Technology Gives Remote Workers A Way To Communicate, But Something Is Missing
Ready for that first one-on-one chat with your boss in 2021?
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If you’re like many employees across the country, you may have begun the new year the same way you ended the old one – communicating via Zoom, Google Chat, email, text messages or some other venue where you and the other person were physically apart.
That might work all right for a quick exchange of basic information. But it’s not the best way to handle more complicated information or to build esprit de corps within a team, says Clint Padgett, president and CEO of Project Success Inc. and the ForbesBooks author of How Teams Triumph: Managing By Commitment.
Communicate To Be Successful
“One of the fundamental components to successful teamwork is communication,” Padgett says. “If you can’t talk to your team, you can’t be successful. And the key to developing communication is face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball conversation. That’s how you pass along complex information and build relationships.”
But what’s ideal and what’s reality don’t always match up. In 2020, many office workers saw less and less of each other in person as the pandemic forced them to work remotely, and that trend could pick up steam rather than fizzle out even when the pandemic is over, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Pew surveyed people whose work responsibilities could be done from home. Prior to the pandemic, just 20 percent had worked remotely all or part of the time. Now, 71 percent of those workers are doing their job from home all or most of the time. And more than half – 54 percent – say that if given a choice they would want to keep working from home even after the pandemic.
Padgett winces at the idea of remote work as a long-term solution, but says it's incumbent on managers and employees to find ways to make it work. One way is to understand the communication limitations that must be overcome.
“The way we communicate remotely – with email, text messages, Zoom calls – doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings and the relationships you develop with people when you can sit down in the same room and have a conversation,” he says. “Communication and conversation are not the same thing.”
Email and text messages are a series of one-way communications, not dialogue, he says. Yes, there can be back and forth, but not in the same way as an in-person conversation. And remote work doesn’t allow those breakroom chats where team members build their relationships and their rapport.
At least for now, though, remote work is a reality, so Padgett offers a few tips and some cautionary advice:
Work to overcome technology’s communications limits
Technology is great for a lot of things, but when you communicate with emojis or by using the fewest words possible, your message can be unclear, Padgett says. “If I ask you a question by email or text, and your response is a smiley-face emoji, that could mean any number of things,” he says. “Be honest, how many times have you misinterpreted the tone of an email or a static document?” Skip the emojis in workplace communications and strive to make your communications as clear as possible. Put yourself in the other person’s place. If you received this text or email, would you understand the context without more explanation?
Set up clear, two-way communications
The only way to manage a project effectively is to develop the project around clear two-way conversations, Padgett says. “One-way communications should only be used for simple, clear questions that have yes/no answers or are used to piggyback on conversations,” he says. “In other words, it’s okay to text or email questions before a conversation takes place or for follow-up responses afterward. Conversations need not be the only form of communication, but they are the most important by far.” While video chats have their own limitations, at least they provide an opportunity to engage in that needed dialogue.
Appreciate technology; value people
Many managers (and others in an organization) may approach communication from a technical standpoint because they want software to be the answer, Padgett says. “But it isn’t the answer, it’s a tool,” he says. “Technically, communications on a project could happen electronically, but if you choose technology over people, your project won’t be successful. While your communications will be fast, you’ll sacrifice quality, clarity, accountability, and, ultimately, success.”
“Conversations force clarity that you don’t get with other forms of communication,” Padgett says.“For nearly a year, businesses have tried to duplicate those face-to-face conversations through Zoom or Google Chat, and that will continue for the foreseeable future. We all need to devote serious effort to making it work. But at the same time, the question we will continue to grapple with is this: Is a conversation conducted on a screen as meaningful and productive as an in-person conversation?”
About Clint Padgett
Clint Padgett (www.clintonmpadgett.com), the ForbesBooks author of How Teams Triumph: Managing By Commitment, is the president and CEO of Project Success Inc., a project management company. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology and an MBA from The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.