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

With everything that has happened, there's been a lot to say on the topic of working remotely. WFH initiatives enabled countless businesses to keep things running through multiple lockdowns. They have also worked wonders for productivity and work-life balance of staff. But with telecommuting having taken off in a big way, we've all had our share of remote work communication challenges.

Despite all the positive things we can say about remote work, it's not without its difficulties.

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 most common remote work communication challenges

So many people transitioning fully into remote work. And many of those experiencing it for the first time. Significant changes to how we communicate were always going to take a little getting used to. So, this research from the IT services company Atlas Cloud isn't that unusual. They 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 remote working communication challenges 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 it's also true that 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 also be affected by the spread of workplace age demographics. Older employees are more likely to hold senior positions. They're often closer to, or part of, the management level. And that 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 experience may also stem from the stress and anxiety of virtual communication. A study from the internet service provider HighSpeedInternet.com found that 88% of Millennials prefer texting to calling. More than half reported feelings of anxiety when taking a phone call. By comparison, less than a quarter of Baby Boomers had any issues making or taking calls.

Virtual communication needs clear procedure

Direct messaging apps like Slack have played a key role during lockdown. However, 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. This is a serious roadblock when 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. The fallout from this directly impacts long-term productivity and performance.

Overcoming remote work communication challenges

So, we've illustrated why it's so important to tackle remote work communication challenges. Now, 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

Those first few virtual meetings were probably so bumbling and awkward. People were all talking over each other, and nobody quite sure how to proceed. People on your team may still be 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. If you overdo it, people will start checking out mentally. 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

Start keeping meeting transcripts, because you don't want employees to miss vital info. Just make sure to put those and other vital documentation somewhere easy for employees to access. Microsoft Teams allows you to record your video meetings. You can also use services like Asana or Slack as well. These are great because you can create specific channels where people can pitch ideas and discuss projects.

Checking in regularly helps to build a dialogue

There's no substitute for regular interaction for building consistent communication habits. That could be through informal catch-ups or a regular employee check-in. Some managers might be put off because of the potential time investment. But modern check-in platforms are designed to be lightweight. It takes just minutes to review and respond to an employee's update.

Employees appreciate a personal touch

Being noticed or valued by line managers and other leaders is great for long-term engagement and performance. That's another tick in the column for regular interaction. Directly responding to their weekly update is a good way to go. But even just saying hi and remembering to ask how their kids are doing can make a difference.

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.