Maybe you have had a similar dream that goes something like this… You have a very important meeting ahead of you. You are about to meet a brand new client and you’ve practiced your pitch to a tee. Your mind has been racing for hours if not days and your meeting objectives have been looping in your head. Naturally you want to do great and you want the meeting to be a success. A lot is at stake and you don’t want to mess up. Instead it turns out more like this…
You walk into the room of executives, you shake hands with them but none of them make eye contact with you and some even ignore you. Some don’t even notice you at all and others stare at you uncomfortably. You look for your teammates for help and assurance but they don’t notice you at all either. Next, the meeting starts and it’s your turn to speak. You move your mouth but no words come out. You become more and more uncomfortable, you start to sweat and even panic. You’ve missed your chance to speak and the meeting moves on. You didn’t get to contribute and even worse you fear that you’ve made an awful impression on the client and your peers. You did. You wake up panicked and infuriated. Thankfully it was just a dream.
Only this is not a dream but a reality of what a typical remote meeting can be like for you. You walk in into the meeting with a focus on the agenda only to find that you get taken off course by technical and engagement difficulties. Common occurrences like video disruptions, microphone echoes, and phone static all come in the way of effective and natural conversation. This can make remote participants feel invisible and awkward at best. It’s easy to feel disconnected and left out without the physical presence of the room and the people in it.
Unfortunately that is the reality more often than not. If your job is for the most part not task-execution focused in nature you will have to make up for the lack of rich human interaction that happens naturally between people who share a physical location. Digital tools such as video conferencing, IMs and constant emailing filter the rich human qualities that are critical in fields like UX, where the success and quality of a project is driven on collaboration and frequent brainstorming.
Know the Limitations of Digital Communication Tools
Armed with talented WFH (work from home) staff and distributed offices we – at The Nerdery – work remotely a lotH and here are a few takeaways from our experiences. We give technologies (eg. Google hangout, Skype, jabber) too much credit. In theory you would expect to hop on Google Hangout or Skype and to have a near flawless, normal human interaction. That is an ideal user expectation which at this point in time – from our experience – is still a theory. We like to believe that currently-used remote communication methods are as reliable as we expect them to be, but be prepared to deal with common issues. Video interruptions, audio cutting out, microphone feedback and echoing, and loss of visual are all the little things that will ultimately throw you off and limit your effectiveness.
An unavoidable side effect of remote meetings (formal and informal) is miscommunication, which ranges anywhere from mishearing or not hearing at all what is said, to not seeing people in the room causing inability to pick up nonverbal body language. Some people are very verbal whereas others understand the world more by observing and perceiving their environment. For those people, collaborating and running meetings remotely is excruciatingly painful as the essence of the environment is filtered through the digital tool. It becomes essential to have a game plan when working remotely.
Implement a Strategy to Increase Efficiency and Effectiveness
Anticipating issues and implementing strategies is winning half the battle when it comes to remote communication. The first rule is to set expectations early on with both your team and/or the client. If there is not an established standard at your company when it comes to remote interactions, create your own set of expectations based on what has worked for you and share it with your team. The list should include essentials of what you need to be effective in order for the project to be a success. This can include meeting five minutes before a meeting to ensure all tech is working properly and to go over the agenda.
Another example would be to call in after a client meeting to debrief as a lot of conversations happen “offline” and if you are working remotely it is critical that you create opportunities to be part of informal post meetings. What works is to schedule an internal, post-meeting 5-10 minute debrief. There is still no effective way to make up for the spontaneous conversations that happen naturally, so to ensure that you are not disconnected from what is going on, ask the project manager or lead for recaps or status updates that are made available first thing in the AM and or PM. Depending on the project those may happen once daily or a few times per week but it is essential that they do.
Remote clients, distributed teams, and remote offices are here to stay. Communicating remotely at this point in time is not perfect but it is essential and should be embraced.
Hopefully in the near future technology will advance enough to allow remote participants to have a more rich remote presence that will not strip us of our human essence. In the meantime it is essential for any company to have standards in place and an etiquette that strives to have better remote communication best practices. It is imperative to have a set of ground rules to work from that will make up for the lack of rich communication between distributed (non-collocated, remote) teams.
Stay tuned for a series of follow up posts where practical remote communication techniques and tools will be presented in more detail.