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The world of work is changing.
For many companies and industries, these changes have come quickly and drastically. Remote work has taken over the world, and we find ourselves in a situation where many of our tried-and-true communications methods no longer work as well as they used to.
This may not seem like a big deal, considering how many online collaboration tools are available. Modern collaboration tools can accomplish the type of quality, remote communication you need. But implementing these tools is only part of the equation.
When we change our communication channels, we fundamentally change how people communicate — from the way teams exchange tidbits of information for ongoing projects to the way employees stay engaged in their work, to how rumors spread through the office grapevine.
This means everyone — ground level team members, HR, managers, and upper level leadership — needs to learn better ways to communicate effectively while using these new tools.
Fortunately for us all, many HR professionals are already ahead of the curve on this one.
To help us all communicate better in this new landscape, we tapped into the knowledge of leading HR leaders to discover their top communication hacks for the modern workplace.
New communication challenges in a remote world
Coping with this shift to remote teams isn’t as simple as adding an instant messaging app to your comms and carrying on. A distributed workforce brings new, often unforeseen communications challenges.
The dominance of remote work means you and your teams must often communicate without the aid of facial expressions and body language.
Because they are removed from the day-to-day life of the office, it’s also more difficult for employees to see how their role fits into the company’s long-term strategic goals. There will be far fewer spontaneous ideas generated around the water cooler, too.
We could go on. But the reality is that humans rely heavily on personal interaction for professional communication. And you can’t ignore the communication gaps that opened up when the workplace went remote.
Because of human resources’ central role in people operations, HR leaders were some of the first people to recognize these gaps and take action to bridge them.
Here’s what some of the best of the best learned along the way, and how they used their favorite communication hacks to keep remote teams connected, minimize misunderstandings, and emphasize the “team” in remote teams.
In the transition to remote work, we all knew video would be important. But even so, a lot of people still tried to dodge using it. (Think of how many video conference calls you’ve had where most or all of the participants kept their cameras turned off.)
Tracy Brower, author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work, says it’s a mistake to avoid using video — on video calls and elsewhere. She outlines several reasons why you should use video:
- Video demonstrates responsibility.
- Video communicates confidence.
- Video builds trust and rapport.
- Video helps you engage.
- Video makes you memorable.
Tracy explains: “Of course, video may not be appropriate all the time, but the situations in which it’s preferable have expanded. It sends a powerful message about your responsibility and your confidence as well as your openness.”
Internal comms expert Mark Attard points out that video also plays an important role beyond live meetings:
“Video will play an even greater role as a storytelling channel and as a connector of people. It effectively creates emotional impact and will be well worth the investment.”
If you’re in a leadership role or an HR professional, use your camera during calls and record video calls to send to anyone who couldn’t make it.
Beyond this, remember that video is an effective storytelling medium. In many cases, it gets your message across better than standard emails and Slack messages ever could. Elevate your most important messages by turning them into short, memorable videos that align and engage your people.
Write in an extra-friendly tone
Many of our in-person conversations have turned into emails, Slack messages, and notes in a project management app. Intuitively, we tend to simply write what we’d say in person. The problem is that you lose a lot of context when you turn mouth words into text words.
Business communications expert James Chartrand explains what this means:
“We can’t see smiles or friendly expressions. We can’t hear a person’s voice when we read an email. We’re missing the details that help us perceive the mood of the moment. All we see are blunt words. Black and white.”
Because of this, James says, if you use the same words in writing that you’d use in person you end up sounding harsher than you intend.
“Lacking those important visual and auditory cues to fill in the blanks of intended tone, [written words] often read like machine-gun bullets. No wonder people get prickly.”
James says it’s important to pay attention to your written voice and tone. Failing to do so can unintentionally create a tense mood. She suggests a few easy fixes to make your written comms more friendly:
Ask, don’t tell. In writing, direct instructions come off as demands.
Use exclamation points. Avoid overusing them, but if you’d like a sentence to sound upbeat or happy, an exclamation point keeps it from reading as a flat statement.
- Start with a disclaimer. If you’re giving feedback or addressing a difficult topic, start with a sentence that says you’re writing with kindness and a smile.
“Remember the recipient can’t see you’re all laid back and casual, or that you’re feeling happy and bright. You feel good, sure, and you unconsciously assume everyone in the world knows it – but they don’t. They can’t. Not unless you tell them.”
Explain your intent, even if it seems unnecessary
Believe it or not, there’s a sort of “digital body language” in online communication. Because there are no physical cues to clarify your intent, people assign meaning to all sorts of non-verbal things, like what time of day you send a message or which comms channel you use to send it.
Speaking on a recent episode of the Punk Rock HR Podcast, Erica Dhawan illustrates the problem and the solution in this story:
One leader, Adrial, had a quick idea for a project that she wanted her team member, Brian, to work on. So one Thursday night, she sends them a no subject calendar invite for a meeting the next morning, 8 a.m.
She comes to the meeting, and little does she know Brian thought he was about to get fired. There had been budget cuts during that week, and he didn’t sleep all night. He assumed the worst. He looked exhausted.
Erica goes on to explain that while this story may seem trivial, it highlights an important truth: never confuse a brief message with a clear message.
“When it comes to digital body language, brevity can be your worst enemy.”
In Erica’s story, the time the calendar invite was sent and the fact that there was no purpose assigned to the meeting meant to Brian that bad news was coming. He didn’t have any clear intent from his manager that told him otherwise.
“The more you can demonstrate your intent to others, the less likely you are to run into these types of nightmare scenarios,” Erica explains.
The reality is that people will read meaning into what you do in your online communication, just like they read meaning into your physical body language. Taking the time and space to show the intent behind your words helps prevent disastrous misunderstandings.
Focus your communications on creating an experience
It’s undeniable that the move to remote work created the need for more communication channels. Most organizations addressed this need by adding more collaboration tools and comms technology into the mix.
But Jennifer McClure, CEO of Unbridled Talent and Disrupt HR, says that the adoption of new communication tech wasn’t always as strategic as it should have been.
Jennifer says that a major failure in adding new communication technologies is that they’re often implemented without a clear goal, which leaves holes in your internal comms. Other communication tools get added to patch up these holes, and this in turn makes a mess of your online communication.
But from an HR perspective, cutting out communication tools may not be a complete solution. Instead, says Mark Stelzner, founder and managing principal at IA, focus on unifying your technology in a way that enhances the employee experience.
“Create an experience that unifies so that you, as an employee, don't have to have 30 different apps across your HR value chain on your phone.”
Rather than simply shutting down some communication channels, implement platforms that bring all your comms and experiences together “into one common front door, leveraging every possible medium.”
This strategy enables you to continue using the tools at your disposal, but inside a system that makes remote communication less frustrating and overwhelming.
Create self-serve information bases
Despite our best efforts to stay connected, the move to remote work has impacted peer-to-peer information sharing. All the small conversations that happened on the office floor now happen online. Although many of these conversations are short, they make your internal comms noisy.
Danny Speros, Director of People Ops at Zenefits, says you can cut down on this noise by giving everyone easy access to resources.
“Anything people need to do their job, make sure that it’s easy and accessible to everybody, and [accessible] without necessarily having to go through somebody else, because different people, different times, different teams, sometimes at a new job — you feel like you’re asking so many questions and you don’t want to be a bother.”
For HR teams, this means working with managers and company leaders to help create self-serve knowledge bases filled with all the tidbits of info that were communicated verbally in the ages of the traditional office.
The key here is to start simple, then build up your resources over time. A library of short HR videos that summarize your most important policies is a low-barrier place to start.
Or, create a small series of training videos that answer common questions about office procedures. Use your organization’s file sharing system to give everyone quick access to more in-depth documents and guides that supplement the videos.
As Danny says, the goal is to make important information easy for people to find and access. The easier it is for people to get the information they need, when they need it, the more likely they will be to “just jump right in and learn what they need to learn.”
It may take some work upfront to create this sort of system. But in the end, you’ll help your company develop a more self-sufficient workforce that gets more work done with fewer emails and less confusion.
Use storytelling to make your message more engaging
Think of how many HR reports you’ve sent that got no response. How often do people ask you what all the numbers in your reports mean?
Ron Thomas, managing director of Strategy Focused Group, says that it’s not your fault if your data-driven HR communications aren’t making much of a splash.
It’s because all your HR data is not supported by a narrative that puts the numbers in context.
“Sometimes we become so enamored with the deliverable that we lose sight of the larger story. We focus too much on the spreadsheet, the PowerPoint slide, or the beautiful report,” Ron explains.
“The magic happens when you take facts and figures, features and benefits, spreadsheets and PowerPoints — ‘relatively soulless information,’ as some call it — and embed them into the telling of a purposeful story. Your ‘tell’ renders an experience to your audience, making the information inside the story memorable, resonant, and actionable.”
This method is so effective that Ron says you simply can’t send information without an accompanying narrative or context.
“You simply must be more relevant. The days of sending it over and letting someone else have to work to interpret the information are over.”
Try these communication hacks for yourself
You don’t even need new tech to give most of these hacks a try. It’s your turn to put these hacks to work for you.
And if you do need tools to help you communicate better, use Biteable to create videos that make all your HR messages clearer, more engaging, and more memorable. With Biteable’s templates, creating videos won’t bog you down, and your HR messages will get attention and make an impact.