Three Things Every Remote Worker Should Be Doing Every Day

COVID-19 has transformed the way many people are working today. Regardless of available technology, many people have typically chosen to work from the office in order to better leverage face-to-face communication. However, that’s no longer possible for many of us who are now working remotely to reduce the spread of this virus.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to not only work remotely for a good part of it, but also develop the software tools that let people do so. Interestingly enough, we built these applications with teams that were spread across four continents. However, technology is only part of the equation to ensure working remotely is successful for the business. Working together effectively, despite having little to no face-to-face communication, was the key to our success.

Over the last few weeks, many of us have found ourselves working remotely again. Some of you may be doing it for the first time, and it can be quite challenging. Given this sudden shift we are facing, I thought it would be helpful to share three key actions that each of us can do to not only get the work done, but to get it done efficiently and effectively with less stress and less conflict.

Number One: Listen Actively

Many of us have heard of this term, some of us may have read about it, some of us (e.g. executive coaches) have been explicitly trained in this skill. How many of you are actually doing this, and what does it actually mean? Here are some key points.

Listen to what they are saying instead of thinking about how you are going to respond. Many people listen for key words so that they can plan what they are going to say. Instead, listen with a purpose to learn the other person’s perspective.

Reiterate what you heard them say. This is dependent on listening to what the other person said, and is a way for you to confirm what they meant. By rephrasing what you heard, you are not only conveying that you were paying attention but you are also demonstrating that you understood it. It’s also a good way to get additional clarification if needed. 

Listen to the words and tone they are using. This is especially true if this is someone you work closely with. I like to listen to my colleagues and ask them whenever I hear something different, like a different expression or a noticeable change in their tone or demeanor. Something has changed, and I’m curious to know what that is. An amusing example was when one of my coworkers suddenly started swearing consistently, which was unusual for him. When I asked him about it, I learned that he was that working intensively with a new client, and had picked up the client’s habit. Simply listening and asking about it lets the other person know you’re listening to them and you can learn more information.

Focus on the conversation. It may be tempting to multitask and look through your email or scroll through your phone while you’re having a conversation. Studies show that only 7% of communication has to do with the actual words, and another 38% have to do with the tone. The other 55% is conveyed through body language and facial expressions. What that means is that you are only getting 45% of the conversation at the most, so it makes sense to pay attention to everything you’re getting. 

Listen to what’s not being said. Since you have to focus on only what you’re hearing, it’s important to be attuned to not only what’s being said, but also what’s not being said. As a project manager and an executive coach, I’ve always listened for what I call “the missing but”. It sounds something like “yes, I’m on track…”. The voice trails off and there’s a pause that’s almost uncomfortable. I call it “the missing but” because you can sense there’s a “but” along with more details at the end of that sentence but the person isn’t saying it aloud. Be curious and ask them about it. You may be challenged at first, but you’ll be rewarded with more information and a deeper understanding.

Number Two: Over-communicate

Remember what I said about only having 45% of the communication channel? Active listening is one part, but since communication is a two-way street, we need to make up for the lost 55%. 

Say what you’re doing. When you’re speaking with someone, it takes a skilled listener to detect the mood on the other end of the line. Since the other person can’t see you frowning, smiling, or tapping your feet with impatience, it’s important to let them know what you’re doing so that they can visualize it. There have been many times on a conference call when we’ve met a major milestone and I’ve told the team “if you could see me now, you’d see me smiling ear to ear”. This is a tool to fill in the non-verbal part of the conversation.

Say what you’re feeling. The person on the other end of the headset can’t see you squirm, drop your jaw, or widen your eyes in excitement. Since they’re missing these non-verbal cues, feel free to tell them what you’re experiencing. Tell them that you’re nervous about the upcoming deliverable and the reasons why, tell them you’re glad that they’re safe during these trying times, and tell them what you’re experiencing during the conversation whether its good or bad. A key part of developing a relationship is showing a vulnerability that you’re experiencing. It’s through common experiences like what we are going through today that we can deepen our relationships.

Share what’s happening in your world. These are challenging times for everyone, and situations are developing as we speak. Whether it’s lockdowns, self-quarantines, or concern for someone you are caring for or living with, these are the factors that are affecting you and the other person may not know it. For example, letting your manager and colleagues know that you have an immuno-compromised person in your home or family may help foster a deeper connection with them and prepare them in case a situation arises. Here’s an extreme example: I remember being on a conference call with a few colleagues when one of them announced, surprisingly calmly, that his building was on fire and he had to drop off the call. This not only sets expectations about his availability to say the least, but caused genuine concern about his well-being. No need to worry; he was unharmed and called me a few hours later to explain that they had an electrical fire in the infrastructure room and gave me a damage report.

Number 3: Be Patient

Working remotely is new to many people, and the shift is drastic for many of them. Designating a space to work at home while others may also be there can be challenging. Having the right equipment to work efficiently can also be difficult. Many people have commandeered the dining table or the kitchen counter, disrupting their household and the routines of their family members. 

Even for those who have worked remotely in the past, there has been a shift by many companies in recent years to require workers to come to the office and work in open collaborative spaces. Old habits such as the discipline to stay focused when at home may take some time to re-establish.

Many people also have children home from school and using distance learning. While parents are trying do their own work, they are often called upon to help their children with technical issues or in setting their schedules.

Be understanding. Remember that this is a new situation for many people and they are trying to adapt. The person you’re speaking with may be dealing with distractions in the background, whether its children, pets, or their significant other who is also forced to work from home. Remember what I mentioned about only having 45% of the communication channel available? It’s going to take an adjustment while people learn to focus on that 45%.

Be clear in your expectations. Being understanding is not the same as accepting missed expectations. Even through we are all doing the best we can, sometimes mistakes happen or things are more difficult. That doesn’t mean you can’t hold people accountable. By being clear on the expectations, you and your coworker have the chance to address the issue. I recall a colleague a few years ago who would join our daily standup, along with her crying infant in the background. While she was able to focus on the discussion, the rest of us weren’t. When we brought it up to her, she didn’t realize what a large distraction is was for the rest of us. The solution in this case was simple: move our meeting an hour later so that it coincided with her child’s naptime.  

Be kind. I firmly believe that no one comes to work with the intention of doing a poor job. People are still learning how to balance and it will take time for people and businesses to adjust to the new normal. Stress levels are considerably higher as people are concerned about the well-being of not just themselves but their family, especially if they have family members with pre-existing medical conditions. Showing some kindness as we are all learning how to work together in this new environment will make the transition easier. After all, we are all in this together.   

Wrapping Up

While these ideas are applicable even when we are working together in the office, they are especially important as we continue to work with each other during these trying times. By leveraging these tried and tested techniques, I trust you’ll find the same successes that I have working with remote and geographically distributed teams. 

Which of these will you be doing more of in the coming week? Which of these will you share with your team and focus on as a group?