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It’s good to talk: Has remote working impacted our ability to communicate well?

With everything going on over the last year or so, there's been a lot to say on the topic of working remotely. It's enabled countless businesses to keep things running through multiple lockdowns, and has worked wonders for productivity and work-life balance of staff.

But, despite all the positive things we can say about remote work, it's not without its challenges.

With social distancing measures compounding the isolation often experienced by those working remotely, and with so much depending on the performance of telecommuters, effective remote work communication is more important than ever. But despite that, new research shows that large sections of staff have experienced a decline in communication since becoming remote.

The communication challenges of remote workforces

With so many people transitioning fully into remote work, and with many of those experiencing it for the first time, changes to how we communicate were always going to take a little getting used to. So, it's not massively unusual that research from the IT services company Atlas Cloud found that employees across all age demographics experienced at least a slight decline in communication quality as remote workers.

But what is surprising is that younger employees reported the highest levels of disruption to their remote work communication. Workers aged 18-24 and 25-34 reported 10% decreases in the information given to them by management. The youngest employees also reported that the frequency and effectiveness of said communication had fallen by at least 10%. By comparison, information from managers only declined by 4% for employees aged 35-44.

Falling communication effectiveness has also limited the ability of employees to work together effectively, also along the lines of age demographics. 18-24 year-olds experienced a 15% decline in collaboration. It was down by 13% for 25-34 year-old employees, but 45-54 year-olds only experienced a 9% decrease. And, while it rose back to 11% for employees aged 55 and over, the eldest staff members were still doing better than younger demographics.

Why these communication issues matter

It might seem unusual that these challenges with remote working seem to mostly be affecting the youngest employees. We generally tend to stereotype younger people as being more tech-savvy, although that isn't always the case. But successive generations do grow up with more advanced technology, so what's causing issues for our Millennial and Gen Z employees?

Well, these statistics could be affected by how age demographics tend to be spread across workplace hierarchies. Older employees are more likely to hold senior positions. They're often closer to, or part of, the management level, which means they're more likely to be keyed in on discussions with leadership.

Ignoring remote staff, who are already isolated by lockdown and the remote nature of their work, runs the risk of alienating them entirely. If communication issues with younger staff go unaddressed, then you're at serious risk of losing your freshest talent to employee turnover.

The difficulties with remote work communication that younger staff are experiencing may also stem from the stress and anxiety of virtual communication. A study from the internet service provider found that 88% of Millennials prefer texting to calling, with more than half reporting feelings of anxiety when taking a phone call. By comparison, less than a quarter of Baby Boomers had any issues making or taking calls.

And, although direct messaging apps like Slack have played a key role during lockdown, a lot of our face-to-face work communication has been replaced by video conferencing. The anxiety some staff feel towards phone calls could easily extend to the video or voice chat conversations they're expected to engage with on a weekly or even daily basis.

That would explain why the younger demographics in the Atlas Cloud study struggled to collaborate compared to older colleagues. However, this could also be explained by a lack of training on using virtual communication tools.

The State of Remote Work 2019 report from Owl Labs had found that 15% of managers and nearly 40% of employees received insufficient training prior to the pandemic. Improper training is one of the leading causes of insufficient employee buy-in for new tools and policies, and directly impacts long-term productivity and performance.

Remote work communication best practices

Now that we've illustrated why remote work communication is so important, let's finish up with some tips on how to keep your remote team members engaged and in the loop.

  • Games and small-talk can break the ice during stand-ups: We all remember how awkward those first few virtual meetings were, with people talking over each other, and nobody quite sure how to proceed. If people on your team are still anxious about their weekly stand-ups, making time for a friendly chat or even some low-stakes games can help everyone relax a little.

  • Strike the right balance with meeting schedules: Whether or not your employees have an aversion to video calls, remember not to overdo it with meetings. Too many, and they're just a waste of time. Set a schedule for group meetings and any necessary 1:1 meetings and be consistent with it.

  • Make it easy for employees to catch themselves up: The best way to make sure nobody misses out on key information is to take meeting transcripts and other important documents and put them somewhere for employees to access. Microsoft Teams allows you to record your video meetings, and you can use services like Asana or Slack to have specific channels where people can pitch ideas and discuss projects.
  • Checking in regularly helps to build a dialogue: Whether it's through informal catch-ups or a regular employee check-in, there's no substitute for regular interaction for building consistent communication habits. Managers might be put off by the potential time investment, but modern check-in platforms are designed to be lightweight, meaning it takes just minutes to review and respond to an employee's update.
  • Employees appreciate a personal touch: Another tick in the column for regular interaction is that being noticed or valued by line managers and other leaders is great for long-term engagement and performance. It could be a direct response to their weekly update, or even just greeting them in the morning and remembering to ask how their kids are doing.

Download a free copy of our 'Phases of Remote Working' guide to see where in the WFH journey you're at and what's to come.