How to Communicate Successfully When Working Remotely

Many of us suddenly find ourselves working from home—a familiar landscape with some unfamiliar work-life problems. Here's how to get your message across effectively even when you're working in your pajamas.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #589
The Quick And Dirty

These tips will have you communicating remotely like a pro.

  1. Clarify your purpose
  2. Choose your medium wisely
  3. Consider your audience
  4. Check in

Working remotely is not a new concept. According to CNBC, as of 2018, roughly 70 percent of the global workforce was working remotely at least once per week.

But for most, working remotely is a complement to, not a replacement for, days in an office. Yet, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, to minimize risk, many companies are asking, or even requiring, their employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future.

When it's not your norm, telework can be hard to navigate. QDT’s editor Karen Hertzberg, a work-from-home veteran herself, recently published “How to Work from Home During the Coronavirus Outbreak.” She laid out some of her strategies for success. Being disciplined about your schedule, minimizing distractions, and staying accountable to personal goals are some of the gems on her list.

RELATED7 Ways to Write Better Email Messages

One of the greatest telecommuting challenges is communication. Today’s episode is a deep dive into some strategies you can use to ensure you’re communicating at the top of your virtual game.

Clarify your purpose

In the office, you have the luxury of walking the halls and letting spontaneous conversation happen. But working remotely means every interaction with someone else must be intentional. It’s unlikely, after all, that you’ll bump into a colleague in your own kitchen when you take a coffee break.

Before reaching out to someone, know what you want to achieve.

Before reaching out to someone, know what you want to achieve. Are you looking for opinions? Seeking permission? Providing an update? Offering advice? Just saying hello?

All of these are valid reasons for reaching out. But clarifying your purpose upfront will help you to choose the right mode, and craft a message designed to get you the outcome you need.

Choose your medium wisely

When working remotely, you don’t have the option of communicating in person. But technology has allowed for a wide array of options from email to phone to videoconference to text to instant message to collaborative project management tools. The options can feel endless.

So how do you choose? There’s never a single right answer. But with a clear sense of the purpose of your message, there are some basic guidelines you might consider.

Email is great for capturing lists and details. If your purpose is primarily to provide an update, this may be your best bet. If you’re detailing changes you’ve made to a presentation or laying out a timeline, then email is your friend.

It’s also a means of creating a virtual paper trail. So, if you’re seeking a budget approval or permission to move forward on a project, email provides you with a written record of that conversation should you need it later.

Phone conversations are great for dialog or debate. If you’re looking for ideas and opinions or you’re sitting with a few options and want to talk them through with someone, then the real-time back and forth of a phone chat, versus the static nature of email, can be invaluable.

The phone is more personal and interactive than email, but there's still a distance between you and the other absent those visual cues.

Video conference lets you read the room. It's your best option if you’re planning for a conversation that may be emotional or personal. Though you may not be able to observe body language, being able to see facial cues or watch expressions during moments of silence, can help you to interpret how the other person is doing. And that can inform how you respond.

Texting or chat platforms are ideal for quick exchanges of information. If you need to clarify something or ask a simple question, you can accomplish that with a text. 

Collaborative project management tools are great holding spaces and version controllers. When you want to keep track of all the moving parts of any complex project, you'll appreciate their ability to consolidate all the relevant information, assignments, and to-do lists in one place.

Consider your audience

You know what you need (purpose), and you know how you’re planning to get it (medium). Now it’s time to execute.

Whatever your purpose and medium, here are some best practices to use in the crafting of the message to get you successfully to your finish line.

Call them to action

Whether in the subject line of your email, the calendar invite of your meeting request, or the opening dialogue of your phone call, be explicit about what you need from the other party. Do you need a response? An opinion? A friendly ear? Confirmation of information received? Whatever it is, make sure the other person knows upfront what you need from them.

Focus above the fold

Our attention is called in countless directions every day. So make your key point quickly. Have a long update to share? Offer an executive summary at the top of your note so the reader gets the gist early. Have a complex issue to walk through? Offer a top-line summary of the challenge early in your call so the listener can orient themselves. Capturing your recipient's attention early is important so you don't squander your chance to get their response and action.

Communicate with empathy

As you build out your message, case, or update, focus not on what you want to say but what they need to receive to deliver your outcome. What information do they need? What assumptions are they likely bringing to the table? What stressful things have they been dealing with just before this conversation? Consider their needs, and lead with those.

Appreciate what they can’t see

In-person communication invites us to use more than just our literal words. Body language, facial expressions, sarcasm, thoughtful pauses, and gestures all help to round out our arsenal of available tools.

In virtual dialog, those things may become unavailable or, worse, misinterpreted. A long silence during a phone call, or sarcasm misunderstood when delivered electronically, can have a painful impact on an otherwise positive conversation.

So, when communicating virtually, be clear, concise, literal, and mindful of silences. 

Check in

Whatever your level of enthusiasm about working from home, we’re living in an unprecedented moment right now. Likely you have colleagues experiencing a range of emotions—some uncertain, some afraid, some lonely. Or maybe you’re the one feeling any or all of those things. You're not alone.

Maintaining connection in a moment of uncertainty is essential.

Maintaining connection in a moment of uncertainty is essential. And it should absolutely be on your list of reasons to reach out. You may not have a specific question or project update. But be intentional about carving out moments of your day to reach out to a friend, colleague, or even your boss.

Just showing up—letting someone know they were on your mind, offering a friendly and familiar voice—can go a long way in helping your teammates (and yourself) feel connected during this isolating time.

Working remotely has its pros and cons. For now, for many, it’s a simple fact of life. So do your  best to focus on the positives—the convenience, the quiet, and of course, the chance to rock those PJ’s all darn day!

This list captures some of the essentials we should all keep in mind. But should you encounter a scenario that doesn’t feel covered by here, please send it my way. If I can help get you through a challenging moment, it would be my pleasure to do so. So email your questions to modernmentor@quickanddirtytips.com. Tweet them @QDTmodernmentor, or leave me a voicemail on my listener line at (201) 632-5656.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.

You May Also Like...