Work at Home Series: Managing Communication
This is the second post in our “Work at Home Series.” Today we’ll discuss tips and tricks for managing communication with your team while working remotely. Check out the first post in the series, Work Zones, and watch for the last in the series coming later this week, all about Dealing with Distractions!
Once you have decided where in your home you will be working, the next thing to think about is how you and your team will keep in touch. Your employer may already have tools and resources set-up to help you work at home. Or maybe this task falls to you, to determine how to manage communication and share files.
First, I have to tell you that this can get messy very quickly if you’re not careful, so some of these tips might seem basic. Trust me when I tell you, as complicated as the tools available for remote communication can be, if we stick to the basics it goes so much more smoothly.
Read on for some best practices to follow to make sure that your virtual communication is professional, seamless, and does not annoy your coworkers.
Managing Email Communication
Know when to use “Reply All” on group emails.
Be careful not to drop pertinent people out of your conversation, or you risk creating confusing side conversations, unnecessary repetition, or instances of avoidable miscommunication. However, you can over use that Reply All function. Don't use it if the information the email conveys is not pertinent to the entire group. Or better yet, if you need to make sure a group of people are kept in the loop, consider using other tools such as Slack, where conversations can be shared with a group, but segmented threads can be created within that group, too, so that those who need to know, know, and those that don't really need it aren't inundated with messages.
Respond to emails from your team members in a timely manner.
A good rule of thumb is to reply within 24 hours of receipt, even if it is just a “Hey, got your message, and I will get back to you on (insert day/time frame).” Since you aren't face to face with your team on a regular basis, responding to email at regular intervals is a key component to successfully managing communication when working remotely.
Stay on topic.
Use clear and concise subject lines in your email so that receivers can quickly understand the purpose of your message, and are able to locate it again if they need to return to it at a later time.
Consider if email is really the best way to communicate your topic.
As mentioned above, business communication messaging tools like Slack might be better suited for your purposes, as they allow you to segment conversations and create threads to keep ideas together. Take a look at your options. For more conversational interactions, email might not be the best choice.
Managing Communication with Video and Conference Calls
Be on time and be prepared.
Treat virtual meetings just as you in-person meetings. Have your necessary documents and files open and close by before the call starts.
Be aware of what is visible on your screen when participating in video calls.
Most of us are doing our best to juggle work and family at home, so there is some room for grace here, but...don’t be that person that carries their screen around with them while they do household chores, attends to personal grooming in the middle of the video chat, or worse. It’s distracting, and can quickly derail the conversation. (Yes, people do these kinds of things…). And if you will be screen-sharing, have only the relevant tabs and files open on your screen to avoid showing the entire audience sensitive or personal information.
Mute your microphone if not speaking.
This is especially important if you must have a side conversation—say your kid interrupts you and needs your attention. Have those conversations off screen if on a video call. Just remember to unmute yourself when you need to speak!
Reduce audible distractions.
This goes hand-in-hand with muting your microphone, but it applies to those times when your microphone needs to be on. Turn off your phone ringer and mute other notification tones on your computer that might occur during the meeting.
Consider the level of security needed for video or conference calls.
Recent news stories about hacks into providers like Zoom must be considered. Password protected calls are best, but do your research before selecting a provider, and set up your account properly to minimize hacking or uninvited participants.
Data Management Best Practices
Pick your communication platforms with care.
Decide what types of communication will be conveyed with email, what will you use tools like Slack for, and how you will hold video or conference calls. Once designated platforms are set up, stick with them consistently so that your team knows what kind of information will be shared through each channel.
Follow protocol when sharing and saving electronic files.
Design an organizational system for storing electronic files, and create standards for using it. Then be sure to save files accordingly, and follow labeling guidelines. If your team has not outlined protocols for where files are to be stored and shared, start that conversation with the relevant decision makers. Nothing can derail a team faster than disorganized files. It wastes time, and creates sink holes in which important information can be lost.
Don't be afraid to use free/inexpensive online platforms for file management.
Google Docs and Dropbox are two common free/inexpensive platforms. Keeping documents organized and accessible can be a chore. Google Docs is great for documents that multiple people need to be able to edit, but Dropbox is better for storing final drafts, records, templates and reports. Think of it like a virtual file cabinet. Create clearly labeled drawers and folders just like you would in a real cabinet, and file documents accordingly.
Managing Your Workflow & Time
Don’t be annoying.
Remember that working remotely often means that people are working at different times of the day. That does not mean it is okay to blow up your team’s Slack or What’sApp message thread at 2 a.m. Jot down items you want to discuss with the team, and consider sending a daily digest of sorts, or utilize remote workflow tools to keep ideas shared and organized (see more below). On the flip side, turn off or mute your notifications for at least a few hours a day and overnight. It is easy to stay in work mode much longer than needed when your house is also your office. Set up times to give yourself mental space to be off the clock.
Create a schedule and follow it.
Set boundaries for the times of day you are working, and when you are off (and don't forget to check out our next post in this series, Dealing with Distraction,s for more about this point!). Not only is it good for your mental health, it is also how you can streamline your productivity, while protecting your precious time with your family or for yourself.
Use workflow and project management tools.
Shared online workflow tools like Trello or Asana are free or inexpensive, depending on the features you need to use. These tools allow teams to share progress on projects, tasks, and deadlines. Some even allow for team calendar integration, and have messaging/chat features.
Keep your shared calendars up to date.
Your team can't see if you're at your desk or peek over the cubicle wall to ask if next Tuesday at 10 a.m. works for you for that pitch meeting, so let them know when you are available by keeping your calendar up to date. Also important: update your availability status icons on tools like Outlook, Slack, and Skype, so your team knows if you are “in” or “out” of the office in real time.
Above all else, be flexible. Even though my team and I do this day in and day out, we still run into miscommunication, misplaced files, and forgotten details. It happens. We’re all human, and especially right now—we are all dealing with a lot.
If you work at home, I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for managing communication. Leave a comment to share lessons you’ve learned or questions you have for my team!