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Communication is hard: Some thoughts on one aspect of remote working, after 18 months

nimmo profile image Nimmo Updated on ・7 min read

I make no secret of the fact that I love remote working. I don't tend to make much mention of the most difficult aspect of it though: communicating by text with people that you don't know in person, whilst all of your communication is visible to everyone and recorded forever. Let's break down the issues that come along with all of that:

Communicating by text with people that you don't know in person

A lot of contextual information is removed when you're talking by text, as I'm sure we all already realise. But as well as losing that contextual information, it's also a lot harder to build rapport.

Although I'm sure I don't need to point out the importance of this, let's quickly imagine that your closest friend tells you that you look like crap today. And then let's consider how that same message would sound coming from a stranger on the internet.

As an added bonus, the ease at which you can be misunderstood by text means that you can erode rapport with someone much more quickly. It's a bit of a minefield.

All of your communication is visible to everyone

Imagine you're in an office, and you're talking about something work related. Let's say it's something you don't feel like you're totally sure of, so you're asking a question about it. Maybe you're imagining yourself talking slightly more quietly than normal, or maybe your tone is a little lighter than normal as you try and play down your own insecurity about not knowing whatever it is you're asking about?

Now imagine that you only get one tone to communicate in, and one volume. And you have to communicate with your eyes closed, to the entire room. Not quite so comfortable, but the reality of remote working the majority of the time. And not just for questions, but also for anything else you say.

All of your communication is recorded forever

I doubt I'm alone in this one, but I regularly lose sleep thinking about conversations that happened years ago. Conversations probably long since forgotten by everyone but me - or at least that's what I tell myself. But what if those conversations were just a single search field away? What if I - or worse, the other party / anyone else - could go and re-read them at any time?

Welcome to remote working. Welcome to the idea that you can be entirely held to anything you've said, at any point in time. Welcome to having to scrutinise every word you type, whilst imagining the ways in which they could all come back to bite you in future. Welcome to a world where you seemingly have two choices at all times: sound unsure of yourself or sound like an arsehole. You can sometimes do both, but it takes a special set of skills to do neither.

This sounds horrible!

It really isn't, but it is surprisingly time-consuming, especially if your job involves being part of multiple groups of people with different concerns and responsibilities.

How can we make this better? In short, I don't know really - everyone is different and I can only speak to my own experience here, but I have been trying a few things:

1: I changed my profile pictures

I can not stand smiling in photos - not because I think I'm "too cool" to smile or any nonesense like that, but because it isn't how I normally see myself (I don't smile at myself whenever I look at a mirror!), so it looks odd to me. If you ever see a photo of me in which I'm smiling, chances are I hate that photo.

I smile a lot in real life, however- mostly out of awkwardness to be honest, but nonetheless anyone who sees me regularly in person sees me smile a lot; ask my cats.

But my colleagues don't see this, because they don't see me. Some of them have never seen me in person, and some of them never will. And when I thought about how I infer people's tone over text-based mediums, I realised that I absolutely do at least partly associate the tone of the message with the picture sitting next to it - despite fully understanding that the two are pretty unlikely to be synced up at all times.

So I changed my profile picture - on everything I use that has a profile picture - to a picture of me smiling. Which I hate. But it's funny, because despite the fact that I don't like that picture, I see it whenever I say, post something on Slack, and I feel like I'm in a better mood - like I see myself smiling and I don't think "ugh I hate that photo", I just feel better. I'd like to think that people who I interact with feel like my messages are more positive too, if they previously thought otherwise.

 2: I've started intentionally being more open, outside of DMs

You're not supposed to have "feelings" at work are you? Get on with it, you've got work to do. Those deadlines aren't going to meet themselves, after all.

If, like me, you're unfortunate enough to be human, there are likely to be times when you're just feeling a bit shit. Maybe something huge is happening, maybe lots of small things are happening, maybe you have no idea what's happening and it's the trying to figure that out that's making you feel a bit shit. But it's likely to happen at some point or another - and it's much harder to "leave your feelings at home" when you are at home.

So I've been trying to be more open with people in public, not just in private. I want everyone to feel like they can be open about things that are going on with them. And I want everyone to understand where I'm coming from too. Even if people don't necessarily want to "overshare" with the rest of the team, I think it's important that everyone knows that they could if they wanted to.

3: I try to "let it go" at the end of each day

Remember the last time something worked out really well entirely as a result of holding a grudge? Me neither. But it's so easy to do, especially when you're working remotely, and you only interact with colleagues over Slack.

When I was only a couple of months into a job, someone took something I said the wrong way - it wasn't anything personal of course, just something I'd said about a programming language that they happened to like, and they didn't appreciate it and flew off the handle a little. This was the first interaction I'd had with them, and I avoided speaking to them again after that, but there was a little space in my brain reserved for thinking that they were a bit of a dick.

Were they a dick? I have no idea. I don't know them. Maybe they were having a bad day, or maybe I had taken what they said in the wrong way. Either way, it doesn't matter because we don't both work in the same place any more, so any energy I'd spent thinking negative thoughts about that interaction was utterly wasted anyway. In hindsight it never mattered. If I'd allowed myself to let the frustration of that first interaction go, and genuinely moved on from it the next day, the only thing that would have changed would be that I wouldn't have had a tiny (although entirely internal) negative reaction whenever anyone mentioned that particular person, or whenever I saw then pop up in a Slack channel. That's it - literally nothing else would have changed at all.

4: I try to interpret things generously

I'm sure we all know how easy it is to take something the wrong way, but perhaps taking messages the right way isn't always that important either. Perhaps we should try taking things the best way.

For example, let's say we're suggesting something new, and someone says "Why would we want to do that?". It's easy to assume that they're saying "that sounds ridiculous, why would we want to do that? You must be an idiot".

And here's the thing - maybe that is exactly what they mean. Maybe they genuinely dislike you and they're intentionally being difficult. But...why should that matter to you? Take a deep breath, and re-read the comment - you're being invited to explain the reasoning behind your suggestion and you're speaking into an open room with your eyes closed anyway remember? Other people may be interested in your reasoning.

So let's re-read the comment as "That sounds interesting, but I'm not sure I fully understand the benefits, can you explain so that we're both on the same page?". Whether that was the intended message or not hardly seems to matter, does it?

Perhaps after explaining, the ensuing discussion will make you change your mind about whatever it is - but I'd advise against changing your mind simply because the question was asked in the first place.

--

Remote working is becoming more and more commonplace as more people - companies and individuals alike - are understanding the benefits of this set-up. As I've said, personally I love it and it works especially well for me, but I figured it was worth talking a little about this aspect of it. I don't know if this is really useful for anyone to be honest - but I hope it's at least been of interest to someone. :-)

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Nimmo

@nimmo

I'm a software developer based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. I've got a wide range of experience in companies of varying sizes and cultures, and in roles of varying degrees of responsibility.

Discussion

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We also have this as rule #1 in our internal guideline - Always assume good faith from the other side. But I think you explain it much better in "try to interpret things generously".

Btw, we also shared our thoughts on communication challenge in remote work here - blog.xoxzo.com/2016/04/22/the-comm....

 

Ah, cheers for sharing. :) Will give it a read. And yeah, although it's really hard to actually do regularly in practice, I do believe it's probably one of the most important skills to keep yourself sane whilst working remotely.