There is a scene in the movie Ray when Jamie Foxx describes to Kerry Washington how turning one sense off heightens others. In this case, because Ray Charles was blind, he could turn his focus to the sound of the hummingbird outside the restaurant’s window. I’m not blind like Charles, but I felt like I experienced something similar to cutting off one of my senses when I took on a new work challenge this year.
For the better part of a year, I’ve been—like 55% of today’s workforce—working remotely full-time. When you work remotely, you quickly become aware of your isolation. Your teammates can hear you on calls and talk to you over Slack or e-mail, but they can’t physically see you. They can’t see you working at your desk, in the conference room for the meeting, and they can’t stop by for a casual chat on their way to the elevator.
It’s natural to start wondering if your teammates really know that you’re on the line and what you’re missing out on. Because I wasn’t physically in the office, I intentionally developed unique ways for my new colleagues to get to know me on a personal level. Even though I’d been a communications professional for more than 12 years, working for home allowed me to sharpen my communication skills in a way that I never expected. Here’s how.
1) I was forced to get back to the basics
You can’t get to know your team personally on business calls. Remember chatting on the phone and not texting? When I worked remotely, I was more proactive about setting up one-on-one recurring calls with my colleagues. Sure, it’s not the same as seeing them face-to-face. But when you work in an office, it’s easy to postpone these meetings when busyness takes over (and trust me, it always does).
Having regular check-ins keeps you on top of your colleague’s mind. It also allows you to obtain the information that you need to build sustainable relationships. Treat this as more than just an update meeting; use the time to find out more information about your teammates. That means asking what their goals are and whether you can be of help.
2) I had to practice being assertive and clear
Nonverbal cues are an extremely crucial part of communication, yet remote employees don’t have the luxury of exhibiting body language. And since every interaction is verbal, you need to be judicious about the words you select.
This means being assertive. Yes, it may seem cold and blunt, or even perhaps entirely out of character. But you need to do this to help your onsite colleagues understand your needs, wants, and goals, so you can be an efficient and contributing member of the team.
3) I learned to overcommunicate
In addition to being assertive, overcommunicating might seem unnatural. But if you don’t overcommunicate as a remote employee, you can easily get lost in the shuffle of typical workflow. Get out of your comfort zone and talk to people. Tell your manager what interests you. Ask for direct feedback and give feedback often. Overcommunicating ensures that nothing will get lost in translation.
4) I learned to stop rambling and get to the point quicker
How many times have you been on a call where the speaker dragged on and you just started to zone out? Remote workers only have their voice presence, so if you want what you’re saying to land and resonate with your audience, then you need to be able to cut to the chase. After a while, you’ll find that expressing your point succinctly and directly becomes second nature—whether that be in writing or in-person communication.
5) I focused on my physical presence, which made me more confident
When you work on-site, you get points for showing up even if you don’t participate. For remote workers, all you have is your voice to interject into conversations. That means that your voice needs to be clear and confident. That requires you to have a strong physical presence.
Walk around your home office to develop energy and a physical presence while on calls. Over time, you’ll find that your “voice” changes to take more command than your physical presence.
6) I learned to leverage technology
Collaborative technologies (like Slack and Zoom) have come a long way in the past five years. Don’t shy away from leveraging these platforms to help your on-site teammates get to know you. Slack is a fantastic way to communicate and collaborate quickly without the annoying formality of e-mail. Video conferencing allows your on-site teammates to put a face to your voice. It can also help personalize the remote worker, so you won’t just be a voice on the conference call or a name on the e-mail. Take advantage of any tool at your disposal to make you a stronger asset.
7) I learned to pick up on different tones
The more conversations you have without seeing the participants, the more aware you are of their tone. You can easily pick up if one of your colleagues or clients has low energy, is excited or depressed, or is holding something back. Use this new knowledge to touch base and connect via Slack or one-on-one to talk through what’s going on. Being aware of people’s tone of voice will also help you tap into how to better serve your teammates or clients with empathy, mentorship, or perhaps just as a soundboard.
I went into my stint as a remote worker thinking the only advantages were flexibility and work/life balance. Who would have thought I would have found a tangible skill and career-building advantage to working from home? As it turns out, not having regular physical interactions with my colleagues ended up taking my communication skills to the next level.
Michael Adorno is the vice president of communications at Hot Paper Lantern.