Working from home: Effective communication

Author: Anamaria Shyam

We all grew up being encouraged to speak clearly and concisely when trying to communicate something. We’re all aware of the importance of communication and, whether we realise it or not, have spent our lives constantly learning new vocabularies and practicing our speech and intonation. Some of us are even learning new languages. These have all come as a result of participating in school and office life and socialising with friends and colleagues, where the regular exchange of conversation, debate and mundane chitter-chatter have been a normal part of our day-to-day lives. 

So what do you do when the world of communication as we know it suddenly changes? Since the global pandemic hit, we’ve all had that day of realisation, where we’ve looked around and discerned that our only desk mates are our laptop, keyboard and monitor. But what do you do when that day becomes weeks? And those weeks become months? Months of just typing and video conferences, in replacement of verbal, face-to-face meetings?

It’s been almost a year since COVID-19 changed the way we work. A year of adapting to a world where our workplace is confined to our houses. A world where meetings are all online, where most conversations happen via written messages, and where a Slack notification (or similar) has become the new ‘have you got a second?’. Debates around important issues, participation in workshops, discussions around sensitive topics and just the odd crack of a joke – all interactions that benefit from (and are used to) an in-person exchange – have been forced to take place in a new and unfamiliar environment. 

And adapting to this new environment has certainly come with its own set of challenges. Not being able to see someone else’s reaction, to quickly know whether they agree with your ideas, or to instantly read their body language, have all made our days just that little bit more difficult. As part of the client services team – where regular dialogue with our clients is part of the day-to-day – I have found that good, effective communication is one of the most important skills a person can have. This past year has shown just how important it is to building and maintaining relationships while continuing to deliver great work. 

I’ve also found that it doesn’t need to be as difficult as it sometimes seems. And while the world is (finally) starting to reopen and the day we start returning to offices feels closer, I suspect that flexible working and periods of working from home will become part of our ‘new normal’. So here, I’ve pulled together just some of the things that can help with our daily communications.

KISS – keep it simple, stupid

This is a design principle that can easily be applied to internal communications. In the first instance, keep messages short and concise, explaining the subject matter in a few words. When the recipient has started to reply and engage with the conversation, you can give more detail and open the conversation up. It might seem easier to explain everything in one message, but the other person might find it hard to read and digest too much information, or just find it a little confusing. So it’s better to be short, but specific.

A picture is worth a thousand words

When the whole team is together in the office, you can easily pop over to each other’s desks to show and explain a problem, process or idea. This becomes impossible when you’re alone in your (not so) new ‘home office’. So sometimes, rather than trying to use the words you usually would in a face-to-face exchange, it’s easier to screenshot or video record your screen and send that over to your colleague.

The same applies when you’re sharing an update or explaining something to a client. If you find yourself writing down a load of detailed steps for the client to follow, why not accompany that email with a few screenshots that will help the client better understand exactly what it is they need to do?

Use emojis

At Substrakt, we enjoy making use of emojis. They’ve become part of our daily internal communications – we use them for our code reviews, daily updates or just a quick way to acknowledge that we’ve read a particular message (even if we don’t have time to reply at a specific moment)*. While of course emojis need to be used in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people, they have no doubt become a great way of expressing emotions and communicating reactions.

*Speaking of acknowledging messages – email overload has become another commonly shared consequence of the communications environment we’re all operating in, which can make keeping on top of your inbox a challenge. But rather than simply not replying to an email or delaying your response, a quick “Hi, thank you for your email. I’ll take a read through and get back to you shortly” can go a long way in signalling your intent. We’re all busy and it might be days until you can reply, but at least the sender knows you’ve received the message and that you plan to go through it soon (plus, it takes that little bit of pressure off of you, too).

Pick up the phone

If you’re finding yourself in a long thread of messages, or a conversation feels like it’s going around in circles, it’s probably easier just to call the other person and have the discussion over the phone (or even a screen share depending on the subject matter). No doubt some people find it easier to pick up the phone than others, which is fine and completely natural. But what I’ll say is that these unprecedented times have pushed us all out of our comfort zone in one way or another, so there’s really no better time to try!

Make a summary

You know those long threads with tens of thousands of messages? Or worse, when you’re the one who’s been in a meeting for the past hour and has to scroll back through to catch-up? It can be time consuming and confusing. While sometimes an unavoidable reality of the way we’re currently working, where possible I’m sure we’d all like to avoid needing to rifle through that many messages just to unpick the relevant information and understand what’s left to do. 

So why not help your team out and write a summary? Quick, concise bullet points that capture the key discussion points, any outstanding or unresolved tasks that need addressing and finally, next steps and actions. 

These are all simple tools that, when put into practice, can help ease the way you communicate with colleagues and clients from behind a screen. Little changes that can make the difference between confusion and clarity, and make your working day easier and more enjoyable.