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Communication best practices for companies during COVID-19

Many teams have been separated for most of the year, but are they communicating effectively? Use these communication best practices to help collaboration as teams remain separated.

I normally write about the strategic use of data and technology to impact employee health, wealth and career development in the workplace. However, today I'm going to step a little to the side here and talk about a new wrinkle brought on as some organizations begin reopening the workplace: How do we stay connected when some people are working at home, others in the office and still others on the factory or warehouse floor?

The pandemic changed how we communicate

The brave folks heading back into offices are finding there's no one around for water cooler chat. In fact, there may not even be a water cooler. Those toiling away at home are running out of meaningful conversations to have with the family dog. People on the factory floor are taking their lunch breaks in isolation within their cars. Though introverts may quietly disagree, our need for in-person interaction is hardly being fulfilled.

We got a preview of this new world when our kids began texting each other from the same room. Now we're doing it. When we're on Zoom meetings together, we use the chat feature. When we're not, we use IM (OK, many of us Gen Xers still email). We don't pick up the phone. We don't gather over lunch. We don't hang out in the break room. Instead, we stay connected in real time with our handhelds.

Keeping teams productive while socially distanced

As employers, we need to be sure we're providing the best tools for effective communication and setting some guidance on how to best use them.

For office productivity, we should be encouraging the use of "synchronous project collaboration tools" such as Microsoft Teams, Confluence, Google Docs and the like to ensure that everyone on a project is working from the same version of a document and can simultaneously make tracked updates in real time. Gone should be the days of waiting for versions to be passed around by email or (gasp) by hand.

Of course, not everything should be subjected to free-for-all editing. The best use for real-time collaboration typically includes dashboards where everyone should be viewing the same data, content documents that are enriched by group brainstorming and project plans that require multiple simultaneous input. "Asynchronous" collaboration works best in projects when there is clear handoff from individual to knowledgeable individual.

Preventing always-on fatigue

For connectivity, Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Skype and similar tools require us all to stay presentable, at least for what's in camera view. They represent the closest thing to in-person conversation when in-person isn't a reality, until the holograms come along. The psychological impact of always being on camera, though, can be taxing. We miss nonverbal cues and stumble over each other. We still can't seem to figure out how to come off mute, and the technical quality can be miserable depending on our home Wi-Fi and hardware setups. And that doesn't count distractions like the cat on the keyboard, the kids sneaking into the room and the delivery guy at the door.

Best practice should be to use these connectivity tools sparingly. Fatigue has set in. What started as a noble means to connect us during the pandemic is becoming an overused medium. Small group working sessions with the camera on can help us feel like part of a team and one-on-one video meetings can break down the physical distance between people. But turning to video meetings for every organizational communication can be overwhelming: Watching yourself, watching 10 other people on screen, and trying to follow the thread of an argument when no one has the talking stick (several times a day) is exhausting.

Other ways to work better

For organizational communication, virtual fairs, hub portals and even the old-fashioned email can minimize the always-on fatigue. Sometimes just being allowed to turn off the video during a meeting can help.

Senior executives talking to a broad workforce or presenting quarterly results to their board need to project a professional image. We're seeing increasing use of broadcast-quality home office studios, complete with high-definition camera and professional lighting. Similarly, HR updates to the workforce are best delivered through a mobile app or other online platform that people -- including employees' family members -- can access from anywhere. And to reach those on the factory floor, where the former "smoke break" is now a mobile break, pushing messages to their phones is likely the best tactic.

Though we may be in a "new normal," basic communication best practices still hold. The best way to communicate is the way that's best received by the intended audience. We must continue to leverage the most appropriate tools available to us as employers for both top-down and peer-to-peer communication. Place is no longer important. What is important -- as it has always been -- is staying open to finding ways to work better.

Now, I have to go; my daughter just came into the room looking for her cat.

About the author
Scot Marcotte is the chief technology officer at Buck, an integrated HR consulting, technology and benefits administration services firm. For 29 years he has helped organizations solve human resources challenges through the strategic use of data, communication and technology. He holds a certified employee benefit specialist (CEBS) designation, has co-authored a book on employee engagement, was named Xerox's innovator of the year and is a regular presenter at global HR conferences.

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