Working Remotely: Four Rungs of the Communication Ladder Every Leader Must Climb

You want to be a leader who positively impacts your team to push through this miasma of uncertainty and change, yet you can’t walk around the office to galvanize the troops because you’re all sequestered in your homes. How can you be “with” your team when your team is scattered? It’s all about the frequency and type of communication. If your situation has changed then your communication strategy must also change.


Think of communication as a ladder. There’s information (what you really mean to say), channel (mode of transmission), and context (tools to translate the information). Each of those items are included in successful communication. Here are four basic ways to ensure the communication ladder is addressed and your communication game keeps up with this COVID-19 change:


  1. Video is your go-to: Most of us know that language is made up of two different modalities, verbal and non-verbal, with non-verbal being the vast majority of communication. If you choose to communicate in a way that does not include non-verbal allowances, such as showing your facial and body movements while you communicate, you are guaranteed to struggle. Since you can no longer see the people you are attempting to communicate with by proximity, you need to use technology to overcome this barrier. Tools such as Zoom and FaceTime are great for video chat to allow for both verbal and non-verbal communication. This is the best way to most effectively get your message across in a remote situation. This must be your go-to communication style and should be implemented as the automatic mode of communication with everyone on your team. Hands down, this is probably the one communication change that will save hours of unnecessary headache. Don’t let yourself or anyone off the hook. Don’t allow any other mode of communication to take priority. If something needs to be documented, that’s fine, an email can be sent after the video conversation has taken place. The only reason you should not do a video chat is if it is highly awkward, could cause privacy violations, or the question is so quick you can use a messenger, chat, or texting option.

  2. Voice is second choice: If it is not possible to do a video chat, head for your phone. At least you can still convey intonation and non-visual cues of communication via a voice call. This is ALWAYS preferred to any type of written communication if video chat is not an option. The ability for the other party to hear your intent still exists in this verbal communication.

  3. Messenger/chat is where it’s at: Sometimes a full production of a video or voice call isn’t necessary when something just needs to be verified or a follow up question surfaces. Have a quick question? Want to make a brief general announcement? No need to schedule a Zoom call, just send a quick sentence or two via your designated chat tool. The good news is that many project management and coordination tools, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, include a pretty robust chat option. This way you can communicate quickly without having to open a different application than what you’re already using for coordinating your team’s work (if you don’t already use a project management tool that’s another must-have - more on this later).

  4. Email is now a potential fail: For many leaders (myself included) email has been our go-to communication tool. I used to send an office email and then follow it up in person by walking around, or in our monthly staff meeting, and it was largely ok. There is no more “ok” when it comes to this practice in a remote working environment. Working remotely involves a lot of different pressures and is a very different environment than the office in that there is not a lot of context for a large email suddenly showing up in one’s inbox. Think about it, the physical office naturally lends itself to context and culture. If a large email is sent out when everyone is in close physical proximity, then the opportunity exists for organic conversations to happen to give context. When everyone is working from their own living room there isn’t the usual office chatter and overheard conversation; there’s no social environment within which to place a large written communication, which leaves interpretation to one’s own thought process. What this translates into is a lot of fodder for potential misunderstanding and miscommunication. Because of this, you must resist the urge to use email as a primary mode of communication. It’ll be hard, but oh so rewarding, to primarily use communication modes that allow for non-verbal context and let email take its rightful place as follow up documentation rather than the main messenger.

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