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The Importance of Interpersonal Communication for the Telecommuter

Woman working in home office hand on keyboard close up.

Your business, which is being run by people in pajamas, depends on effective interpersonal communication skills. It’s more crucial now than ever before. With a rise in telecommuting there has been a drop in interpersonal communication skills. Without the pressure of being physically in a room with colleagues and managers, it’s easy to get lax with our communication and start thinking that it’s not as important. The principles that apply to face-to-face communication apply to remote communication just as well, if not, more so.

 

Most people think that interpersonal communication becomes irrelevant when working from home.

 

As a millennial, I am caught between two very different generations. Generation X above me went through half of their life without the internet nor cell phones. I was age 11 when we first got the internet. And it was very very slow then; no videos, no audio, only pages of boring text. And you had to listen through what sounded like a Russian hack as the internet “dialed up.” I remember my Mom yelling at me to get off the internet because she needed to use the phone. I remember when my Dad got his first cell phone when I was ten. Before that he would carry around a pager. Generation Z, the one beneath me, doesn’t even know what a pager is. It’s the kind of thing they would see in a museum.

 

I didn’t open a Facebook account until I graduated high school and at that time it was primarily used to connect to other college students. Imagine teenagers today going through high school without Facebook. I didn’t get my first smart phone until I was 22. A lot has changed in communication since I was born.

 

Generation Z was born into the internet. They will never know what’s it is like to not have the internet and not have cell phones. So, as a millennial I have sympathy for Generation X and Generation Z. I can see both sides of their black and white perspectives towards remote communication because I share a bit of both. I value in-person communication like my parents and grandparents do. But I also value remote communication. It’s not one or the other. They get to work together in our modern age. In-person communication will never disappear and remote communication will continue to grow. I’ve been just as hesitant with new communication technology as I have been open to embracing it. My hope is to bring those two seemingly different types of communication together as one harmonious thing.

 

The definition of interpersonal communication is changing whether we like it or not. The new generation is connecting with each other through text, social media and video chat more often than face-to-face. And many of them would argue that video chatting with a friend through their smart phone is face-to-face communication. So rather than try and push against the current, I’m going to embrace where communication is heading because of technology.

 

Does the new definition of “inter-personal” include the digital world? Can someone be in close “proximity” to you if their face is on your computer screen one foot away?

 

Ever since I graduated college, I worked at home for small businesses. About 40 percent of my experience working at home was as a self-employed independent contractor and 60 percent as a full-time employee. I’ve experienced the spectrum. I love working at home. I still work at home operating my own business. I have more freedom with my time. I can work in my comfortable sweat pants on a cold December day. I can easily eat food from my own refrigerator rather than succumb to the chips in the vending machine. I get to see my family more. I save on gas money. Who wouldn’t want to work at home right?

 

Better technology and faster internet has made remote working much easier. The number of employees working from home has increased 115 percent in the last decade, according to a report from Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs.

 

Since more small businesses and startups have been moving operations to the home, the standard for interpersonal communication skills has dropped. Employees think because they are in the safety of their home, behind a computer screen, that they don’t have to try as hard to communicate well. That was me when I first started working at home. I noticed a drop in my own communication skills when I started working at home and I’ve worked hard to overcome that. When you are sitting in a conference room having a meeting, you tend to feel more pressure to speak clearly and use body language appropriately since all eyes are on you, and with you. When we work in an office building we feel more pressure to communicate professionally, clearly, honestly and correctly. But when we work at home we don’t feel those same pressures. It’s easier to hide behind the cloak of text-only communication.

Because of texting habits and social media, we have become very short-handed in our communication. It takes twice as long to type as it does to speak. And in our modern rushed world, we don’t want to spend too much time sending a text or social media message, so we communicate in small pieces and use acronyms, hoping the other person can decode our fragmented message. This can be somewhat acceptable when chatting with friends casually because you “get” each other’s language to an extent. But when these habits are brought into the professional remote workplace, it’s a problem.

 

93 percent of the content of the messages we communicate to people is non-verbal communication (tone of voice and body language). That would be why miscommunication is more likely for telecommuters.

 

Flexibility is becoming a major theme in today’s world and that’s why telecommuting is becoming so popular. It does have its disadvantages. Most of the problems I’ve found that arise in telecommuter-based small businesses stem from communication problems. A lack of trust is a communication problem. A lack of accountability is a communication problem. A lack of unity and team bonding is a communication problem.

 

Communication is everything when growing a business. If you want to create more certainty, save time, build trust and create unity, you must accept the importance of traditional communication principles in your remote modern workplace.

 

As more small businesses are communicating online instead of in person, various communication tools have been developed to organize business communication like Slack and Trello. These tools are very effective. They are way better than email because you can organize conversation threads, share files, organize tasks and keep all the communication in one place. But problems arise when businesses don’t know how to use these tools properly and when they rely on them too much for crucial business conversations.

 

7 percent of our communication is words. And most small telecommuting businesses engage in 90 percent of their communication through words only using those chat messaging tools. That’s a problem. We find ourselves going back and saying, “Sorry, I meant to say this…

 

I’m not saying to stop using these chat tools to communicate with your team. It has an important place in remote businesses for sure. But there needs to be systems and rules in place to help minimize miscommunication. There needs to be boundaries for how often it is used and for what types of conversations.

 

In my experience working for a variety of small businesses from home, I can witness to the fact that a lot of time can be wasted to clarifying communication that was only done with words, that if done over the phone or over video chat would have significantly reduced the misinterpretations. With that said, if certain important conversations must happen over text then you have to be willing to accept that it will take more time.

 

Here are a few tips for minimizing miscommunication in your remote business:

  1. Take extra time to proofread your written message. Clarify anything that is too vague. With words only, you have to be willing to give more details than you would when you are using tone of voice and body language on the phone or video chat.

  2. Delete anything that could be misinterpreted without your tone of voice and stick to the facts.

  3. Declare your intent. State what you do intend by the message and what you don’t intend in order to reduce the risk in the other person assuming bad intent.

  4. If the conversation involves high stakes or emotion, have it on the phone or video chat. There is too much subjectivity there for it to take place with words only.

  5. Establish a reporting system where your employees report their weekly accomplishments and primary activities. The opposite of reporting, which is monitoring or micromanaging, depletes trust instead of builds it. Telecommuters want to feel trusted and they need to be empowered to account for their work to you, rather than being followed up on.

It takes energy and time to communicate effectively but it takes far more energy and time to recover from miscommunication.

Take the time to communicate effectively and clearly from the get-go and you will save yourself a lot of time in the long-run. I have found through hundreds of Slack conversations I’ve been involved in that it takes about 6 times as long to recover from miscommunication than it would have taken to spend a little extra time at the beginning typing a clearer message.

 

Maybe you already recognize that you have communication issues in your business because of telecommuting and you want it fixed but don’t know how. Or maybe you haven’t recognized it yet but you are now realizing that it could be a problem inhibiting your business growth that has been sliding by undetected. Telecommuting is new and exciting and so we are all hiding under the excitement of the flexibility it gives us, which is making the communication problems invisible. Fixing your internal communications will have a profound effect on your ability to communicate with your audience. It will influence how you communicate the value of your products and services to them. And your business will grow faster as a result.

 

Traditions have been established for years that dictate good communication and etiquette in an office setting. But small businesses run by remote employees are such a new trend that no standard has been set yet. Everyone is just kind of winging it. Choose to be one of the first small businesses to establish a high standard for communication for remote employees and you will see your business grow substantially. Your worries regarding trust will fade away and your team will be more productive.

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