Do you have challenges communicating with your remote contractor? You’re not alone: the virtual workplace has many benefits, but it also presents a different set of challenges for communication. Even with the advanced communication technology of today, facial cues such as eye contact, coffee chats, emotions such as joy and frustrations, which are obvious in face-to-face settings, are difficult to emulate in virtual settings.
Poor communications at work can lead to stressful work environments. If you are not mindful of communication practices of your remote team, then invisible problems can quickly arise.
Misunderstandings happen at work whether we work in the office or from home. But misunderstandings don’t become a problem until they turn into dysfunctions. But we can take specific steps to make them less likely or severe. Defining agreements on a team’s conduct, norms and expectations is a good practice. So is being purposeful in the use of communication technology.
But sometimes, the smallest change has the biggest impact. Let’s look at some key principles that can transform and support other your key initiatives to make everyday remote communication effective for your team.
Whether you are writing an email, chatting or presenting in a virtual meeting, it’s important to communicate clearly. Remote leaders need to be direct and specific. Steer clear of brief and vague wording to avoid confusion.
Assume people don’t have context about the topic and give them as much information in as little time as possible.
Low-context communication such as text and writing happens fairly often in remote work. It relies on the direct and explicit meaning of words instead of using non-verbal cues to convey meaning. Remember that it is always better to over-communicate than fix a misunderstanding later on.
Try the following to help you communicate clearly:
The intent-impact gap is one of the most common sources of miscommunication. Miscommunication usually happens when an intended message is different from what was understood. After all, people tend to hear things with their filters. Let’s look at an example:
Oliver is working on some tasks, but the project gets delayed. Ella, his manager, takes a few tasks from him and assigns them to Lucas. Ella wants to help Oliver by easing up his workload to help with the project. However, Oliver perceived it as Ella thinking Lucas will do a better job than him.
Our perceptions are profoundly personal, and culture can quickly change the meaning of words and phrases to the speaker or listener. We make impressions of others based on our interaction and communication with them. Tools can only improve the delivery and scale of communication, but they cannot enhance your message’s quality or help your audience understand it better.
It is particularly challenging for remote teams because most work communication happens in writing; remote workers deal with a lot of missing information in the absence of non-verbal cues. A small misunderstanding can cause a lot of setbacks for the team a lot. At its worst, it sows the seeds of mistrust and damages the social dynamics of a team.
One of the most well-meaning pieces of advice is to assume good or positive intent. It is rather popular with all-remote companies, and certainly has its merits. Applied correctly, it gives the originator the benefit of the doubt and helps the receiver choose how to react in a conversation.
In some situations, though, this puts an unfair burden on the receiver of a message. It is much fairer to expect people to be more responsible and mindful of how others might perceive their communication. Your remote team will benefit when they put the extra effort into getting their audience to understand their message in the same way.
So, how can we be more open with our intentions? Start with outlining the situation or the ‘big picture.’ Doing this upfront helps your audience understand the ‘why’ before they hear about the content and details. It also gives them a better context to be on the same page in a conversation.
Leaders and managers are sometimes reluctant to give the ‘big picture’ because they think their staff don’t need to know or won’t understand, but unless there is an important reason to keep the information secret, it is much better to share it with the team. Your Filipino remote workers will appreciate the additional insight and the effort to be honest and upfront with them.
This sets a good example and helps your team build practices to overcome the intent-impact gap in their own communication.
When we email or chat, digital tools give us time to pause and rewrite our message before sending. Additional tools even exist to help us analyze the tone of our message. The tone of a message in any form of communication is essential because it conveys our emotions. When we speak, people use the tone of our voice to understand our mood and intentions.
The problem with written communication is not the lack of tone but rather the implicit tone. For example, frank messages can come out rude or demanding, especially if it comes from a person of authority.
Be intentional in communicating the appropriate tone for your message, and be mindful of how your reader might interpret your message. If the message is important, try to use voice chat. Voice chats are exchanged in real-time or accessed later, just like emails and instant messages.
Mindful communication is based on empathy: communicating with an understanding of what others are thinking and feeling. It is also about recognizing the impact of words on other people. When we share our disagreement, feedback or even giving out criticisms, being kind will always work better than being right.
Consider this example:
Say you’re in a meeting with your team, and a proposal is being discussed, and one suggestion had terrible consequences for the project. You would be right in saying out loud, “That’s not good. That’s a terrible idea.” But your choice of words will put the person that suggested the idea in a tough spot and might force them to be defensive. However, if you instead ask, “Have you considered any alternatives?” it effectively communicates that you disagree with the idea but gives the other person a chance to rethink their suggestion.
To practice mindful communication remember the following:
Most of the principles discussed here are within your control as a speaker. But conversations are two-way affairs, and this is one of the most overlooked practices. It is in our best interest to ensure a shared understanding. However, merely asking if they have questions or feedback will not immediately prompt your team to open up. Sometimes, your audience may not even be aware that their understanding deviates from yours.
Employees don’t regularly speak their minds at work. We can’t strengthen work relationships without open and honest feedback. But no one wants to upset the boss. In the Filipino culture, the preservation of harmonious relationships is deeply important so people don’t speak up when it makes them or others lose face. It’s part of our defense mechanism to be careful around people in authority positions (e.g. employer or manager) so it’s much easier to hold back in a conversation.
For example, a simple question: “Do you understand?” is daunting. Most people find it easy to say yes but to reply no and admit one’s lack of understanding can quickly get awkward. Why? They neither want to feel dumb for not understanding what was just explained nor make the person repeat themselves.
Imagine the repercussions of such a simple misunderstanding, as the speaker assumes everything is okay and moves on. The remote worker is now left to figure out things without full confidence in their incomplete understanding. As a leader, the key to encouraging your employees to speak up, ask questions, and give feedback is by normalizing the practice and creating a safe environment.
Listening will be one of your most excellent tools in managing your remote workers. By practicing good listening, your team will develop a more profound sense of trust in you and encourage them to open up. It’s not enough to be silent while they talk and repeat what others said after. Have a look at what great listeners do to make conversations effective.
Filipinos are among the largest English-speaking nations in the world, making them one of the most sought-after in the global workforce. However, it is important to consider that not all of them possess the same level of fluency and accuracy in English. Recognize that gaps in English fluency can create instances of misunderstanding.
Your remote contractor may not be that confident with their English language skills, so it helps to be patient during conversations. They may ask you to repeat information, take frequent pauses when speaking, or speak slower than you expect them to. Understand that criticizing your Filipino remote contractors for their English proficiency and judging their capacity to accomplish tasks based on it will not help you communicate with them better.
Speak and write in simple English to keep people’s attention and improve understanding of your message. Use meaningful words and keep your sentences short, simple and go straight to the point. Avoid using the following:
Let your Filipino remote workers know that they can ask about instructions that are unclear and communicate disagreement without it being held against them. In an exchange of information or when giving instructions to your remote worker, always verify that you and your staff are on the same page. Ask if anything is unclear, or if they need more information or want any clarifications. In the absence of questions from your staff, ask them to summarize their key takeaways from the conversation.
If what is essential is clear to you, you can opt to ask specific questions regarding what was discussed to ensure shared understanding. It’s much more effective to check right then and there for any potential misunderstanding rather than assume they have understood your message then deal with problems later.
How you use Skype, Zoom, instant messaging, video calls, and voice calls all play a different role in communicating online. You will not be able to use one channel or tool for every type of communication. When choosing the right communication channel or tool, consider factors such as length, complexity, interactivity, privacy, and urgency of your message before choosing a channel or tool to use (These factors will be explained further in another module). For example, emails are more effective for sending lengthy messages that do not require immediate feedback than instant messaging. Another example is the use of Skype for quick calls and Zoom for longer ones.
More on using communication tools in the next lesson.
Remote communication guidelines document the agreement of remote team members on how they want to interact and communicate requests. It includes agreed norms, behaviors, expectations on meetings, availability, response times, and the like. Team members also use it as a guide on how to use the company’s communication tools allowing them to streamline and organize important information for work. For example, a guideline can state that direct chat is only for urgent concerns to avoid distractions and group chat may be used for social interactions and non-work related conversations.
A template is provided in this lesson to get you started.
Try it Out