What is the biggest complaint remote workers have about remote communication their colleagues? If you guessed too many emails, or being barraged by Slack messages, you’re in the top ten. But when we recently asked people “What’s the thing that drives you craziest about working with remote workers?” the answer was a little surprising.
“I hate talking on the phone. I prefer solving the problem by IM”
“IM stinks for problem solving. I wish people would just pick up the phone.”
“Once you get used to it, webcam is quick and easy and lets you see who you’re working with.”
It turns out that people like communicating in the way they are most comfortable, and get a little cranky when others don’t work with them in that way. But if every human being has their own particular communication comfort zone, how is a team supposed to settle on processes and norms so that everyone gets at least some of what they need?
Here’s a crazy idea. Ask them.
Seriously. When was the last time someone asked you how you wanted to communicate about a problem before you got mired down in the communication muck? Usually those discussions come after someone has to speak up and shout, “THIS ISN”T WORKING!” That’s when people snip email threads and get on the phone, or plan meetings after wasting a whole afternoon arguing on Slack.
How do we know what people want from us when it comes to communication? Well, since you’re asking:
If you have a need for someone’s time, ask them how they want to communicate.
We have a colleague here who actually (brace yourselves) would rather talk on the phone than indulge in pointless typing back and forth only to wind up having to get on the phone anyway. The more complicated the matter, the more likely a simple text exchange won’t work. If we want to avoid making her crazy, we get on the phone sooner rather than later. Crazy, huh?
It helps if you know in advance what people prefer.
When you work in the office together, you get to know who’s open to interruptions, who wants the world to go away, and who you need to approach with a peace offering of some kind (usually something baked and tasty). It’s harder, but not impossible, to get to know people’s work styles when you don’t get those daily cues. Tools like DISC and other work style assessments are helpful. (Here’s a link to a free DISC assessment if you aren’t familiar)
Be willing to use remote communication tools or styles that aren’t your personal preference.
As a manager, people will generally bend over backwards to make you happy. This means if you’ve made it clear that email is the best way to work with you, that’s what they’ll use. The problem, of course, is that it may not be the most effective or efficient way to address a problem. You might really hate being on webcam (it’s not my personal first choice) but its value is so obvious that sometimes it’s the right answer. Are you willing to adapt to the situation? If you’re a manager, are your people comfortable suggesting other means of communicating to you?
Be explicit about the need to choose the right tool for the right job.
Keep the conversation going with your team. Make choosing the right medium for the right message at the heart of your team’s work. Don’t assume everyone thinks about this stuff…most of us are too busy just trying to get the job done.
That probably includes you. We get caught up in the day to day and aren’t intentional about how we work together. But we should be. You might be driving your colleagues crazy and not even know it.
What’s YOUR biggest complaint about remote communication? Remember, venting can be healthy!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.
Regarding hospitable and related words— afew year’s ago I read something on the opposites of war. It was about “ Peace” not being a useful term because it did not tell you what to do. The word suggested was” hospitality” ! It seems to work for large and small tensions and divides, even your “peace offering” idea.
Of course, if you ask – you then may be perceived as agreeing to meet the other person’s need in lieu of your own or what could be the need of the organization for explicit/efficient documentation of actions taken, etc. With a desire to accommodate communicating style, learning style, whatever style; someone’s needs aren’t going to be met and maybe that’s what we need to acknowledge.