Communication Tips To Build Connection and Support Remote Teams

Communication Tips To Build Connection and Support Remote Teams

Remote working has become the new norm with a recent Gartner HR survey revealing 88 per cent of Australian organisations have encouraged or required employees to work from home due to the coronavirus crisis.

This shift has upended how many teams work, requiring a rethink on communication channels and strategies to ensure geographically scattered team members feel connected, engaged and valued.

A recent global study by Qualtrics found employees moving to a remote or alternative work arrangement felt an impact on their mental health, with more than 44 per cent of those working from home reporting that their mental health had declined.

In addition, those who worked from home for more than two weeks, were 50 per cent more likely to say their mental health had declined due to “more chronic sadness” and “more fatigue” according to the study of 2,000 employees which included employees from Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US.

This finding was echoed in another report by Springfox titled ‘The Australian Workforce Response to COVID-19: A call for courage, connection and compassion’, which found that an alarming 55 per cent of respondents were experiencing stress mainly due to their new remote working conditions.

The combined pressures of working with technology, blurred boundaries between home and work, time-management issues and feeling as though they were “always-on” have contributed to rising stress levels, according to the survey of more than 500 professionals in industries including banking and finance, professional services, government and health.

Importantly, the Springfox survey found that one of the strongest drivers of positivity and optimism was having a connection with others, in particular with work colleagues.

Keeping teams empowered, connected and thriving requires a rethink on traditional communication channels and development of a new strategy to support people at home, in the office and a combination of both as people return to their workplace.

Communication is the foundation of collaboration and poor communication has significant impacts on employees leading to:  

  • Disengaged team members: Employees feeling left out of the loop and isolated can become disengaged, with possible detrimental effects on their mental health, the team and the business bottom line. According to Forbes Magazine: “Disengaged employees say their productivity is compromised, they do less work than usual, care less about the quality of their work and vent to co-workers, with the potential of poisoning the work culture for others.”
  • Lower productivity: Badly communicated goals and processes lead to time wasting and lower capacity to deliver results.
  • Reduced collaboration and confidence: Barriers to sharing ideas and data will cause collaboration to nosedive. While lack of feedback for individual members will leave them isolated with no benchmark to judge progress.

Here are four strategic domains to focus on for developing better communication practices and to combat the rise of stress and anxiety among team members:

Get your technology in order

To facilitate communication, teams need the right tools for the job. There are plenty of technologies available, ranging from email and chat platforms to shared storage, web and video conferencing. Some technologies are better suited to certain tasks than others, and the purpose of the communication should determine the appropriate delivery mechanism.

Setting guidelines for using communication tools while working remotely will help avoid confusion and promote clarity. Design a plan as a team to streamline the process. For example, web conferencing is an interactive tool better suited to complex tasks such as problem solving or negotiation. While sharing information, such as data or resources, can be circulated by email, chat or a bulletin board. Training should be supplied as necessary.

Studies have shown that adequately resourcing employees to do their job has a positive impact on wellbeing. Running an equipment and capability inventory will ensure internet connection, hardware and IT support is in place for remote team members. Keep in mind there may be some trial and error in streamlining the best tools for your team, so regularly review what works and what doesn’t.

Stay in sync

Without face-to-face interaction team members can quickly lose focus and connection. To overcome this, maintain clear and regular communication and encourage team members to proactively share information if they have any personal challenges they are trying to manage.

Set a standard and establish communication guidelines for the team. For example, ask team members to acknowledge receipt of important messages, so the sender doesn’t have to wonder if a communication was received and whether it is being actioned.

Prior to each meeting provide an agenda, set expectations and provide resources for follow through. A recent analysis by Harvard Business School and New York University recommended larger meetings may be necessary to ensure “everyone is on the same page” and create what economists call “common knowledge”.

Promote connection

The switch to remote working has disconnected many employees from the stream of social interactions that influence wellbeing and create a sense of belonging at work. While working from home can deliver benefits, it can also fuel loneliness and isolation.

Research shows that casual conversations help employees feel more engaged and committed, which keeps feelings of isolation at bay.

Encourage interactions by giving your team a virtual venue to talk about non-work topics or promote the 15-minute ‘coffee break’ chat or phone call. Be creative with ideas for informal interactions to create opportunities despite physical separation.

Try using an internal messaging platform to share fun pictures of pets, hobbies or to discuss what shows or movie series people are binge watching. Alternatively, sign up for a group challenge like ‘Steptember’– a 10,000 per day step challenge to fundraise for Cerebral Palsy.

Be supportive

Talking about mental health is not a one and done conversation. Team leaders should offer support and keep a pulse on their team’s wellbeing by making direct phone calls to check in. Be proactive not reactive so issues can be caught early.

There are plenty of ideas to support your team. Include a regular meeting to focus on wellbeing rather than work. As part of this team initiative, create and share a Wellness Action Plan with practical steps on dealing with stress or a mental health issue. Or create a live webinar series using employees, the community and experts to discuss a range of wellbeing topics.

Make sure mental health resources are available to everyone. Communicate regularly and encourage access when new information or articles are posted. Creating a strong wellness program harvests healthy habits, increases productivity and helps retain talent.

Resources and further reading

Deloitte: Remote Collaboration

Gartner: With Coronavirus in mind, is your organization ready for remote work

Harvard Business Review: How to Prepare Your Virtual Teams for the Long Haul

Harvard Business Review: 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health

The Conversation: How remote working can increase stress and reduce wellbeing