Navigating the Subtleties of Remote Communication

Co-written by Anna and Kayce.

As you acclimate yourself to working in a remote environment, you start to understand that communicating remotely isn’t quite as instinctual as speaking face to face. Remote communication needs thoughtfulness and finesse to make up for the loss of the subtle facial expressions and vocal inflection of in-person camaraderie. Without this, we can make assumptions about our coworkers intentions and read into online conversations in ways that inhibit clear and positive communication.

With some experience under our belts, we’ve pulled together some ideas, suggestions and lessons learned over the course of our remote work history.


Understanding Communication Styles

Every individual communicates differently and has some form of social preference. Knowing those preferences and being flexible as they present themselves in daily conversations is a superpower we can all learn to foster. One simple way to know how people like to communicate, ask them! Whether it be through email, Hipchat/Slack, or a phone/video call, finding out your coworkers’ preferred way to communicate remotely will make the conversation more natural for the participants.

Find out what motivates and demotivates those around you. Formstack uses the Predictive Index (PI) and Jungian-type of assessments like the one from 16personalities to help capture personality preferences regarding different styles of communication, motivations, behaviors, etc.

Empathy

Text can be one of the most frustrating avenues of remote communication, especially when discussing touchy or sensitive subjects. A strong statement may be taken as abrasive or confrontational, so we often end up decorating our sentences with smiley faces and emoticons to dampen the impact.

When you come across a message with unclear intentions, a good approach is to remind yourself to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Most of us don’t intend to be combative, and we often don’t realize the way our words may sound at the other end. Take a breath and ask your coworker, “I’m unclear, can you elaborate?”. Focus on others, be perceptive, if you don’t understand what someone is saying or how they are feeling, ask them! Another important factor in understanding intentions, is to get to know your coworkers better outside the office. We’ll speak more on the importance of team building and unstructured hang out time in a bit.

Self-Reflection

As you interact throughout the day, reflect every so often on your actions. Bringing attention to the impact you have on others can lead to some positive insights and will make you into someone everyone wants to work alongside.

![Self reflection woes](http://i.imgur.com/GmW5aOW.gif)

Though sometimes humbling, requesting critiques from those around you doesn’t have to be restricted to your design work. Asking others for feedback/criticism/areas of improvement is a fountain of insight you may not tap into enough. As designers, self-reflection might be the single most important thing we can do to become better designers, coworkers, and people.

Check in even when you think everyone is happy.

Message Impact and Consistency

As remote workers, it’s important to understand the impact of captured conversations. Saved text and video chat history can be a useful tool, but we should be aware of the impact this can have as projects progress, morph, and change. Old directives and opinions can be called upon at a later date which can cause confusion. Try to preface changes in direction with a historical overview and include WHY something has changed.

It’s important to be transparent, but not at the cost of message accuracy. Leadership decisions which effect the team often change as they are planned and implemented. It’s important to pick and choose when to be transparent with your team and keep decisions under wraps until they are more concrete. Instead, focus on finding out what the team thinks about different ideas without agreeing or making them seem to be in a final state. This facilitates collaboration with an understanding that it is only part of the process to arrive at a final solution.

Ask the right questions

Try to get to the root of the issue. Take out as much bias and emotion as you can and bring discussions back to the big picture or overarching goals. The best probing questions are often open-ended, and don’t underestimate the power of ‘WHY?’.

Example questions:

**Work related**

* What was your thought process behind x?
* What factors did you take into consideration when making that decision?
* If reduced to its essential element, what would that be?

**People Skills**

* Help me understand where you’re coming from
* If we could start over, what could I have done differently?
* How can management and coworkers help you be more successful?

Small Talk

On the product design team at Formstack, we talk about the weather, yep- it’s just the right amount of ironic. We make light of the fact that half the team uses celsius, the other fahrenheit, and it’s a fun ‘nice to know’ when Canada is hotter than South Carolina (it’s happened). Find some funny icebreaker convos for your team to begin meetings with. On Monday morning standup, we all bring a photo to share with the team (either from the previous weekend or childhood) but always with a hilarity-filled backstory.

What do you have in common with the person you’re communicating with? Try to start conversations around those topics that connect you. Small talk can become big and important talk if the connection is good.


Navigating Disagreements

When facing a disagreement, **Heed the number 1 rule:** Move to video/phone or face to face as quickly as possible. Disagreements can get compounded and exacerbated by misinterpreting text chats.

Interrupting

Talking on video is just awkward. There’s no getting around the fumbling stumbling moment of starting to speak and then getting interrupted with technical delays and tough to decipher social cues. Make sure to be keenly aware of others’ cues when they want to speak: un-muting themselves, interjecting with an ‘um’. Acknowledge them after you’re done speaking. Tip: if you notice people are anxious to speak, cut down the length of your diatribe and let them voice an opinion.

Redesigning the Message

Sometimes things are said that when presenting textually, can come off as dismissive to the person on the receiving end. Thoughtful criticism is especially difficult when presented solely in text. The product design Team at Formstack uses Wake to share design collateral with others and allow anyone to provide some uber-important, early project feedback. It is always better to start with a positive when giving criticism to others. Rarely, can something great not be said about the creative work other people have spent their time and energy on. Begin with that.

To drive home that point, we have captured some of our (not-so) favourite examples of text-based criticism and have suggested ways of saying the same thing but in a more user-friendly way.

I’ll take that into consideration
→ That feedback is very valuable to me, this will certainly help the project move forward!

Why did you decide to do `X` ?
→ I really find `X` interesting. Could you tell me a little more about it?

What happened to `X`?
→ I noticed that `X` is missing. Was that an intentional design decision? If so, let’s talk about it!

`X` doesn’t make sense to me.
→ I found `X` somewhat confusing. I think we might improve it by `Y`.


Taking the Time to be Together IRL

All of this is well and good, but perhaps the most important thing needed for a successful, communicative relationship with your fellow remote coworkers is to actually get together face to face as often as possible. In real life. Some things are just better without a screen mediating the experience. Especially getting to know someone personally, their sense of humor, passions, what makes them tick, and their general demeanor. We try to get the entire Development Department together at least twice per year, once for a team “All Hands” (a week-long onsite meeting of the minds, filled with lots of team building, endless amount of hilarity, and even some work) and a second time, for the entire Formstack company’s “All Hands”. It is also strongly recommended that with any new hire, the first week is devoted to getting them on-boarded with the company and culture. Formstack tries to make every ‘Stackers first week as immersive and in-person as possible.

Conclusion

We’re all just people trying to make ourselves heard. Take this wacky world of remote work with a grain of salt and have fun with it!

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