Working from home, whether it's once in a while or every day, doesn't make you immune to the social weirdness that comes with other people. In fact, being physically removed from your coworkers can make communicating that much stranger. Here's what you need to know to avoid awkward silences in chat rooms, flat jokes on conference calls, or just feeling isolated from the rest of your colleagues.
Picture: Tara Jacoby
You may not have to worry about water cooler chat or office politics, but you still need to be able to communicate with your coworkers -- otherwise, you might as well be a one-man (or one-woman) show. Luckily, it's not tough. A little empathy can keep you happy on any remote team, whether you see them all at the office tomorrow or you never see them (except at the company holiday party.)
Respect Everyone's Time Zones And Busy Time
Be mindful of your colleagues' time zones and working time. Most of this is just plain empathy, but it extends to how you communicate too. If you treat your coworkers how you'd like them to treat you (or better yet how they would like to be treated), you'll go far. Here are a few things to remember:
- Choose your communication method wisely. Between email, chat, and even text messaging, choose the method to get in touch that fits best with the time of day and when the other person will see it. It should go without saying that if you're the only one in your time zone and it's 3am where the rest of your team works, it might not be a good idea to start calling around unless it's an emergency. Dropping a message into a chat at 3am may make sure someone sees it in the morning, but maybe not the person who needs to see it. Use email instead.
- Respect free and busy times, even if you're on when others are off. This should go without saying, but if someone says they're out for the day, don't ping them in the office chat room afterward. Don't email and expect an immediate response. Just because you're working from home and everyone else is in the office doesn't mean that you should schedule a call for 7am because you'll be up, or for 8pm because you'll be free. If you're in Perth, don't send your Melbourne coworkers late-day work. They will need to essentially work overnight to have it ready by the time you get up. You'll be comfortably rested, and they will just hate you. Respect other people's boundaries, and make it clear that you respect that their day is over, even if yours isn't.
- When in doubt, ask. Don't assume. Think about the little things about office communication -- especially emails and chats -- that annoy you. Now think about how awesome it would be if someone asked you about them before they just did them. Ask your coworker if it's ok to ping them when they're at lunch or out for an afternoon -- don't assume a notification with "Hey @BobSmith, drop me a line when you get back," is OK. Maybe they won't care, maybe they have a strong preference. Either way, almost everyone is more flexible when you're respectful of their space.
The key to all of this: Let people know when you're in, when you're away, and when you need to hear back from them. If something is important, tell them so, but don't feign urgency when there is none. You probably don't want to be woken up in the middle of the night any more than everyone else would.
Use Technology To Make Remote Communication Easier, Not Harder
A little etiquette goes a long way, but so does some good old-fashioned technology. Get familiar with the ins and outs of your office email, or your work-issued smartphone.
Here are a few simple things you can do:
- Schedule emails to send during office hours. If you work with people around the globe, don't be afraid to schedule email to go out when you know others will be around to see it. Almost every email app has a way to do this. Outlook can do it natively, Thunderbird and Postbox both have add-ons that let you do it, and Boomerang lets you do it in Gmail. They're all useful for making sure your message lands at the top of someone's inbox when they're actually looking, instead of getting buried with the deluge of the day. Just make sure your colleagues know in advance, so they don't see an email from you and think you're at your computer and available. They may reach out and get frustrated you don't respond.
- Tame your notifications. A vibrating, beeping phone with chats and emails is no fun for anyone, especially when you're off work. Set up an email filter that will only notify you if the email contains the word "urgent", or comes from a list of people you trust to only reach out when they really need you. Use features like Gmail's awesome Priority Inbox so you won't get notifications from less important people. Do the same with chats and SMS messages. Turn off push notifications at the end of the day, or customise them so after hours, only pre-approved apps or people get to vibrate your phone or wake you up.
- Use services that make scheduling global meetings easy. Services like previously mentionedWorld Meeting Time can help, and apps like Assistant.to and other, related apps can take the hassle out of scheduling meetings with and finding good times for people around the world. Remember, a late-afternoon meeting at 5pm for you in Perth, for example, is 7pm for your colleagues in Melbourne. It's even worse if you have people in New York, where it will be 5am. Those people probably won't show up. Don't put them in the position of having to be the isolated, or to isolate you by ignoring all of your meetings and calls. Finally, make sure you have the right gear for those meetings and it's set up properly before you need it. Don't waste meeting time troubleshooting your computer while everyone's waiting for you to join.
All of the tech we have at our disposal is supposed to make communicating easier, not harder, and yet we still struggle with it. Part of that is because no technology can replace thoughtfulness, so it's up to us to fill in the gaps. You'll find that once you start thinking first, you'll find a wealth of new tools (and features in your favourite tools) that make it easier to communicate with everyone.
Navigate Office Chat Like A Pro
If your company uses a chat room to stay in touch, you might be tempted to use it, well, like a conversation with friends. Resist the urge. Odds are the atmosphere in your office chat is light and convivial, but that doesn't mean you should devolve into posting GIFs and emoticons (unless, of course, that's normal for your team!) You might even consider a work-related room for office chat, and an "offtopic" or casual chat for water cooler talk, so people can turn off alerts or keep them separate. Either way, the best tip here is one that will help you in any online community when you're new, whether it's chat, a forum, a blog comment section, whatever: Lurk first, and read everything you can before you open your mouth.
Read more than you type. You'll get a feeling for the way everyone interacts naturally before you even have a reason to engage. Then, when you do, you'll be able to do so in a way that feels normal and natural, instead of forcing jokes you hope everyone gets (and then awkwardly wait for someone, anyone, to reply "lol" or "haha" to acknowledge you exist) or typing paragraphs just to have someone say "OK".) You'll slip up here and there, but that's natural. Brush it off, don't let it get you down, and try to remember next time to not talk so much, or press the joke, or to only offer up the information you need to and to take the rest to a private chat.
In the same vein, use chat features like pings sparingly, if ever. Odds are that whatever you need to say, the whole room doesn't need to hear it -- or drop everything they're doing to hear it right now. Of course, ping someone when you need their attention, but ask yourself (especially when it comes to everyone on your team), "Do I need their attention right now?" If the answer is anything less than an enthusiastic yes, step back from the @-symbol and wait until they're in chat talking to ask if they have time for your question -- or send them an email.
Communicate Clearly: Your Words Matter More Without Non-Verbals
So far we've discussed how important it is to respect the time zones and boundaries of your colleagues. That's important, but you deserve some breathing room too. After all, one of the best things about working from home is being free of distractions, so it would be nice to be able to actually put that time and space to good use.
For starters, make sure you communicate clearly with your coworkers at the office and abroad. If you're the type they turn to regularly, like a manager or supervisor, let them know when you leave for lunch, head out for the day, heads-down working, or if you need to leave to run errands. Let them know when you're back, too. This makes sure they flag you down when you have time to talk, instead of when you're away or trying to work. Make sure your own calendar is up to date and direct people to it to see when you're available.
In email and chat, make sure you're clear and concise about what you need, when you need it, and what you're looking for. Leave yourself open for clarification if things get tough, but keep in mind that subtlety doesn't really come through in text, and while there are no non-verbals at play, there's plenty of nuance and assumed, between-the-lines reading going on. Whoever's on the other end of your email or chat will likely pick up on little things like a lack of punctuation, short and abrupt sentences, or other "verbal non-verbals" as cues to your attitude or mental state. Make sure you don't come off in a way you don't intend, and try to avoid being passive aggressive.
Finally, keep in mind that while you should be clear and concise, try to be approachable and cordial too. Every email you send, every chat you participate in, pretty much everything you transmit to your coworkers is probably logged, monitored, and kept by the company. You should assume everything you say can come back to you, or worse, may become public at some point. Don't say or email anything you wouldn't want anyone else to see, or wouldn't want that person to forward on to someone else.
Working from home has a lot of benefits, but close-knit relationships with coworkers usually isn't one of them. You'll have to put in a little extra effort on that front, and a lot of it comes with making sure you're clear when you need something, respect other people's boundaries, and reinforce your own. As long as you can get those things down, you'll be fine.