As communities and organizations implement "social distancing" policies to limit the spread of COVID-19, health care organizations have asked many employees who are not on the front-lines to work from home.
For those not accustomed to remote work, the shift can be difficult—and even isolating. But technology platforms, such as WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, and others, are useful tools to virtually engage teams and advance projects. Importantly, skillful use of these technologies can help you reduce the social isolation that can stem from working from home.
In general, these virtual technologies are fairly straightforward to use. Once you've gotten the hang of the technology itself, you can begin to leverage the technology to improve your virtual work experience. Below I've outlined some best practices for maximizing how you engage others on these platforms.
- Use webcams whenever possible. A variety of researchers have agreed that non-verbal messaging—especially gestures and facial expressions—represents a substantial portion of the "communication" that occurs between individuals. Using webcams enables these non-verbals to not be lost virtually, enhancing the likelihood that virtual coworkers really understand and connect with each other. Make sure to set the expectation in advance that you plan to use a webcam—no one wants to be wearing their pajamas only to then learn their boss wants them on camera.
- Establish the ground-rules. What's the dress code? Is eating allowed? How should people make comments (e.g., "say your name and where you are from")? Is it okay to interrupt the presenter? Such protocols can vary by organization and team. Stating them clearly goes a long way toward people feeling comfortable—and reduces concern about embarrassment that stems from violating unspoken rules. It's also important to bear in mind that for many individuals the decision to work from home came unexpectedly (and likely from higher-ups); a little grace around webcam interruptions from family members and furry friends goes a long way.
- Be extra animated. Even with webcams on, the virtual environment "deadens" much of the vocal variety (i.e., variation in tone, volume, pitch, etc.) that make in-person interactions engaging. Consider dialing-up these attributes, especially when presenting long sequences of information. You may feel silly, but a little "over-acting" tends to translate naturally on the phone.
- Use directional language when presenting graphics/slides. In-person, we often direct a person's attention to a particular part of a graphic with our gestures. On virtual platforms, use directional language as a substitute. For example, you could say, "Let's look at the upper left of the graphic first, where you see…," or "Turning our attention to the right half of the slide…"
- Use the chat function for questions and input. Most virtual platforms provide a box for attendees to "chat." Use this to:
- Source questions. It's a lot more awkward to interrupt someone with a question in a virtual environment than in an in-person meeting; chat provides people a chance to ask their question in real-time without speaking over you.
- Seek input: "Everyone, take the next 2 minutes to type into the chat box your response to this question…" Chat allows you to get the team's take without everyone starting to talk at the same time. If visible to everyone, chat is a useful way to give participants insight into each other's input.
- Fight passivity. Meeting participation in virtual environments is often low compared to in-person environments, unless the team is very accustomed to the technology. You can fight this passivity with a few steps:
- Use the technology's "whiteboard" function—or even a shared-screen Microsoft Word document—to keep-track of the conversation, next steps, key questions, etc. Documents that are updated live, as a whiteboard might be in a meeting, are more interesting than slides.
- Assign people roles. For example, someone might keep notes on a shared-screen document. Another person might monitor the chat box for questions and comments and moderate for the group.
- Call people by name. Asking, "Any questions?" is almost likely to get no response in a virtual environment. Instead, direct your question to a specific person: "Jayme, can you offer us the first reaction?" And for your introverts, it's kinder to give them a heads-up. For example, you could say, "At the end of this section, I’m going to ask Jamal, Casey, and Greg for their thoughts."
- Consider short and small meetings. A typical office workday is filled with small and short interactions—a quick chat with a colleague, a "pop-in" with your boss. Using virtual technologies to mimic these interactions can help people stay connected. You might:
- Start the day with an all-team huddle wherein each person says what they'll work on throughout the day and where they might need a colleague's ideas.
- Set-up some smaller virtual meetings across the day—perhaps 15 minutes where colleagues can quickly ask questions of each other or get feedback as they might by stopping-by each other's desks during the workday.
- Have a social forum. Gallup taught us that friendships at work matter. If colleagues typically enjoy lunch together in the break room, might they enjoy a virtual lunch together?
- Pull-up on accomplishments. In an office environment, people often get small, spontaneous doses of recognition and feedback that are critical to engagement—they might share their joy with a team member that a big project is done, or they might drop a document off on their boss' desk and get a quick reaction. In a virtual environment, these things happen less readily. A good substitute is to do a couple of quick end-of day meetings per week: on one, people might share something they accomplished; on another, something they learned. This can help people feel "seen" even as they work from home.
- Have fun! Virtual environments can offer new opportunities to do some team bonding.Carve out some time for people to share something about themselves. They might show-off a pet, introduce a family member, or talk about an object in their home that's meaningful to them.
Working from home doesn't have to an isolating event. With these tips you can make the most of remote working experiences.