Fans of “The Crown,” Netflix’s hit bio-drama series about the life of England’s Queen Elizabeth II, are familiar with an episode in season two where, in 1957, the Queen shared her annual Christmas greeting with the English public for the first time via television. Elizabeth understood that TV, so much more intrusive than radio, represented a significant capitulation of royal decorum and tradition to modern culture. But, as the Queen had hoped, the intimacy of the televised message proved very popular and helped improve the monarchy’s ongoing relationship with the public. The lesson: match the appropriate communication platform to the situation at hand for the best results.
It’s a lesson more and more organizations are struggling with, as workers working at home due to COVID-19 restrictions are completely dependent on communication technology to be productive, maintain relationships with colleagues, and drive business success. Managers and workers find themselves in unfamiliar work environments, grappling with a complicated hodge-podge of electronic communication tools.
There’s every indication, post-COVID-19, that work-at-home is here to stay. So now is the time for organizations to develop their remote work strategies. And that includes the effective use of the most appropriate communication technology for the situation at hand.
How does effective communication build good relationships?
Even as some businesses tentatively re-open office doors, it’s certain that workplace strategy has already changed. In a recent survey by Gartner, almost three-quarters of CFOs surveyed intend to move some portion of their on-site jobs off-site permanently post-COVID-19, with nearly one-quarter planning to remotely locate 20% or more of their positions.
Some companies are finding work-at-home isn’t necessarily a slam dunk in terms of productivity or teamwork. One of the biggest difficulties is the lack of personal interaction. A salesperson might miss a team member’s pat on the back, a developer a quick tip from an experienced colleague, or a marketing exec the motivation generated from heated brainstorming sessions. And the long-term effects of a sizable portion of the employee population working mostly alone aren’t clear.
Still, many companies are experiencing boosts in productivity, fueling the momentum behind the work-at-home movement. Facebook, for instance, is developing a “measured approach” to transitioning current in-office positions to permanent remote work, but plans to aggressively hire talent who already work remotely, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The challenge is to create a digital environment for remote workers that’s inclusive and involving but not intrusive or distracting. Effective use of communication technology is key to making remote work pay off for both work-at-home employees and the organizations they work for.
How can technology build work relationships?
Humans are social by nature. The isolation of working from home can be alienating and upsetting for some workers, especially those used to the personal interaction of an office setting.
On the other hand, many workers are determined to make work-from-home a success. It’s easier (no long commutes), cheaper (less money spent on clothes, food, fuel), more liberating, and empowering for those who enjoy working when they feel most productive.
It’s not possible to recreate the immediacy of an office environment in a home office. However, motivated home workers are figuring out ways to replace personal interaction with a combination of phone calls, text messages, and email. Meanwhile, savvy managers are formulating the best mix of communication tools to support new remote workflows and processes, and to keep those home workers motivated.
It’s important for executives to allow such tech-enabled interpersonal dynamics to develop organically, and not micromanage or attempt to impose too many, or too harsh, restrictions. But there must be limits. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are not appropriate for internal business communications, especially given the controversy they’ve generated and the security and privacy concerns they represent.
Also, whether remote workers use their personal technology—PC or smartphone—or their organizations provide them is an important strategic decision. A company’s IT group can help with that, especially in laying out the security issues involved.
How current digital technologies can enhance working relationships
Each version of communication technology can be used to address specific issues related to enhancing teamwork and productivity. Where and how, though, depend a great deal on the circumstances.
Here are a few suggestions.
Phone: The one-on-one communication of a phone call is a close second to the immediacy of face-to-face interaction. Phone calls are a good way for remote employees to keep in touch with colleagues and managers and discuss anything from projects to personal occupations.
Conference calls: These are very effective for ad hoc or small group meetings, especially employing cell phones as the tech platform. Larger groups with regularly scheduled conference calls will help their remote workers by incorporating collaboration tools that work-at-homes can use to follow graphic presentations.
Team messaging: For communications that don’t require an immediate answer, team messaging is the prevalent tool of choice for most of today’s workforce. Whether a colleague is across the building or several time zones away, team messaging allows employees to reach out when it’s most convenient for them.
Video conferencing: COVID-19 is responsible for a huge wave of interest in video technology, both for business and personal use. Video conferencing can be an effective technology platform for remote workers by adding a personal dimension to meetings, interviews, and training.
How does technology help with communication?
There is no dearth of sophisticated, enterprise-level communication and collaboration technology in today’s marketplace. But some are more advantageous for the work-at-home environment than others.
First, comm tools for home workers must adhere to the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid. Communication technology that is simple and intuitive delivers a faster return on investment and saves money by cutting down on calls (or emails) to the IT help desk.
Second, communication tools that work well together are more effective than disparate ones acquired piecemeal over time that are hard to get in sync. Unified communications systems offer tightly integrated packages of communications tools that are relatively simple to use and create both means and opportunities for effective collaboration.
Finally, as with almost all enterprise-level software these days, communication technology offered in the cloud-oriented, as-a-service model is less expensive, more flexible, and easier to upgrade than standard on-premises software systems.
Just as the effective use of information technology has been critical to business success in the 21st century, learning to employ communication technology appropriately and effectively will be critical to the success of work-at-home strategies now and going forward.
Originally published Jul 13, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023