If You Suddenly Work Remotely, Communication Matters More Than Anything Else

Making sure your colleagues feel seen and heard is what you need to prioritize if you're working from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

As the number of COVID-19 coronavirus cases increase, more U.S employers in technology and other industries are encouraging or preparing their employees to work remotely for an indefinite period.

If you are one of the workers who is making a sudden and new transition to full-time remote work, you may be getting a lot of opinions and advice about working from home, as I have been from old-timers who love it and haters who find the routine overrated.

I could give you basic, pragmatic tips to create boundaries between work and home, like changing out of pajamas, showering and choosing actions to signal the beginning and end of the workday. For me, mealtimes are my scheduler. Making tea tells me my workday is starting, and cooking dinner tells my body that I am no longer going to keep typing.

But on a fundamental level, how you communicate and maintain relationships with your co-workers should be your priority, whether you are a manager or not, so that no one feels isolated. The transition is happening because of a pandemic crisis, and your workflow needs to reflect that urgency.

Keeping communication predictable and consistent is critical.

John Bwarie is the CEO of Stratiscope, a community engagement and activation company with expertise in community crisis response who has written tips for how businesses can preserve relationships through a pandemic.

Bwarie’s one major tip for employees suddenly going remote is to ask for structured lines of communication.

“As an employee transitioning into the social distance and isolation phase, if it’s not provided, they should ask their employer to provide structure and clarity,” he said. Questions to ask your team leader can include “How often should we be expecting to hear from you about the pandemic?” or “What’s the way I should be communicating to you if I am hearing things or confused about them?” Bwarie said.

Workers need consistent updates when they are away from central information because, without them, they can tell stories in their head that may not be true, I learned in a recent remote work webinar.

Last week, I signed up, along with 500 others, for a crash course on managing people over distance co-taught by Nicole Sanchez, the founder and managing partner of Vaya Consulting, and Cate Huston, an engineering lead at Automattic. Sanchez and Huston’s hourlong webinar anticipated offices closing due to COVID-19, and one piece of advice that stayed with me came from Sanchez. The remote paranoia workers may feel, she said, can lead to thoughts like “My manager hasn’t reached out to me all week. I haven’t talked to her. Am I getting fired?”

To prevent this remote anxiety, team managers need to re-clarify how and when information will be communicated, such as “Slack is for things I need in the next three hours,” “Text is for ‘This is immediate’” or “Video-conferencing is for when there’s no other way to exchange information but also for making sure people stay connected to each other because there is no replacement for face-to-face,” Sanchez said in the webinar. The point in clarifying these different modes of communication is to make sure employees can filter the signal from the noise.

Establishing a consistent cadence of communication also means not backing out of group meetings you scheduled if you’re a leader. “A team meeting is super important. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes people cancel if they don’t have an agenda,” Huston said. “The purpose of your team meeting is really to feel like a team, so never cancel your team meeting. Find things to talk about even if it’s just people sharing the stuff that they’re doing that isn’t as relevant to other people.“

Anticipate technical difficulties as more people suddenly use digital communication. Sanchez noted that there could be issues with more people using communication software like Zoom in neighborhoods that don’t have the bandwidth. In those cases, be prepared to switch to landlines and no-video chats that take up less bandwidth, she said.

If you want people to share, make small social groups an option.

When you suddenly cannot see or be around your co-workers, having an ability to connect with them outside of deadlines and deliverables is essential to feeling heard and staving off social isolation.

Establishing a social group of no more than eight people, in which people can be vulnerable, can be a more effective way to find out how co-workers are really feeling than by sending an all-hands email or hosting one big messaging group about it, Bwarie said. How the small group communicates can be tailored to the company’s level of digital communication, but it needs to have a leader who can hold people accountable and check in with them. It also needs to be small so participants can share their feelings more comfortably.

“You are not going to process your emotions in a large group because no one is going to respond to you. They are going to go on to the next person,” Bwarie said.

Bwarie also noted that having a small group can limit misinformation spreading during a pandemic: “That misinformation on a large Slack group is going to cause more rumors of ‘I heard, I heard, I heard,’” he said. Instead, Bwarie recommended giving the small social groups a channel to raise questions and know that those questions will be answered by management.

Small talk that has nothing do with work is a big deal.

Maintaining these social connections can remind you that you are part of a community that cares about your well-being. Jo Cipolla is the marketing director for SquareFoot, a New York City-based real estate company that transitioned to remote work this week due to the coronavirus outbreak. She said she is now trying to replicate the social interactions she had in the office by calling up her work friends during the lunch hour.

“The people who I’m friends with at work, we will set up a lunchtime chat and speak... It’s nice,” Cipolla said. “What’s good is that people are figuring out ways to get around the work-from-home and ensure we are still socially engaging with each other.”

If you’re seeking buddies to chat with, you can also frame your request for connection as a generic invitation colleagues can opt into, Huston said. In this case, Huston recommended the tool Donut, which uses the Slack messaging app to randomly pair team members so that they can meet each other and chat once they have opted into a Donut Slack channel.

Be understanding about the stress and loss of productivity.

If you are in management, prioritize your team’s well-being over their productivity during this abrupt transition.

“People are really struggling emotionally. They’re not going to do their best work,” Huston told HuffPost. When the office is closed and your immediate concern is that people are not working a full 40-hour week, “are you worrying about the right thing?” she said.

Instead, remind people of why they are at the company and how they are meaningfully making a difference. “We’re seeing a situation where it feels like the world is ending and it feels like work is trivial,” Huston said. “If you can kind of make people feel more connected to the mission in this situation, rather than less connected, then that will be a really powerful tool for engagement. And it will also help people direct what needs to be done.”