Communication strategies for teams that work from home

They differ from best communication practices followed in an office environment, not in kind, but only in the degree to which they have to be promoted

July 13, 2020 02:00 pm | Updated 08:46 pm IST

Lawyer Timon Karamanos, 40, works from home, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Athens, Greece, June 24, 2020. Picture taken June 24, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Lawyer Timon Karamanos, 40, works from home, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Athens, Greece, June 24, 2020. Picture taken June 24, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Managing team members who can be working from anywhere requires proven communication models to be revisited, keeping in view the unique challenges that go with a 100 p.c. remote-working arrangement.

And any communication strategy that may be drawn up for work-from-home teams based on these models, won’t alter them, but only reaffirm and promote some of their features, more powerfully and aggressively.

Naresh Purushotham, chief mentor and co-founder, CrestPoint Consultants India, says, “If leaders err in their communication strategies for remote-working teams, let it be that they err on the side of over-communication.” He explains that this will compensate for the lack of regular in-person interactions where communication happens organically.

The power of clarifying: ‘Seek feedback’

Communication is a complex process, overlaid on the substrata of assumptions, biases and vested interests, and these layers can alter the message. In in-person communications, non-verbal cues may enable leaders to gauge how their message is being received, and allow them the luxury of quickly altering it. WFH communications don’t offer them this advantage, even where communication via video-conferencing is involved. How do leaders overcome the in-built challenge?

“In face-to-face communication, there is the advantage of interpreting body language. People communicate a lot more non-verbally than through words. To compensate for the lack of it, managers have to listen more actively, clarify a lot more, and develop the habit of summarising what they have said,” says Naresh.

Even more important is getting the team members to summarise what they have understood from the message delivered to them.

Says Naresh, “The manager should ask: ‘Can I hear about your understanding of what I said?’ While listening, biases can be at work, and much of what is being said can get filtered out. When the leader hears the team member summarise it, he can fill in the blanks.”

The power of repetition: ‘Wield it creatively’

“As the usual channels of reinforcement found in the office environment are missing, leaders and managers have to keep repeating key messages,” says Naresh. “Leaders think that if they have said it once, people would get it — but they don't.”

In a remote-working context, this thinking would be disastrous, as messages, poorly communicated and rarely repeated, may not sink in.

It’s a human tendency to resent being told something repeatedly, and so how does one get around the natural bias against messages that are on a seeming loop?

“Put out the message in various contexts, and keep refreshing it. When you are on a video conference call with the team for something else, look for opportunities to present the key messages in the new context. ‘Didn't I tell you then...’. The trick is to keep on refreshing the key messages,” elaborates Naresh.

The power of directness: ‘Keep the clutter out’

Effective leadership communication is always about laying down the vision in a language that has all the lines tucked well into place like a well-oiled and combed mane of hair. In WHF, any sloppiness in communicating the objectives lucidly can cause more damage, as the teams are usually largely self-managed.

“There should not be any abstraction or ambiguity around any vision statement the leadership may put out. When Jack Welch took over as CEO and chairman of General Electric, he told his managers that in four years, GE should be either number one or two in all the industries that it was present in, or it should get out of those industries,” says Naresh, explaining that this vision statement is as clear as it can get: “The time frame is clear; so is the overarching goal.”

The power of follow-ups: ‘Close the loop’

Communication flows on two carriageways, moving in opposite directions. How does the leader ensure that remote-working team members keep their carriageway well-travelled?

Naresh explains, “The team members may not be so conscious about the necessity of over-communication as the leader, and therefore, systems have to be put in place to ensure this: ‘closing the communication loop’ is one system. The manager has asked the remote-working team member to do something, and the latter is expected to get back to the manager on an agreed date. Only when the team member does this, by apprising the manager about the status of the work assigned to him and what the client may be thinking about it, is the communication loop considered closed. The manager has to insist that every team member closethe communication loop that they may be a part of. If that doesn’t happen still, the manager has to follow up, asking the team member the next day, and then follow through, without taking the foot off the pedal, till the communication loop is closed.”

The power of consistency: ‘Ink in the message’

In a remote-working arrangement, team interactions lurch from call to call, and therefore having core strategies carefully planned and inked in becomes important. Of course, methods can be rethought in response to evolving situations, but goalposts should not be continually shifted.

Naresh says, “In any environment, inconsistencies in the message can lead to confusion. The manager can’t say, ‘I might have said that yesterday, but listen to it now.’ The manager can’t be inconsistent in his communication about the basics. Any seeming inconsistency should be justifiable. We are living in an agile world, where interruptions happen, and the customer is the major interruption, with new demands from the customer that may call for a changed approach. In that context, explain to the team why something may have to be recast.”

The power of compactness: ‘An undiluted message’

Messages can go in one ear as one creature, and come out of a mouth faraway, a whole new creature. How can leaders protect messages from getting diluted or misrepresented when the teams are distributed and can’t exchange notes often. “In a remote-working arrangement, to ensure efficient communication flow through the layers, teams have to be kept more compact. In fact, in any work environment, office or work-from-home, every manager should have only 6 to 8 direct reports. So that the message is cascaded efficiently down the line.”

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