How to Tackle Poor Workplace Communication in the Age of Remote Work


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Marissa Mayer, then CEO of Yahoo and ex-Google wunderkind, sent out a shocking memo to Yahoo’s remote employees in 2013: relocate to an office or find a new job. Mayer’s goal in reversing such a progressive work policy—Yahoo was an industry leader in remote work at the time—was to foster more communication and collaboration, both of which she alleged happened better in the office.

But the new rule wasn’t just a notoriously bad decision, it was a poorly communicated one that sparked company-wide confusion and outrage. The crudely constructed memo didn’t provide any concrete explanations to justify the sudden massive culture change. It didn’t connect remote work to lower performance at Yahoo nor provide studies that prove remote employees were less productive. Instead, the memo showed a lack of transparency and served as what one Yahoo employee called “a morale killer.” 

Communication is at the heart of every organization. Effective communication can drive business success. Poor communication, however, can spell the demise of a company. There’s a clear need for organizations to master their communications. The question becomes: how do they master their communications in today’s increasingly remote workplace? First, let’s look at why workplace communication is important.

Poor workplace communication is costly

Poor communication can cause a lot of friction in an organization. Imagine that your supervisor assigned a project without providing any context, leaving you to tackle the project blindly. When you finish, your supervisor asserts that the project is missing key pieces, forcing you to redo huge parts of it. What could’ve been clearly communicated from the start has now cost your team precious time and your organization money.

The impact of workplace communication can be astronomical. According to a Holmes study, companies with effective communications had 47% higher returns for shareholders than those without. On the other hand, the same study also found that poor communication can cost organizations over $26,000 per employee every year. The losses come in the form of low employee morale, engagement, and high turnover.

Productivity isn’t the issue

Remote work has gained immense traction in recent years, and if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything about remote work, it’s that remote employees can be just as collaborative and productive at home as they are in the office. Stanford University professor Nicholas Bloom conducted a study on China’s largest online travel agency Ctrip, which employs over 44,000 people around the world. The company needed to tackle two issues: the high cost of office space in its Shanghai headquarters and employees’ long commutes from home. 

The study found that employees were not only more productive, but also showed 50% less attrition. At the same time, the company saved over $2,000 per employee on expensive office space. Similar studies also show that remote employees have higher levels of satisfaction, performance, and retention.

New communication challenges with remote employees

If there’s one thing Yahoo got right, it’s that communication and collaboration are the key cultivators of innovation. Their attempt to restore those, however, missed the mark. While the leadership at Yahoo decried the unproductive nature of remote work, they didn’t pay attention to the true culprit: management.

Remote work productivity clearly isn’t the issue—it’s how organizations manage their remote workers. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that many remote employees feel extremely isolated from their teams, with 68% saying colleagues don’t fight for their priorities. Isolation and loneliness can have a big impact on productivity, with perceived workplace isolation leading to as much as a 21% drop in productivity

Successfully managing remote teams requires more than the traditional methods of office communication. Remote teams have employees who live in different cities, states, and time zones. Communicating is not as simple as walking to a colleague’s desk and chatting, or discussing a project together in a meeting room. Rather, remote employee communication requires special effort from managers. Here are a few tips:

1. Establish a baseline for success

It’s easy to lose sight of what remote employees do when they’re not in the same office as you. Without establishing clearly defined goals and expectations for them, remote employees won’t have a metric for success, which leads to low morale and engagement.

Set specific guidelines for what remote employees need to do. For example, managers could ask remote employees to update assignment spreadsheets every day so teammates could easily check on progress. Also, if the team has specific hours dedicated to connecting on projects, make sure remote employees are always available at that time.

2. Encourage open communication

Remote employees feel valued when their voices are heard, but speaking their minds can be difficult when they don’t have the same personal relationships with their teams. Luckily, managers can easily fix this by creating a culture of open communication and proactively seeking feedback. Encourage remote employees to come to you for support, and let them know you care about their opinions. Not only will they feel more engaged, but they might also contribute innovative ideas you hadn’t thought of.

3. Prioritize face-to-face interaction using video conferencing

Nonverbal cues make up over 93% of communication, so relying on team messaging and emails isn’t enough. Instead, video conferencing allows employees to see and be seen, which helps to develop stronger relationships between team members. It also helps simulate random office social interactions—an important part of team bonding.

To be effective, video conferencing has to be easy for remote employees to use. If employees have to switch apps, enter login credentials, choose the right participants, and input meeting IDs just to start a video call, they’ll simply default to easier forms of communication such as messaging and emails. Ideally, your communication solution should include team messaging, video, and phone in a single app where employees can easily launch video calls with just one click.

4. Schedule regular huddles to keep goals aligned

When employees go without communicating, work gets progressively siloed. Long periods of working alone can cause remote workers to feel out of the loop, which means less collaboration takes place. Before you know it, assignments become a chaotic mess, and employees end up working on the same tasks.

A once-a-week video meeting can do wonders for team collaboration. Connecting once a week gives remote employees a chance to connect on tasks and align goals. Meetings can also strengthen relationships between employees, which leads to better overall teamwork.

5. Reread messages before sending to avoid misunderstandings

Team messaging and emails can be excellent for quick and non-urgent communication, but tone is easy to misconstrue. What sounds perfectly normal to someone might sound hurtful to another. If this continues for too long, managers risk driving a wedge between them and their remote employees. Make sure to reread your messages before sending them off to reduce the chance of misunderstandings—and stick with video communications as much as possible.

Unified communications fosters better workplace collaboration

When organizations practice strategic communication, remote employees can perform as efficiently as office employees. The challenge, then, is for organizations to adapt to the changing dynamics of the modern workplace and find ways to keep remote employees engaged.

With more employees working remotely every year, organizations increasingly turn to unified communications for their long-term communications strategy. A unified solution that bundles team messaging, video, and phone solutions like the RingCentral app allows employees to communicate and collaborate from anywhere in the world, using any mode of communication. Employees across the globe can seamlessly jump from messaging to video calling all within the same app, making communication effortless to start.

A unified communications solution ensures that managers and remote employees have the tools they need to collaborate effectively and drive business outcomes. Make sure your organization streamlines communication by giving employees the tools they need to succeed.

Originally published May 12, 2020, updated Aug 21, 2020

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