Working from Home: Communication

A little late in getting this information out there as we are in week five of the stay at home order and life hopefully will be getting back to normal soon.  But who knows what the future may hold for us; maybe working from home will be more prevalent and employers offer it as a workspace option.  Maybe people won’t be comfortable returning to a traditional office setting.  In any case, the work place will change and I am sharing my experience in the hopes that it will help someone transition more easily.  Or maybe you just need to hear that you are not alone in the real struggle that is working from home full time.

I found that communicating with coworkers while at home was completely different.  When you work from home one day here and there you can wait to discuss things until you are back in the office.  That is not the case when there is no office to gather at.  One thing that blew my mind when I started working from home in 2015 was the amount of emails I received.  It was incredible.  I work with a team of independent contractors; most of them had been doing this for years.  I had always worked in an office where I could walk over to someone’s desk to hash out how we were going to get through our next hurdle.  This was no longer an option.  I sat there wondering how in the world I was going to keep up, respond to all these emails, and communicate with the team.

I was the new kid on the block so I sat there for a couple months trying to figure out everyone’s communication style and how the current team already interacted. I was also the new team lead so I had to get some things in place and catch up ASAP so we could keep functioning like the well-oiled machine they already were. 

My responsibility being the Project Manager for a team of engineers, planners, leasers, and architects is to keep everyone on the same page in order to meet the client’s deadline, budget, and desired outcome for their projects.  It is the Project Manager’s responsibility to keep everyone informed, troubleshoot problems, anticipate roadblocks and keep the end result always in view.  In order to do it successfully I need to be able to communicate with all members of the team.

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The first thing we started doing was having a weekly conference call.  It was a long meeting, two hours, but it was a time where everyone was available to be engaged and discuss the projects we could get through, hash out the hurdles and come up with a plan of execution.  It was also a time for us to talk to each other, connect and remember we are a team working towards the same goal.

A two hour conference call may not work for every team.  I toyed with the idea of a daily 15 minute scrum-type meeting but couldn’t really figure out how that would be effective for our type of work.  The team my husband works with uses the scrum method and they find it very effective. 

The moral of the story, get a team meeting in place; one that is 15 minutes daily or two plus hours once a week or something in between.  It is a great method to keeping a line of communication open between all team members.

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Depending on your industry you can use various types of trackers, logs or boards to document a project’s progression.  I believe in having as much transparency between team members and groups of teams as possible.  There should be a place for someone to reference where the project is, who is doing what and what the next step needs to be. 

I have used Excel to keep all this information in one place; it can be cumbersome for the application and the user until they become familiar.  Excel takes work and dedication but it is very budget friendly and when working with a team of independent contractors it is an application everyone has.  If your “office” environment has a budget to support project management software I am sure there is an application out there that can fit your needs. 

The main point of highlighting a tracker, log or board is really to have one place for all team members to reference; establishing an open line of communication between all parties when we aren’t in our team meeting and to help filter what’s going on in one particular project.  A reference point such as this should minimize the need for daily updates and questions about what to work on next. 

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Make a phone call.  Stop the texts, IMs, and even emails.  If something is unclear or just not coming together pick up the phone and have a conversation.  You may need to involve multiple parties and the time it takes to get everyone’s schedule set will be worth it.  A phone call doesn’t replace the ease of communicating in person but it is a million times better than a text, instant message or email.  

I find now-a-days people don’t like to communicate over the phone; I was definitely one of those people.  Until I realized that I need to take my internal voice out of the email/ text/ IM and talk to the other person so I could really understand what they were communicating.  Do not assume you know what they are trying to convey it ultimately will lead to frustration and delays.  I like to ask questions, however simple and rudimentary to complex and thought provoking as to vet whether I or the rest of the team understands what is being relayed or so they feel comfortable asking their questions as well.  Sometimes people just need a nudge to feel comfortable opening up a dialog.  No one person knows everything, even as an expert in their field, so ask away you can learn something new and establish a stronger relationship with your teammates.

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We had meetings with the client twice a week in person.  It is a nice break from the home office to get out and put faces to emails.  You may think in person meetings are a waste of time with all the driving, packing up and general disruption of your day but having a physical connection with the people you work with is more psychological.  You have a connection that is based on a smile, high five, nod or even shaking of the head that speaks louder than any email or voice.

Our internal team would occasionally meet after the client meeting to have our two hour team meeting.  It would be held in one of the meeting rooms or we’d all go out to lunch.  It was difficult to hold the meeting at lunch but it was so infrequent and the conversation would be loosely based around work that it was just nice to sit with the team and realize we are all people with families, hobbies, and a life other than work.  It is important to still have the in person interaction when possible to vet over a physical piece of work or receive the visual cues for a higher understanding of what you are communicating.

In these COVID-19 days in person interaction is pretty much not possible but there are a lot of video conferencing options out there to allow you to still receive visual cues from your team and review physical pieces of work together.  Zoom, WebEx, FaceTime, Skype, Flock and other instant messaging platforms allow video conferencing.  While not the same as seeing people or pieces of work in person it is the best alternative to stay connected.

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At the end of the day I still had tons of emails and noticed that I too was sending out tons of emails.  Emails are great for documenting a project and most of the time people don’t write an email just to fill your inbox with unnecessary information.  I had to make time to read emails and found that they are a reliable means of communication if the email was well written and you understood the sender’s intention and/or tone.  Take the time to read what is in your inbox.  Do not assume you understand; if there are any questions follow up with an email or give the other party a call.

You will be sending a lot more emails then you used to; make sure that it is well written, conscience, and easy to reference documentation/materials/etc….  When in doubt make a call, chat about it and follow up with an email summarizing the conversation, result and any action items.  Take the time to communicate effectively it will save you more time in the long run.

When working from home email is an essential means of communication that can easily be misinterpreted.  Try not to give the emails tone; read it as matter of fact.  That is the most difficult part of relying on emails; you don’t get the tone or visual communication that supports the message.  A lot is lost when you can’t receive all the other inputs of communication and it can break down a team if you allow it to.  So read your emails with an open mind and read them because there is some good stuff in there!

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Independent contractors do not have a set schedule; that was another difficult thing to wrap my head around.  Each person on the team clocked in and out as they needed to; attending to family matters, themselves, or other obligations.  It was definitely a different mindset and one that took a while to get used to and understand.  I appreciate it now because it is important for people to do their best balancing all aspects of life.  I had to remember that we are all human doing the best job we can do. 

It used to frustrate me that I couldn’t get hold of someone but they always got back to me.  With a different mindset I realized that they are taking care of whatever it is they need to in order to be present when they are engaged with work.  During the pandemic this is very relevant; a lot of people are working from home, balancing homeschooling, sick family, etc….  Everyone is trying their best to do their best with all the hats they wear.

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  1. Team Meeting- Keep the line of communication open.
  2. Tracker/Log/Board- Central location for team to access status.
  3. Pick Up the Phone- If something is not clear pick up the phone and talk it out.
  4. Meet In Person or Virtually- We still need visual cues for complete communication.
  5. Reading and Writing Skills- Take the time to read and write your emails to clearly and concisely convey and understand the message.
  6. Be Flexible- Everyone is trying their best to do their best with all the hats they wear.

Working from home alone can mess with your mind.  You are not alone but it is easy to feel alone and isolated when you don’t see anyone else around you.  It plays games with your mind when you wake up, eat, work, exercise, craft, etc… within the same walls with no change of scenery and no interaction.  My husband tried to understand what it was like never leaving but he is a home body that loves to be alone so he thought I had it made.  I think working from home full time because of the stay at home order has given him a new appreciation for the toll it plays on your mind.  He asked today if we can have lunch outside so we can have a change of scene. 

I can share in another post the life I lived working from home; staying in PJs all day, not showering and drinking wine every night.  It is hard, it is not all that it is cracked up to be but I am working on a couple things to help me feel more like a living and engaged member of society.  I can share all that another time.  In the meantime, please stay connected with your team as much as possible in any way that works, it is important for your work but also your mental health.

Check out Home Office Essentials to help you set up all you need for a real home office.

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