My upcoming book, Making Your Voice Heard, helps readers develop their communication and influencing skills. Now that we are working from home, what has changed? When it comes to general advice on influence, not that much: the ways in which we build a reputation at work and grow our inner confidence have not changed, and the need to understand the social context and the cultural and gender expectations also remains unchanged. Nonetheless, working from home is not the same as working in the office. Here, I apply some concepts from the book to think about how to communicate better while working from home.
When we communicate, there are four channels we can use: linguistic (words), paralinguistic (voice), visual (appearance) and kinesthetic (touch and proximity). At first glance, a video call might seem no different from an in-person meeting, but it is missing an important element – the kinesthetic channel of communication. These are the subtle messages we communicate through proximity and touch; how close we sit or stand to someone else, whether our body is turned away or toward them, the firmness of a handshake, and so on.
On a video call, not only is the kinesthetic channel of communication unavailable, but the visual channel is partially blocked because we can only see the person’s face and shoulders, and their body language is somewhat unnatural as they sit facing a computer screen. If the internet connection is poor, the channels of communication can become even more impaired as the other person’s facial expression might not be easily visible or their vocal tone not easily audible.
Without all four channels of communication, a video meeting with multiple attendees loses the spontaneity of an in-person meeting. We cannot see when someone leans forward to show they are about to speak, or makes eye contact to show they want to respond. During an in-person meeting, we don’t realise how much we rely on these subtle signals – until we find ourselves on a video call and wonder why we can’t seem to find the right time to speak. The more people on a video call, the more difficult it is to know when to jump in with a comment. We might start to speak at the same time as someone else, or wait in silence too long, thinking someone else is about to speak.
None of these are insurmountable problems – there are many people and teams who work remotely on a regular basis. But if you are not accustomed to it, it may take time to adjust. Below are a few tips to help make that adjustment.
- Assign a dedicated facilitator. The role of meeting facilitator becomes more critical on a video call because meeting attendees cannot pick up on each other’s body language. The facilitator ensures that no one is left out of the conversation. Often the chair of the meeting is also the facilitator but, the larger the meeting, the more important it is to have a dedicated facilitator. The facilitator should also be separate from the scribe, i.e., the person who writes on the online whiteboard. The facilitator’s job is to watch the checkerboard of faces on the computer screen and ensure all views are being taken into account. This could be as simple as calling on each person in turn to let them speak, or using a ‘raise hand’ function to call on people when they want to speak. Having a dedicated facilitator ensures that all voices can be heard.
- Use polling if available. If your meeting is large and the software you are using allows polling, then planning a few polls in advance can keep everyone engaged. Polling is done anonymously, which makes it feel safer than getting a show of hands, and can be a good jumping off point for further discussion. This requires the facilitator to think in advance about the type of input desired. Polls can also be used to gauge the mood of the room; for example, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how confident are you that this plan of action will achieve our goals?” Think about those questions in advance, and create the polls and plan when to launch them.
- Make the most of the visual and paralinguistic channels of communication. Whether or not you are the facilitator, being aware of the channels of communication can help you make the most of the video call. Do a test run with a friend to make sure others can see and hear you clearly. Find the right spot in your house where the lighting is good. If you have trouble hearing or being heard, invest in a pair of headphones with microphone. When you gesture with your hands to emphasise a point, make sure your hands can be seen by the camera. And practice using pauses and modulation in your voice in order to keep people engaged and emphasise your points.
- Check in with individuals informally. Sometimes the most useful part of the workday is the informal chat at the coffee machine, or the brief check-in after a meeting. These informal chats build connections and strengthen your network. It is difficult to reproduce them when working from home, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You could reach out to people by email, or ask someone to stay on a call after the meeting is over, or simply pick up the phone for a quick chat. Building and maintaining these informal networks are an important part of becoming more influential.
Working from home will never be a perfect substitute for the connections we make in the office and in person. But, until we are able to get back into the office, we need to think about how to make our voices heard while working from home.