Remote Work Communication

You don’t have to be a freelance technical writer to be working “remotely.” If you’re in one place and your customer(s) are in another building, city, state, or country and you are communicating electronically, you can be affected by the challenges of distance working.

Out of sight, out of mind

The biggest challenge? Out of sight, out of mind.

I’ve had managers who insist on having people in the same building because they feel they need to have all of “their people” under one roof so they can check in, face-to-face, at any given moment. While that might be a bit extreme, it’s still true that human beings pay more attention to face-to-face communication and respond more readily (and rapidly) than they do with electronic text. It’s difficult to ignore a person who is in front of you making sounds that strike your ears directly. This is why everything from international agreements to courtroom proceedings are conducted with the important players are physically present. Physical presence allows us to do those intuitive human things like evaluate tone of voice, watch body language, and gauge the mood of other people.

If you’re part of a team, even though that team is geographically separated, you still need to maintain good relationships with the people on the receiving end of your emails, texts, etc. Relationship building is important, especially if you expect to work with the other(s) once the current project is over. It is difficult to establish or maintain a working relationship with someone you know primarily (or solely) through text, though it happens–and not just in the business world–and not always effectively.

Challenges for the remote worker

I’ve written about this issue previously and have even used my own content for corporate training  because while our electronic gadgets make remote work more possible, that doesn’t mean they’re always used effectively–if at all. This trend will continue as our means of electronic communication multiply.

People in remote locations can miss important information just because they are not in the room. Managers with remote workers need to be cognizant of this issue and either have the meeting available via teleconference (audio or video) or have someone in the group take notes so important information can be shared with others who need to know it. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a meeting: remote workers miss the “water cooler” discussions where important information about the customer, project, or product might be imparted.

Another challenge for the remote worker is feedback: is their work appreciated? Does it need more work or did the folks on the receiving end just “fix it” themselves because they felt they didn’t have the time to wait email to go back and forth?

Sometimes it’s as simple as letting the person on the other end of the email know that you received a document or message and they you’ll respond as soon as you can…or that you can’t respond or help and that the person emailing needs to contact someone else. Non-response is not just vexing for the remote worker, it’s rude. More to the point, not answering a business communication in a reasonable amount of time can cause the person reaching out to you to miss a deadline, which borders on the unprofessional. Sometimes it’s as simple as making sure you set your “out of office” notice when you’re on vacation.

The Disney approach to customer (“guest”) service is not to say “no” or “I don’t know.” More appropriate answers–rather than saying nothing and hoping to dodge the question–include: “I cannot help right now, can I get back to you by [specific time]?” or “I don’t know, but I can find out for you.”

When to use electrons vs. human presence

Below are some updates to my own guidelines you might consider when reaching out in person, via video teleconference, or by using your mobile phone to actually talk to someone vs. just sending a text or email.

Electronic communications are best when:

  • You need a specific question of fact answered. Shorter facts can be handled by text, slightly longer inquiries by email.
  • You are willing to wait for a response.
  • There is not a lot of emotional content or potential for miscommunication.
  • You know that the person on the other end is not available to talk but can still respond quickly via email/text.

A more personal communication method–voice, video, in-person meeting–should be used when:

  • There are sensitive issues involved and text messages are likely to be misinterpreted.
  • The topic is complex and likely to require multiple follow-up questions.
  • You need something done immediately. This might seem counterintuitive when text is so “fast,” but we learn to speak a lot earlier than we learn to use keyboards. And, again the call of a human voice is more direct, personal, and imperative.

Overcoming the distance problem

As I’m learning, remote working can be challenging at times. Since communicating is what I do, the inability to communicate effectively interferes with my ability to do my various jobs. It’s therefore a good idea to set expectations on the best way to communicate with your customers: their preferred method, their hours of availability, and their (and your) expectations of how often communications are expected to occur. Depending on the criticality/timeline of the project, for example, you might submit a weekly or daily status report via email or have a “pulse check” phone call.

If it’s feasible, arrange to meet your customer/team in person at some point. Make an event of it if you like–say, with a team that’s out of state or out of country. If you’re just across town or in the next building, make a point of showing up in person on occasion. Barring that, arrange a video teleconference, or at least a regular phone call. It’s important for all members of a team to be acquainted with each other and acknowledged personally. Otherwise, you risk being just like that anonymous commenter who irritates you on an internet news feed: the anonymity of text can make it very easy to be rude.

When I was working at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, the Manager of the Ares Projects (Steve Cook) insisted that “Just emailing is not communicating.” I took that to heart because normally I’m very much a text-based communicator–also, I much write better than I speak. My fellow introverts can probably relate. Still, we need to be judicious about when, how, how often, and how quickly we communicate. The better we are able to communicate about the work, the better we can make our actual products.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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