that someone is “slacking” off rather than working or taking advantage of the company. The manager/supervisor must take the time to identify and address these beliefs as quickly as possible.
If issues are group or company-wide, bringing everyone together to discuss perceptions and challenges (through virtual conferencing like Zoom) can be the best solution. If issues seem to stem between a small number of individuals, private conversations will help to uncover the challenges.
While personal information and special situations should never be discussed in a group or open setting, work expectations, job descriptions and goals can be. Transparency about expectations can help alleviate some of the impression that some employees are getting special treatment.
When managers and supervisors step up and tell the “us” group that the “them” group is working just as hard and that there are no performance issues, it can help to address the concerns. Additionally, providing the digital communication tools to allow both groups to stay connected will go a long way to resolving negative and/or erroneous perceptions.
The information contained in this post is considered to be true and accurate as of the date of publication. However, the accuracy of this information may be impacted by changes in circumstances that occur after the time of publication. Ashton College assumes no liability for any error or omissions in the information contained in this post or any other post in our blog.