How can we improve communication and empathy in a remote-reliant organization? Individuals should embrace the autonomy and responsibility that comes naturally to distributed work: start with yourself. Make explicit calendar time to connect with your peers, whether it’s monthly 1:1s, or random pairing tools like Donut.ai. Actively participate in meetings and other group activities. Be open and transparent in your work.
It’s really important to identify your weaknesses as a communicator, both synchronous and asynchronous, and improve them. Do you have a tendency to write too much? Are you unclear? Do you have a crutch of always falling back to one mode of communication? Do you talk more than you listen, or fail to express yourself when you should? Do you have a hard time communicating with some people? What behaviors trigger your emotions?
As with my organizational points, these questions are important to explore at any job, or even in any relationship, but it’s particularly important when you are interacting virtually. I am a fan of Search Inside Yourself, the mindfulness book and program originally from Google, to improve self-awareness, empathy, listening, and communication. I also find the skills in Crucial Accountability to be very valuable. However you want to pursue improvement, though, recognize that we all need to own the responsibility of continuously improving our communication and empathy skills.
Part of communicating is also listening. A key skill to hone is to assume positive intent from others. If a message you hear concerns you, step back and reconsider. Is there a reasonable perspective from which the message can make sense? Turn anger into curiosity, and explore the message and the intent behind it.
While everything I’ve mentioned so far is applicable to individuals at all companies, many other ideas are specific to people working in partially distributed teams. For instance, we encourage co-located workers to work from home for a few days, or a week, or semi-regularly. It can build empathy and understanding of the communication challenges that remote workers have — and also appreciation of the autonomy!
Similarly, we often treat making calls with remote coworkers as casually as if you were tapping someone’s shoulder in an office. It’s even better than tapping a shoulder, if you use Slack for calls, because people can turn on Do Not Disturb when they want to focus. The shoulder-tap becomes virtual and asynchronous!
A last idea, which is especially important as you get more time zones in your company, is to have explicit working hours, and, per the discussion of synchronous communication in teams, to aim for at least an hour daily overlap with everyone you regularly work with. Coworkers should be able to easily find out when they can chat with you, and make it happen. Asynchronous messages can be effective most of the time, but it’s often valuable to know when someone can actually talk to you synchronously, especially when friction or misalignment occurs.
Individuals in a partially distributed organization, in sum, need to constantly grow their synchronous and asynchronous communication skills, build empathy, become comfortable talking easily to remote workers, and make it easy for others to talk to them at appropriate times.
That ends our tour of reducing the costs of a remote reliant organization. We looked at organizational best practices and tools, team communication and hiring, and skills and growth for individuals. Focusing on the costs is realistic, but can feel like we’re looking at a glass as half empty. What if we look at a glass as half full, and try to amplify the benefits of remote work?