Communicating with Remote Workers

If you work remotely, you’ve likely heard something like this from co-workers:
“Did you finish the code on Project X?”
“Did you get my last email?”
“Are you working today?”

Eventually you have to stop what you’re doing and respond. Not because you’re ignoring them…but because they don’t think you’re communicating. Even though you’ve sent them emails and marked tasks as complete in your workflow. For some reason they don’t see those, and decide to pester you directly.

This perceived lack of communication, and how to resolve it, are what I’ll talk about today.

Remote Workers Perceived as Poor Communicators – Because of How Our Brains Work

Communication problems cited as second-biggest problem when working remotely. (Loneliness is #1. I’ll talk about that in another post.)

Why? Because of the human association between Communication (engaging in a conversation) and Presence (visibility to co-workers).

When we speak to someone, our primeval brain wants to see them present. Voice + Face = Person.
But when we’re remote, that doesn’t happen. The communication does, through a variety of mediums…but the presence isn’t the same.

As a result, people sometimes believe, “He’s not here. He’s not communicating with me.”

“I need that report 10 minutes ago!”
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

 

The thing is…this isn’t exclusive to remote workers. You can have the same communication problems with a co-worker one floor up. Only the perception is different.

When it’s different, your communications may end up missed or ignored. Not consciously, but it does happen. Like you don’t see the stop sign at the end of your street, because you’ve passed by it a thousand times already. Even if you emailed your co-worker 10 times, they may still think, “Why haven’t I heard from Bob about this?”

Where the Disconnect Comes From

The disconnect between Communication & Presence stems from 2 issues:

LACK OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION. You remember the old, “90% of all communication is nonverbal” statistic, right? I don’t think it’s quite that high, but nonverbal communication is a factor here. Body language, hand gestures, eye contact…you can’t duplicate these on the phone or through email. (I do not consider emojis ‘nonverbal communication.’ Don’t get any ideas!)

As a result, communicating with someone who’s not physically present feels a little bit like “a ghost whispering nearby” to our brains. Not a whole person responding to questions. Just some disembodied voice floating by.

INDIVIDUAL COMMUNICATION PREFERENCES. I have a preferred communications medium (email). A co-worker of mine prefers using the phone. Let’s call him Jason. What ends up happening half the time goes as follows:

  1. I email Jason with a project request.
  2. Jason replies back, asking if we can have a phone call.
  3. We get on the phone. I explain the same things I wrote out in my email.
  4. Jason says he understands, indicates when he’ll finish, and gets off the phone.
  5. I receive the requested work shortly thereafter.

Each of us has an individual communication preference. Clearly, they do not match. That’s okay though; we still used them both to communicate. Because each of us knows the other’s preferences, there’s no frustration or confusion. The communication just overlaps a little.

Which is the big takeaway for this post. When communicating with remote workers, boost your communication efforts by 20%.

Boost Communication by 20% to Engage More and Share Information Thoroughly

Why increase the amount of communication? Because the clearer internal communications are, the smoother projects run. Think of a time when your project snarled due to someone not having correct information about their input.

Here’s a quick example. Two years ago, we had five people working on a new website. A developer, a designer, two content writers, and a project manager. At some point, each of us worked remotely on said website.

One week, the developer missed a task on the list. His eye just skipped past it in the process of working. The task involved writing some CSS to arrange a webpage template’s footer.

We had a process in place for updating everyone on our work status. A short meeting over Skype for Business. But we didn’t convene for it that week. The next Monday, the designer noticed that the page footers would break whenever he inserted images. He checked his task list, but it didn’t show a missed task. Puzzled, he tried to work around it, but could not.

So he mentioned it to the project manager. A few phone calls later, and we found the missing task. The developer fixed it right away. Problem resolved. But, if we had held our weekly update meeting, we would have saved all the time taken up noticing, reporting, and discussing the missed task.

—-
“Okay Chris,” you might think, “But why 20%? That seems like a lot of time.”

Not really. How much time do you spend on communication now? If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a handful of hours per workweek on communication. In preparation for this post I tracked how much time I communicated with co-workers. Average weekly amount? 3.5 hours out of 40. Not even 10%.
Boosting that by 20% would mean adding another 0.7 hours…just over 40 minutes per week. 4.2 hours out of 40. Still close to 10%.

It’s a doable amount. It’s also easy to track, if Management wants to.

The benefit to increasing communication 20% comes from your conscious awareness. When you’re consciously thinking about communicating, you consider your statements more thoroughly. What would come across nonverbally makes it into your verbal/conscious communications…thus covering what your co-workers might miss.

A 20% boost doesn’t have to take the form of more emails or calls though. I don’t know about you, but I get enough email as it is…

Instead, try these forms:

  • A conference call/online meeting once a week (15-30 min). Use video to recapture that nonverbal communication too!
  • Add another daily check-in to project teams (e.g. in online chat like Slack or Teams). I described a method of checking in without harming workflow in my last post.
  • A few extra, smaller tasks in your project management system/project calendar. Don’t assume a co-worker knows you need a certain bit of code; spell it out!

“I always wear shades while coding. Why do you ask?”
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

How to Determine What to Communicate (and How Much)

Now, let’s think about how a 20% boost works out. Just saying you want to increase communication by 20% doesn’t make it happen.

These are some ideas I’ve used successfully. Please feel free to adapt them, or experiment with other ideas that better fit your workplace.

  1. Think about what you’ll need on this project from each colleague, in terms of their input, their deliverables, and where they plan to reach them. Make a list of all of these. Refer to the checklist at the start of the week. If you need more input on something, ask!
  2. Map out the project stages from your perspective. At each stage, think on what colleagues will need from you. Not just in terms of output, but in terms of how your output will fit into their work. Might take 10 minutes, but it’ll save everyone hours.
  3. Add a question to the end of every conversation. For instance, “Is there anything else we should cover at this point?” or “Do you need anything from me?”
  4. Do a weekly check-in with the team. Always schedule it at the same time of the week, so everyone knows they must communicate where they are and what’s next for them.

Increase Communication by 20%, Make Remote Work AND In-Office Work Easier

Remember that communication overlap I mentioned earlier? You may encounter that sort of thing when boosting communications between in-office and remote workers. If you do, don’t worry. You’re not wasting time. In fact, overlaps like those help both parties know how the other works. Which makes it easier for you to help them work more efficiently, and vice versa.

Then you never have to hear statements like, “Bob’s working remotely. I never know what he’s working on.”

How would you boost communication by 20% in your office?

Must keep a close eye on those remote workers...

You just know they’re goofing off, don’t you? Those remote workers on your team. They’re not working…you can feel it.

The deadline for the next blog post is in 3 hours. You haven’t heard anything from them in the past 2. If only you could prove their laziness. You could force them back into the office. Or fire them, and replace them with someone who stays in the office who doesn’t goof off!

So you call up one of your remote workers. Out of the blue. You’re going to get them back on task, or add fuel to your righteous firing fury.

“Hello? Oh, hi Boss. Yeah, I’m working on it now. Have been for the past 2 hours. Almost done. No, just a few minutes more. I’ll message you when it’s ready.”

 

Oh. So they were working on the blog post that whole time. You not only misjudged their efforts…you disrupted their workflow with the out-of-the-blue call. The blog post you get back may not have the same quality as the one you’d get if you hadn’t broken their concentration.

This sort of scenario plays out way too often. It’s 2018, and yet, some managers cannot let go of the old office paradigm. “If I can’t see you, you’re not working!”

Of course, this is so far from the truth it’s almost insulting. A manager cannot see someone homed in another office…do they make the same assumption about their lack of productivity? (Sometimes they do, believe it or not.)

Remote workers take that a step further. Even though they build software, create good content, and keep huge parts of the world economy working…they garner much more managerial venom than they deserve.

So what’s the solution? That’s what we’ll go through today.

Managers & Employees Have Different Perspectives

Here’s a portrayal of a sadly-typical exchange between Managers and Employees Working Remotely. It shows how one small change in perspective can have disastrous consequences.

  • Manager – I must keep the team on deadline. Checks in with Employee. Demands an update.
  • Employee – Stops working at each check-in. Breaks their workflow. Gets nervous. Over time, they become paranoid about their job.
  • Manager – ‘Invites’ employee back into office. “You’ll be more productive here.”
  • Employee – Sees this ‘invitation’ as magnifying the problem. More interruptions, more surveillance! Has to go into the office, but is now more nervous than ever. Work suffers.
  • Manager – Terminates unproductive employee. Sees the whole thing as justifying their negative view of remote work.
  • Employee – Finds a new job working remotely again. Enjoys the focus & freedom. Work quality soars.

See what just happened? The manager, due to their preconceived notions, essentially sabotaged their own employee. They lost out on all the productive work that employee could have done, without the manager breathing down their neck.

The employee doesn’t understand why their manager targeted them. They likely never will. No one will speak to the manager about this chain of events. The cycle will repeat, until either:

A. The company ceases allowing remote workers. In which case the manager will focus all their interruptions within the office, lowering OVERALL productivity.
OR
B. The manager realizes their disruptive behavior & changes it.

Focus During Remote Work

Two of these people are building new software to do amazing things. The third just got an email from his manager, who wants to talk. Guess who’s who.
Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

The Importance of Focus (and Letting Workers Employ It)

What’s one of the most important things to an employee…no matter where they do their work? FOCUS.
Using long chunks of time to eliminate distractions, focus on the work in front of you, and knock it out.

Without this Focus Time, you’ll never do your best work. Distractions break concentration, pull you out of the flow, and then your work suffers.

I looked up articles on “eliminating distractions for remote workers.” Every single one stressed having a chunk of Focus Time:
Remote work: 9 tips for eliminating distractions and getting things done – GitLab (#3, “Book out your ‘focus time'”)
11 Ways to Eliminate Distractions While Working from Home – TechRepublic (#2, “Break up your work”)
8 Remote Workers Explain How They Avoid Distractions – Remote.co (#6, “Set a Timer”)

Now, if you’re a manager, you can easily understand why remote workers deserve Focus Time. Set the guidelines and the deadlines, and let them deliver the goods. Hey, while they’re focused, you can focus on clearing your own task list too! Everybody wins, right?

But you still have that shred of paranoia. You can’t SEE them. How do you trust what you can’t see?

We have a question before us…How do you make sure remote workers stay on-task, without disrupting their Focus Time and hurting their work quality?

Luckily, I have a solution that should work for you. Manager and remote worker alike.

Use Software to Monitor Remote Workers, and to Check In With Them (Sparingly)

This is a two-part solution. One part is monitoring remote workers (to indeed verify that they ARE working). The other part is a good check-in strategy to stay up-to-date and stick to deadlines.

The first part: Monitoring. This involves keeping silent, unobtrusive tabs on the activity & output coming from a remote worker’s computer. (Or tablet; I’m not picky.)

I recommend taking a two-part approach to monitoring. First, institute a project management platform, and have everyone track their activity therein. Doing this not only verifies time worked on projects, but gives everyone a reference for co-workers’ progress.

Many project management platforms exist; I like Asana and Trello myself. They don’t track time on their own, but you can install an add-on like EverHour to do that.

Second, use subtle software tools to sample activity data from all employees’ computers. I’m talking about software like Screenshot Monitor here. This tool takes screenshots of your employees’ screen, so you can see what they’re doing. That’s not the only monitoring option though; here are ten more from PCMag.

Most importantly…neither part of this approach gets in a remote worker’s way.

A Work-Encouraging Check-In Strategy

Now for the second part of my solution. Monitoring activity & output is a big help. But what about communication? Those regular check-ins every manager likes to do, just to see how you’re doing.

You may want to haul remote workers into a daily (virtual) meeting for check-in. Don’t do that. Meetings, even remote ones, take up time better used for Focus Time.

Instead, do one-on-one check-ins twice to three times per week. Keep to a per-person time limit, but don’t try to squeeze everyone into 5 minutes each. Some people may need more time.

(I’ll cover more on communication intervals vs. quality in a future post.)

This check-in method is easy to schedule, eliminating the nervousness of out-of-the-blue calls. Scheduling them at the same time each week eliminates the sense of disruption. Finally, it’s one-on-one; you’ll have direct communication each time.

Check-In with Manager

Oh, five minutes to my check-in.
Photo by Jessica Arends on Unsplash.

Any communication method will work for such a remote check-ins. I like this order of methods, from best to worst:

  • Slack (or Teams, Google Hangouts, etc.)
  • Slack/Email Combination
  • Email/Phone Combination
  • Email Only
  • Phone Only

If you’re instituting a project management platform, schedule a recurring task for each check-in. Everyone gets a reminder beforehand. Nobody’s surprised. Everyone can gear up for the check-in, go through whatever needs going through, and get back to distraction-free Focus Time!

Don’t Let Paranoia Drive Your Remote Workers Away

My last post on communication “burstiness” plays into the check-in side of this monitoring solution. If you take a moment to read it, I’m sure you’ll see how it helps.

Managers! I’m sorry to tell you this, but your “If I can’t see them they’re not working” paradigm died years ago. Remote workers DO stick to their work. They’re turning in some fantastic work, in fact.

If you’re unsure of their progress at any given point, that’s a problem you must solve. The answer is NOT to force people back into the office. They’re actually more likely to get distracted that way!

Instead, use a little software and scheduling to keep lines of communication open. I’m 100% certain you’ll find those remote workers will stay in contact, keep up good productivity, and remain excellent workers for years.

Do you manage remote workers now? How do you keep an eye on their work?

Communicating Remotely

A recent study recommends remote teams communicate in “bursts,” not constantly throughout the workday.

The website behavioralscientist.org, a site discussing human psychology, published the following article on May 29:

“Bursty” Communication Can Help Remote Teams Thrive – Behavioral Scientist

I find the fact that a psychology website brings up Remote Work very important. Adoption of Remote Work is more a question of psychology than anything else.

The tech IS available, and has been for years. Implementation only takes days. But before that you need the company to accept the notion of Remote Work (what many call ‘buy-in’). After implementation, you need work habits to change, adapting around the new Remote Work option.

These are both a matter of human beliefs, attitudes, and habits – all aspects of human psychology.

So let’s examine what the BehavioralScientist.org article has to say.

Study Done on Remote Team Productivity when Using 2 Communication Methods

The article discusses a study which tested remote teams’ communication strategies. Specifically, they measured two different communication methods:

  1. Standard communication: Communication occurred constantly, in small exchanges, all throughout the day. Lag time often occurred between initial requests and responses.
  2. “Burstiness”: Communication “bursts” – rapid exchange of messages within a short time period – occurred sporadically during the workday. Then people went back to their work until the next “burst.”

The result? The teams using “burstiness” were more productive, more coherent, and had higher-quality work at the end of the day. Findings included this statistical result: “A one standard deviation increase in burstiness lead to a 24 percent performance increase.”

24% improvement is pretty darn significant for a controlled trial!

What This Means: Nonstop Conversation Trickle Disrupts Work. Communication Bursts Allow Focused Work.

I’ve seen this reflected in my own telecommuting. As you’re working, you begin to run into snags. I need this file from Sharon…are we debuting the new trial version on Thursday or Monday…

You ask the co-worker about the snag. But co-workers, wrapped up in their own work, don’t answer right away. What do you do? You either a) keep bugging them, or b) wait (causing what I call ‘Question Buildup’).

Within a normal office environment, you could go ask them & get back to work. But that creates another type of disruption. You go to Sharon’s desk, ask her a question, and get an answer. Then someone else asks Sharon a question & gets an answer. Then someone else…

How much work can Sharon accomplish like this? None!

A constant trickle of quick conversations, facilitated by an easy-to-access office environment, just RUINS productivity. But without those questions answered, you get Question Buildup, and your work can’t progress. It creates a bad Catch 22.

“Bursty” communication periods can solve this problem, according to the study.

Here’s how I envision using “burstiness” during the workday. (Forgive the crudely-basic infographic; I am not a designer.)

Burstiness for Remote Teams

“Burstiness” and its role in the remote team’s workday.

  1. All team members proceed with their work.
  2. Questions begin to build up among them.
  3. One or more persons calls for a Burst session.
  4. Everyone stops their work & converses with the team.
  5. Questions are answered, issues resolved, direction obtained. Could take as little as 5 minutes.
  6. Team members go back to work.
  7. Repeat cycle if necessary.

Communicating in Bursts Lets Remote Workers Do Their Work, AND Stay Productive. Try It!

Take a minute and read the BehavioralScientist.org article. It’s an excellent study, and a short read.

We glean a strong two-part point about remote work from the study results:

  • Communication is key for ALL teams, but especially remote teams. Doing so productively translates to big productivity gains.
  • Remote Work is more a matter of psychology than procedure. If the psychological acceptance isn’t there, someone will sabotage the whole effort.

How do you handle communication when working remotely?