Virtual Communication: How Remote Teams Interact

Summary. With the pandemic ‘virtualising’ the way we communicate, it is imperative that we adopt the right practices to achieve effective virtual communication.

The COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed an en masse adoption of work-from-home arrangements as companies scrambled to convert their SOPs and daily operations to ensure that business can be as usual. As such, 74.5% of employees worked remotely in 2020 in Singapore, when COVID was at its height. Even though more nations have pivoted towards accepting COVID as endemic, the remote working arrangements continue to drive organisations, with many introducing a hybrid work approach. In fact, 71% of Singaporean employees are in favour of hybrid work arrangements and 41% would choose remote working over receiving a bigger bonus. Many companies have plans to make flexible work arrangements permanent and many have incorporated digital infrastructures and implemented supporting policies to sustain long-term hybrid work arrangements. Intrinsically, virtual communication has become an indispensable aspect of the hybrid work situation.

Virtual Communication as The New Normal

Virtual communication allows people to interact without physically being in the same space. The use of digital tools such as emails, text messages, chats and video calls enable information to be relayed ‘face-to-face’, albeit virtually. A study by SCIKEY revealed that 82% of respondents preferred remote working. This was likely attributed to the benefits that came with virtual communication such as increased productivity, more time flexibility and most importantly, the ability to relay information without having to physically commute. While these tools have been around for years, their usage skyrocketed during the pandemic and have since become an essential aspect in our daily lives. As technology continues to advance, more virtual communication tools that offer novel functions and services have surfaced in the market.

Effective virtual communication, however, isn’t as effortless as it seems. Here’s why.

1. The Lack of Body Language

Body language plays a vital role in communication. Research suggests that the percentage of non-verbal communication is four times that of verbal communication — 80% of our communication relies on non-verbal cues while only 20% is conveyed through the use of words. This means that the majority of what is being communicated is transmitted via non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, gestures and even paralinguistics (like loudness or tone of voice), all of which influence the message that is being relayed.

With virtual communication, assessing (not to mention interpreting) non-verbal cues can be extremely difficult as the lack of physical proximity removes in-person interaction and inhibits interpretation of the other party’s body language, facial expression, tone and gestures. This is especially so if the communication occurs via email, chat, or messaging, as visual text is the only thing that people can only rely on to interpret the message, hence making it difficult to achieve full or accurate comprehension.

For example, if you were to receive a message that says “Can you get this done now?”, it is unclear if the sender is checking in on your capacity in taking on this task, or is demanding you to complete the task immediately. This exemplifies why achieving effective virtual communication can sometimes be a challenge because the absence of supplementary context from non-verbal communication cues can easily result in the misinterpretation of text messages. When this happens, misunderstandings may arise and result in the dampening of worker relations and productivity. 

Virtual Communication | Socium
Non-verbal cues in regular in-person conversations complement messaging. Image source: Shutterstock

The Solution? Over Communicate!

In a regular in-person conversation, it is possible to gauge the full context of what the other person is trying to convey because it is complemented with non-verbal communication cues. However, a  way to ensure that virtual communication remains effective is to compensate by over communicating. As bizarre as it sounds, over communicating may just prevent all the misinterpretation and misunderstanding that may come with communicating virtually. 

So what is over communicating? When it comes to sending the ‘right’ message, be sure to be as detailed as possible when relaying information through text such as via email or instant messaging. When crafting your message, provide the other party with ample context such as including the intention of the message, any relevant background information of what is being discussed and the actionables that are asked of that person. By providing detailed information, not only does it enable the other party to receive the ‘right’ message as they can better grasp the purpose of the message with more context, it also avoids possible misinterpretations. 

Brevity is the soul of wit in communication. However, the same cannot be said when it comes to virtual communication as text messages can be easily misinterpreted (such as coming across as hostile or demanding). After all words and texts are merely alphabetical tools that do not possess emotive substance that can relay the meaning and intention behind the message of the sender. Perhaps, the sender might just be trying to get straight to the point. 

Thus, a good way to signal tonality or intention is to make use of emojis as they essentially act as substitutes of non-verbal cues (i.e. facial expression, gesture) during virtual communication. An emoji alongside messages signifies the sender’s mood and tone of voice, and it gives the recipient more context about the information shared. Emojis, however, should not be used indiscriminately as it may come across informal and unprofessional in a professional business communication setting, especially in conversations that include clients or superiors. While emojis offer a way to convey nuances and emotions which help minimise the risks of misinterpretation and miscommunication during virtual communication, the cultural and hierarchical contexts of communication need to be considered before adopting such an informal but personable approach. 

 
Emojis, Virtual Communication | Socium
Emojis can function as substitutes for non-verbal cues like facial expressions and gestures. Image Source: Shutterstock

2. Communication is "Tool" Confusing

Increasingly, the market is flooded with an array of virtual communication tools, each flaunting different functions that others may not have. More often than not, businesses end up incorporating all sorts of seemingly ‘useful’ tools in an attempt to achieve efficient and effective virtual communication, without first understanding which tool best suits their business needs. 

Having too many communication tools, however, is almost as bad as having none at all. For example, if you were to utilise more than one app or service platform to communicate — such as calling, text messaging and emailing — to discuss a project, it is very likely that information will be dispersed into different platforms. This makes it easy for people to lose track of where each piece of information has gone. If there are no proper guidelines with regard to the use of virtual communication tools, then these tools, instead of helping to improve efficiency and productivity can end up costing the organisation time and money, and the workers none the wiser in their usage.

Communication tools, Virtual Communication | Socium
Too many communication tools may be counterproductive. Image Source: fizkes on Shutterstock

Establish Appropriate Tools and Guidelines

With so many platforms available for communication, it can become counterproductive for employees to keep track of and manage multiple communication channels. It is thus important for organisations to first try out and ascertain the type of tools that are most suitable for their needs. Here are some tools that have been extensively tried, tested and proven to work at Socium! 

Besides traditional communication tools like emails and phone calling, team messaging tool – Slack – is one that we turn to frequently. This instant messaging platform allows for the team to have quick chats and receive updates about work, and is most suitable for getting prompt responses from one another. What is great about Slack is that it allows for separate channels to be set up for different ‘topics’ so that information about respective topics remain organised in individual ‘tabs’ which makes it easy for information retrieval. We also utilise video-conferencing tools like Google Meets when longer and in-depth discussions are required. Besides, work management tool – Asana – is a trusty one that helps us keep track, organise, manage and prioritise tasks that need to be completed. 

The key point here is to distil the tools that work best for your organisation. It is also beneficial to establish guidelines for the use of these tools, such as designating Slack for quick chats and Google Meets for meetings or video conferences. By identifying and incorporating appropriate virtual communication tool(s) that are most suitable for your organisation, efficient and effective communication can be achieved, allowing for collaboration that is tantamount to working from the office.

Virtual Communication | Socium
Utilise appropriate tools and estblish giudelines to achieve effective virtual communication. Image Source: Deemerwha studio on Shutterstock

Remote and hybrid work arrangements are here to stay and virtual communication is likely to become more and more sophisticated. For organisations to ensure staff stay effective, remain productive and engaged at work, it is necessary to adopt the best practices in virtual communication and be ready for the day when virtual communication is as good as popping over to someone’s desk for a quick chat. 

Because it’s the thought that counts – Socium Thoughts bring together our thoughts and opinions on all things communication.

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