Rethinking remote communication

Simon Haighton-Williams, CEO of Adaptavist, explains how employers can help remote workers deal with technology-related stress and threats to motivation, linked to changes in the way we communicate.

working mum sits at desk, stressed


Covid-19 threw many organisations into a tumultuous transition to remote working and for many the greatest change was the way they communicate. At a company level, our Digital Etiquette research shows most people (52%) felt that company-wide communication has actually improved, with only 9% feeling this has suffered, but at an individual level the picture is mixed.

While most people feel they can be equally, if not more productive working from home, threats to motivation, stress and anxiety are emerging as a result of the change in the way we communicate. Many of these issues can be resolved relatively quickly and addressing these quickly will prevent serious longer-term problems.

Different groups face different challenges

The ‘always-on’ nature of digital communications was seen as the greatest source of stress in work-related communications. Whilst pressure from others to keep working affected parents and non-parents equally, non-parents, for instance, seem to struggle more with their own temptations to keep working.

In the past, we could switch off notifications from certain channels (although few people actually did so), but with one in three of us now using tools like WhatsApp for work, this isn’t always possible.

This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but it does mean that organisations need to be very clear about how channels should be used as these increasingly blurred lines between our work and personal life had the greatest negative impact on motivation.

Our Digital Etiquette research also reveals that 38% of workers are worrying daily about how they communicate on work-related channels (one in 10 workers worry about this all the time). It’s actually the younger generation that worry the most, with 46% of under 35s worrying daily, compared to just 22% of over 45s.

Normally, we could glance across and see someone is anxious and take them aside for a coffee and a chat to allay these fears. Now, we need to find new ways to foster the social and informal relationships between colleagues which can alleviate such stress. Such support is particularly important for those who are less experienced in the commercial world.

Lack of consensus and lack of clarity causes anxiety and inefficiency

Lack of clarity is also causing inefficiency, with workers losing half a day of each week to searching for information which has been sent to them. Using the right tools is equally important. One of the biggest challenges reported in managing teams remotely was tracking work, but the vast majority are still using spreadsheets and email to track progress, rather than more specialist tools like Jira or Confluence, which can make this much simpler.

The increasing number of channels we have to check is a major bugbear amongst workers. However, the problem is not the number of channels, but confusion around how to use them and how to get the most out of them. This is perhaps unsurprising when only around half of workers have had any training on how to use the tools they now rely on.

Learning to operate the technology is just one aspect of mastering the tools, but the key aspect, which appears to be lacking, is training to create a common, shared understanding about how tools are used. Simple steps to clarify processes like when to use the company alias and what should be posted in each type of Slack channel can really pay off. A big part of the problem is lack of consensus on what’s acceptable and how to communicate on digital channels for work. So, by recognising this and providing clarity and guidance, organisations can ease communication anxiety, reduce white noise, avoid embarrassment, make teams more efficient and ensure valuable information is not missed.

*Simon Haighton-Williams is CEO of Adaptavist, which helps organisations adapt to a fast-changing world.

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