What Remote Work Has Taught Me About Communication

This post originally appeared on my blog on May 25, 2017. All rights reserved.

One of my colleagues recently gave a talk at OSCON about managing and building distributed teams, and it inspired me to revisit what it is that makes remote work feasible. I happen to work at a company that, thankfully, has pretty good remote culture, where the modes of communication (Slack, Google Hangouts, and email last) are widely adopted and used throughout the organization — whether you’re in office or remote.

(Note: the how-to’s of creating a remote-friendly work culture are outside of the scope of this post; instead, I will focus more on communicating effectively at the individual level.)

Prior to going remote, I thought that being a writer meant that I was pretty good at communication. But I didn’t know how many assumptions I’d made about work and what made me comfortable until I went remote.

Remote work has put more emphasis on communicating, not less, and I’ve had to communicate more frequently than I did when I was in office. Sadly, people mistake someone’s physical presence as a form of communication, but I could spend days in the office without having conversations that made me a better communicator.

The most important thing I’ve learned about communicating in a work setting is that often more communication is better than less, and sometimes how you say something matters more than what you’re saying. Writing as a medium is a form of communication that demands more attention to both what you say and how you convey information, meaning that I’ve had to stretch myself beyond what I thought I was capable of in order to communicate effectively.

There are a few reasons why effective communication is paramount in my work. On my end, effective communication:

  • Promotes trust. I’m in a nontechnical role and distributed teams are still a nascent concept among non-engineering teams even in startups. For many people, having a visual on you in the office is reassuring because it sends the message that you’re actually working. While sitting in a chair isn’t actually indicative of productivity, people need to know that you’re available and reliable. Communication is how we do that.
  • Let’s my manager know where I am with my work. I moved from tasks that could be easily tracked in JIRA to more long-term projects, so letting my manager know every day where I was with something kept me on track and also allowed my manager to give me feedback that would help move things along.

Here are a few things that I’ve had to constantly remind myself about communication as a remote worker:

Pay more attention to how one comes across in writing. One of the things I have to constantly remind myself is that sometimes my own mood and emotions affect how I read and respond to a message from someone, and also, that others don’t always mean to come across as harsh, impersonal, or uncaring. Sometimes we don’t respond to what is being said, but how it’s being said.

It’s also meant that I’ve had to pay extra attention to how I come across. There have been times where I’ve been utterly confused or frustrated at work, and it’s in the times when I’m not getting any feedback in the form of nonverbal cues that my mind starts to wander and my emotions can get the best of me. While it can be all too easy to respond to a sarcastic-sounding comment with snark, I have to remind myself to read between the lines. That also means looking beneath my emotional responses to understand what it is I am reacting to.

Tone matters, and making the decision to reply to something in a way that welcomes dialogue versus shuts it down helps me push through some of the issues that I perceive as blockers.

Am I frustrated because I’m not getting enough information, no matter how much we “talk” (read: “type”) about the topic? I should suggest jumping on a call to help me understand the ask better. Am I annoyed because someone left a comment in a doc that came across as snarky? Reply back asking the person politely asking for suggestions to make that section better.

I for one use lots of emoji and punctuation to sound friendlier and more approachable in Slack, whereas in Google Doc comments or an email, a properly placed exclamation mark here or there makes all the difference between sounding bored, demanding, or snarky, versus coming across as engaged, helpful, or sincere.

You have to provide more context than you’re comfortable with. With written communication we don’t get the same cues, making statements like the above come across as brash. Think of a time when:

  • You’re working and out of nowhere, your manager DM’ed you on Slack saying, “Hey, do you have a sec? I need to talk to you about something.” They don’t provide any additional context. How would you feel?
  • You send a polite email to an important director asking them if they wouldn’t mind forwarding the slide deck you need to get started on your project. You want to impress them and are a bit nervous about sending the email. They reply a few days later, saying: “Sorry, I don’t have it.” How would you feel?
  • You send a colleague updates on your tasks in a time-sensitive project, and they respond with one-word replies. When you ask them if they want to set up a meeting to discuss, they reply: “Ok.” How would you feel?

Now, these examples are contrived, of course, but in each, the reasons why the recipient of our message didn’t respond the way we hoped can be completely innocuous: maybe your manager wants to give you an update about that thing you asked them for; maybe the director was rushed for time and forgot to tell you to ask Jamie, who they knew had a copy of the deck; maybe your colleague has been stuck in meetings all day and has been inundated with messages. But we don’t know that, and when we don’t know what’s going on, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and create stories to explain the information gaps that are missing.

I know how I feel when I get one-word answers or one-line replies to things that I consider important, so I try my best to preface asks with additional context to give the person I’m talking to a full picture. Same goes with responses — I like getting as much information front loaded as possible (I’m a writer and this is _key_ for me in producing my work), so I try to do the same as a courtesy. I cater the amount of detail needed to the person I’m speaking to; if I’m addressing someone I hardly work with, I give more, and if it’s someone I work with frequently, a bit less. But even then, I try to provide as much as possible for transparency.

If providing more information makes the difference between having someone roll their eyes and not respond to you or getting full buy-in from a colleague, then I’m going to give them as much information as they need in order to get the response I am hoping for.

Know when a conversation needs to happen face-to-face. Even being mindful about tone and providing what one thinks is enough information isn’t, well, enough. When I find myself writing a huge wall of text, or having to go back and ask someone a lot of questions, I find that it is much easier to simply move the conversation off of direct message and into video conference mode. It’s much easier to actually talk to someone and get a feel for their nonverbal cues, and it gives me the opportunity to ask pointed questions in a way that doesn’t feel as taxing to someone freely conversing than it would if they had to think a lot about their responses while typing it out. Plus, there’s often a lot of background information that people feel more comfortable conveying in a conversation versus in a message.

Communication is a skill that must be constantly refined over time. In a work setting, it requires an understanding of how different modes of communication are used, and how reading in between the lines is important. By taking the first step in using it mindfully, we can avoid a lot of issues that stem from miscommunication, and it’s a key to ensuring you feel supported and able to perform your job well if you work remotely.

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