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Why staying ‘on’ constantly hurts the effectiveness of remote communication

Let go of the idea that workers must always be on and available, which can take a toll on your team’s morale and mental health.

Why staying ‘on’ constantly hurts the effectiveness of remote communication
[Photo: Jefferson Santos/Unsplash]

Remote work isn’t a new concept. But during the coronavirus pandemic, its uptake by companies of all sizes, across industries, has grown exponentially and shows no sign of slowing down.

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In May 2020, Canadian tech darling Shopify made headlines after announcing its plan to go “digital by default,” transitioning the majority of its company to permanent remote work. And in the U.S., several cities announced relocation incentive programs in support of the growing remote workforce, and also to bring some economic relief to those regions.

Throughout the pandemic, technology has been integral to the operation of teams, and to their ability to maintain (and improve) interoffice communications. However, this growing reliance on digital solutions has also illuminated gaps in how we could be using technology more effectively in our new remote environment

Ideas around “successful” remote work

Successful remote work is often solely attributed to having access to technology that enables remote connectivity and instant communication. While this is important, focusing on immediacy and instant communication—think of workplace communication tools such as Slack or Zoom—satisfies only part of the equation. In actuality, it can be quite dangerous.

Our heavy reliance on technology has implied that employees are always digitally “on” and available. This isn’t particularly surprising when you look at digital entertainment figures. According to Nielsen, staying put at home could mean a 60% increase in the amount of content we consume. However, an “always on” mentality fails to acknowledge how intertwined our work and personal lives have become in the wake of COVID-19—think about the parents who, over the course of a few months, have become their children’s teachers, or young adults who are now living with and caring for elderly family members.

The pandemic has revealed that successful remote work depends on more than one type of communication—and real-time virtual communication isn’t the only solution. Instead, look for ways that employees can engage with one another, but in a way that doesn’t require immediate back-and-forth, or for everyone to be “present” at the exact same time within virtual workspaces.

The underdog of effective remote work

Business leaders have long celebrated remote work for its ability to empower employees by giving them ownership of their workday in order to reach optimal productivity. But of equal importance to the discussion are the challenges associated with remote work. Previous studies have found that a lack of nonverbal cues, a continued focus on the screen to stay engaged, and reduced visibility of the people you’re interacting with are just some of the culprits that lead to virtual fatigue. The good news is that asynchronous collaboration can help combat that.

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Asynchronous collaboration is often intermittent and ongoing and is potentially productive. Unlike the slew of words and emojis that are quickly exchanged on Slack, this method of collaboration supports the focused virtual environment we need to work effectively, but with less pressure and greater empathy for our unique remote work situations. That’s what we set out to achieve with Work spaces—a focused collection of mission-critical apps, tabs, and bookmarks that can be shared with your specific project team or colleagues and worked on asynchronously.

Technology and the future of work

While a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t exist, companies need asynchronous-enabling technologies if they want to make remote work, work.

That said, if there are any silver linings to this time we’re living in, it’s the technological innovations that have emerged to improve virtual communication, and the opportunity to explore new ways of working that support greater efficiency and creativity.

Recall that in April 2020, remote conferencing services company Zoom recorded an increase in daily downloads by 30 times year-over-year, as well as a spike to 200 million users in March 2020, from 10 million users in December 2019. What followed were additional upticks in similar enterprise conferencing tools as more companies deferred to remote work, including Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.

And while some of these technologies might have encountered security mishaps in their hasty responses to the pandemic—for instance, “Zoombombings” and other privacy issues—these innovations and quick iterations have shown just how supportive technology can be during unprecedented times, and how it can adapt to each company’s respective needs.

 Technology continually evolves to meet the needs of work as we know it today. Whether the future of work will remain primarily virtual and remote, or entire companies can return to the office, business leaders need to keep an open mind on how different digital solutions can impact what the work experience looks like for their people.

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Right now, that means empowering teams to do more focused and collaborative work in a way that considers how tangled our personal and professional lives have become, because being online and available at all times hasn’t proven to be the only solution, nor is it healthy. Even during these uncertain times, there’s an exciting opportunity for companies to embrace new ways of working and to discover what approach produces the most balanced and effective results.


Nadia Tatlow is the CEO of Shift, a desktop productivity hub for unifying your accounts, apps, and workflows through a single, streamlined interface.

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