8 communication tips for telecommuters to master

Follow this advice from Google and other tech experts to stay connected now that telecommuting is the new normal, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

As usual, Google is ahead of the curve in most things. The company published Distributed Work Playbooks in April 2019 to help people adjust to working with colleagues who are not in the same office. Team members and managers have to deliberately change daily logistics and communication skills to stay effective.

We've all zoned out during virtual meetings or not shared video so we can keep working on something else. Those old habits need to be replaced by new ones so that teams stay in touch and preserve a culture that keeps people working together and not isolating themselves. Some of these actions will feel awkward at first, so the key is to push through and keep doing it until there's a new normal.

Veronica Gilrane, the people analytics manager at Google Labs, analyzed the tactics and habits that build relationships with teammates who don't casually meet in the hallway

"It feels natural to ask about after work plans or swap movie reviews when you're meeting face to face, but it takes more effort to form that bond when you're mostly seeing each other on a video screen," she said.

Eugenio Pace, CEO and co-founder of Auth0, said it's important to create a work environment that centers around collaboration, communication, and culture, not just laptops and flexibility. Telework plans should include opportunities for employee bonding, team training, and collaboration.

"We hold regular companywide video meetings with different time zone options, virtual coffee dates where employees are randomly paired for a video get-to-know-you on a biweekly basis, and have a platform for praising employee successes, among many other things," Pace said.

SEE: 10 Slack tips: A how-to guide (free PDF)

Cultivating a positive culture among remote workers may seem touchy-feely to IT leaders, but there could be a clear security ROI. A report from Egress on insider data breaches suggests that people who work remotely may feel more ownership of data and less loyalty to companies. That combination can increase the risk of insider breaches, it found. 

Google has employees spread out over 150 cities in more than 50 countries. These playbooks were created based on external and internal research and are meant to help guide employees through distributed work experiences like telecommuting.

Concentrating on culture

Lynee Luque, head of people at workplace technology company Envoy, said the most important consideration for her as remote work expands is keeping the company's culture intact. 

"This week, instead of our regular office happy hour, we're holding a 'make your own cocktail' happy hour and inviting everyone to gather remotely with the drink of their choice," Luque said.

Zoë Harte, SVP and head of human resources and talent innovation at Upwork, a company that provides in-demand remote talent, said that remote work is becoming the rule and not the exception because it allows companies to draw on top talent regardless of location.

"Mastering the practice of working remotely helps organizations break through boundaries such as location, time to market, scale, product and service quality, or breadth of skills and abilities," she said.

She recommends devoting special efforts for engagement, both for managers and team members. 

Implementing new communication tactics

Some engagement signals are lost during video conferencing, particularly when meeting participants mute the microphone or focus intently on the laptop screen. To combat that dynamic of virtual meetings, Google offers these tips for changing your approach to video meetings: 

  • Always share your video feed.
  • Ensure you're clearly visible on video calls by zooming in, making eye contact, and expressing your reactions noticeably.
  • Start meetings with an open-ended, personal question like "What did you do this weekend?" instead of a yes/no query that doesn't lead to conversation.
  • Ask for input from the most isolated meeting participant any time the meeting breaks into a discussion.
  • If you see someone trying to enter the conversation, stop and invite their comments.

Changing your daily logistics

Matt Harris, head of workplace technology at Envoy, said the best idea is to learn from your remote colleagues who have been telecommuting for years.

Harris also suggested creating a daily routine with start and end times, a dedicated workspace that is not your bedroom or kitchen table, and scheduling breaks.

"Use the mindset 'If it didn't happen online, it didn't happen,' and use collaboration tools to capture and share dialog, to provide easy access to meeting notes/agenda and takeaway actions," he said. "A quick 'thank you' helps recognize effort, commitment, and results—it's an easy way to make a connection."

In addition to engaging more purposefully in video and virtual meetings, you'll need to think about logistics now that your colleagues are not all in one place. 

  • Revisit your team meeting schedule and if the same people are joining off-hours, try a rotating schedule to accommodate everyone. 
  • Acknowledge people who are joining off-hours, and reconsider "friendly" meeting times (e.g., 8 am in Singapore is still 5 am in Hyderabad).
  • Share a virtual meal over video conferencing, but keep time zones in mind—one person's lunch may be someone else's afternoon tea. 

Managers and leaders should think about mental health as well. In addition to the general stress around the COVID-19 illness, employees will be dealing with adjusting to the change in daily work life that comes with working remotely.

Dr. Gabriella Kellerman, chief innovation officer of BetterUp, said companies need to coach employees on new stresses of working at home and encourage more frequent check-ins.

"You will also want to pay particular attention to your team's stress levels, and their ability to balance work and life—both of these are pain points for remote workers compared to those onsite," she said

The company has studied 50,000 workers to understand the telework experience and has learned that video and phone calls are most effective in driving connections among team members. 

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Veronica Gilrane, the people analytics manager at Google, has developed best practices to help employees spread out over 150 cities in more than 50 countries stay connected.

Image: Google