The new formula for remote communication is the old one of brevity
Ranging from employee complaints about micro-management by managers with a traditional supervisory-mindset, to loneliness, WFH (work-from-home) during COVID-19 has thrown up management challenges which unless addressed immediately could lead to serious long-term HR problems. Employees are weary of having to handle far too many WhatsApp groups, a barrage of messages during the day and constant interruptions to answer a variety of communication.
Many organisations are learning that WFH can be a tricky issue, especially with regard to communication. Not everyone is a good online communicator, although the person might be quite engaging in person. This has led to HR looking for new kinds of attributes in the employees they are hiring during this period.
According to HR professionals, organisations are now putting greater emphasis on hiring employees having strong communication skills such as writing action-oriented emails, good presentation skills, and the ability to communicate in a virtual world. Employees with the ability to send out concise and accurate emails, and those who can articulate themselves clearly on conference call are on the top of the skills in demand.
While hiring senior staff, with responsibility for leading large remote teams, managers who can handle the flow of communication effectively has become extremely critical. Research during these past few months of WFH has shown that communication in bursts are working most effectively. Harvard Business Review has found that concepts of burstiness, information diversity, and physiological synchrony, are fostering creativity, streamlining processes, reducing the stress of multi-tasking, and improving team performance.
Burst Communication involves periods of high activity followed by periods of little to none. Research suggests that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams. Those silent periods are when team members often form and develop their ideas — deep work that may generate the next steps in a project or the solution to a challenge faced by the group. Bursts, in turn, help to focus energy, develop ideas, and achieve closure on specific questions, thus enabling team members to move on to the next challenge.
The ability to work independently, once the briefing is over and tasks assigned, are top-of-the-list skillset in this scenario. A remote developer can’t be continually supervised by a manager (unlike in a physical office environment). Each remote developer must have the self-motivation to complete their work without needing reminders. This is as true for individuals as it is for teams.
The diversity of information we communicate is critical for effective communication. Diversity in teams also plays an important role, because it facilitates the exchange of a greater diversity of information, which in turn boosts team performance. What is working best is when each piece of communication is focused on a small set of topics, because that creates more information diversity across messages. Small chunks of information help focus the mind and declutter communications. Have you ever tried to manage multiple emails from your teammates that span an entire globe of topics? In that situation, it’s dangerously easy to become lost in searching for information, or just to get distracted from what’s actually the most important topic of the moment.
To optimize information diversity, strive to make each message as focused as possible. Instead of sending one long email that covers three topics, for example, send three separate ones. The fewer the number of ideas involved in a given message, the easier it is to go into more depth and have a back-and-forth exchange about each one.
One of the tricky issues that organisations are grappling with is what works better – video conferencing or audio only meetings. There seems to be trend when people are more comfortable switching off their cameras and listening to audio only. This is supported by research which found that not having access to visual cues, as is the case in audio-only calls, increases equality in speaking time. That might seem counterintuitive, but it turns out that video conferences can disrupt the non-verbal cues that enhance collaboration and collective intelligence.
The preference for audio conferencing in India is because it consumes less bandwidth, and there is no need to dress up for the meetings. Furthermore, small apartments are often cluttered, and the workspace has encroached into the living space, so typically people are more comfortable to keep their chaotic lives out of view from their colleagues.
Those who are freelancers or gig workers are faced with the additional challenge of having to deal with far too many different remote collaboration platforms, each having their own interfaces and user experiences. Cisco Webex Meetings, GoToMeeting, Hangouts Meet, Skype, and Zoom Cloud Meetings are among the favourite conference call apps with fairly intuitive interfaces. This has created a new challenge of having to attend with an explosive number of webinars, leading to online communication fatigue. The coming days will see us streamlining our digital communications to making it less strenuous but more effective. The trick will be to keep communication, sharp, precise and as always going back to the age-old magic formula of brevity.