Peter Bigelow

Just as Covid-19 jolted supply chains, it also disrupted how we communicate.

Maintaining effective, open, timely communication can be one of the biggest challenges facing employees at every level. The executive team sets the vision, strategy and tactical goals. Managers and supervisors are tasked with communicating and converting that message into understandable, reasonable, attainable and ultimately successful initiatives and efforts. Employees, in turn, communicate their issues, problems and ideas to accomplish back to the higher-ups, who refine the goals, so the organization moves forward profitably, satisfying customers.

On normal days, good communications can be daunting and complex. And the past several months have been anything but normal.

In-person communication offers the advantage of body language to accentuate the spoken word. The parties involved can literally see eye-to-eye. A speaker can scan a room to see how their message is received and recalibrate as needed. Workers can lean back from their desk or stand over a cubicle wall to ask a colleague a question and receive a quick response. A team can huddle on demand to communicate a problem and brainstorm a solution. How does that work when you and your staff are forced to communicate virtually?

Technology affords business many exciting, user-friendly and adaptable communication options. With so many people forced to work from home, rather than at their usual desk or work station, tools such as Zoom, WebEx and GoToMeeting, to name a few, are being employed like never before to keep business communication moving during these historic and trying pandemic times. But as impressive, omnipresent and user-friendly as those options may be, how effective is technology for robust communication?

While not all employees are working from home, those who are must set up more of a “real” office than they might have had and establish an environment conducive to work, while possibly occupying that space with others. Conducting business in a nontraditional work environment is further complicated when that space is shared with a spouse who is attempting the same, or when children or pets are underfoot. All this creates distractions to juggle, manage or control in a way that enables focused, dedicated work concentration.

Technologies such as Zoom enable verbal communication but may not assure effective focused communication. Too many involved in a virtual meeting may be distracted by events in their home office and miss important details or a speaker’s vocal nuances. To further complicate this, some may put up a still shot picture of themselves, or a favorite location, instead of risking having a rogue child or spouse enter the field of vision of the camera. In such a scenario, others present cannot see who is on-task and getting the message and who is only getting the basic outline and will need follow-up for the details. If effective communication is a challenge when people work together at the same location, the difficulties and potential for miscommunication increase exponentially when everyone works remotely.

Even communication with those still functioning from the home office can offer challenges and risks. When half the team is up to speed and the other half is getting only a portion of the story, problems arise. Unlike when a team assembled in one conference room virtually meets with a team likewise assembled in a similar conference room at a different location, when each person is in a unique site dealing with unique surroundings and unique distractions, collective comprehension suffers. The same is true even when a few members of a team are offsite, missing the banter that often provides the color commentary necessary to best deal with the task at hand.

What to do? Clearly the “new normal” will be around much longer than anyone originally thought. Tasks are being accomplished and business is churning along. But everyone from the CEO down to the newest entry-level employee must redouble their efforts to communicate with everyone, and not assume their message is heard as it once was. More one-on-one communications are certainly part of the solution. Confirm coworkers heard details that may have been missed during a group call, or to share thoughts about a given situation based on specific experiences.

Be patient. Some messages will need to be repeated, and often. After a call, reach out to participants to ask if, on reflection, they have questions or require additional information. Be creative: mix up the type and variety of communication methods to enable each group discussion to differentiate itself from the barrage of other Zoom or WebEx sessions. Determination is required. Be as clear a communicator as you can, regardless of the vehicle used. Be it by email, phone or virtual meeting, reaching out as often as possible will help avoid gaps.

Finally, use that sense of humor! Everyone is fatigued and frustrated dealing with these unprecedented times. Mistakes happen. Family will be overheard on some virtual calls. Life will interrupt. Don’t get concerned. Show patience, creativity and determination to keep communicating as best as possible.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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