Challenges of communication in a workplace are nothing new. Effective communication is key to success of any company and the process of bettering it has become an art form in and of itself.
However, the last few years have thrown many companies a curveball when their communication skills were tested in a remote workplace.
According to a recent study from Owl Labs, over 16% of global companies work fully remotely. Furthermore, a report from Accenture shows that 63% of high-growth companies have adopted a hybrid work model that prioritizes the productivity of their workforce, regardless of their physical location. Another study from Owl Labs also shows that employee satisfaction is directly linked to their ability to work remotely or in a hybrid setting -- with nearly 1 in 2 people (48%) stating they'd quit unless their company adopted one of these models.
The point is that remote work is here to stay and so are the most common communication challenges that come with it. It is important to spot communication problems early on to prevent them from impacting employee productivity, team spirit, and engagement. In worst-case scenarios, miscommunication can result in workplace conflicts that can not only sour the working environment but can also lead to employee turnover.
Why communication in a remote workplace is important?
Communication is the lifeblood of every organization. It is the process of exchanging information, ideas, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
When done right, effective internal communications can drive employee engagement, productivity, and encourage collaboration. Also, don't forget that communication is the crux of information flow in the company. From the top-down (e.g. management communicating the company's vision to employees) to the bottom-up (e.g. employees sharing feedback with their managers), communication should flow through transparent channels and be open, clear, and concise.
However, things can quickly go south when faced with communication issues in a remote workplace. From little things, like grammatical errors in an email to more serious communication problems such as information overload, misunderstandings, lack of feedback or feelings of isolation and distrust.
Before we look at the challenges you might face when communicating with your remote team, let's take a step back and understand the different methods of communication modern companies use in a workplace.
According to Project.co report, in 2022 employee communications usually occur using these methods:
- Online tools (45%)
- Emails (30%)
- Face-to-face (12%)
- Other (7%)
- Phone calls (6%)
It is also important to note that 39% of office workers believe that the metaverse can improve hybrid work. While the metaverse becoming a widely used feature is still in the distant future, many companies have opted for virtual workspaces such as Kosy. These not only combine the benefits of all the remote communication tools listed above but also bring remote workers as close to face-to-face interactions as possible.
For now, let's look at what common workplaces rely on for their internal communications.
Since the shift to remote and hybrid work, the use of online tools has increased dramatically. These include chat apps like Slack, online conferencing tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet, as well as project management tools.
Workplace communication also experienced a shift toward asynchronous conversations help in such online tools like Notion, Figma, and Jira.
While online tools have made it easier for employees to communicate with each other, they have also created new communication challenges. For example, the use of too many online tools can lead to information overload or what is commonly referred to as "tool fatigue." It can also lead to the rise of misunderstandings which can drastically harm work efficiency (e.g., working with the wrong information, losing time and creating non-optimal output).
Additionally, the ability to schedule as many meetings as possible can also cause issues with internal communications and productivity, something we'll touch upon later in this post.
In recent years, email saw a slight drop in use as a communication method in the workplace. The main reason for this is that real-time communication tools such as Slack, Zoom, or Kosy have made it easier for employees to communicate with each other in a more immediate way.
However, emails are still an important part of any workplace, both in internal and external communication, especially when clients or customers are not using the same communication tools as your team.
The issue with emails is that they are often misused and can make important communications get lost in a sea of CCs, BCCs, and forwards. And very few companies actually define the expected way for email communication to be used (e.g., hours at which you're supposed to interact, how quickly should you respond.)
Additionally, the lack of non-verbal cues, language barriers, and poor grammar can all lead to misunderstandings and frustration.
The shift toward remote and hybrid work models introduced much-needed flexibility into how modern companies operate without impacting (and even boosting) productivity. The face-to-face workplace interactions have now been substituted with video conferencing tools -- such as Zoom or Google -- or virtual workspaces such as Kosy.
However, face-to-face interactions still need to be maintained even in a remote working environment. Interacting in a virtual office or meeting up in person is crucial for reminding employees they are still working with humans.
Additionally, the imbalance of face-to-face interactions in a hybrid team has also led to managers developing a "proximity bias" that favors employees who are physically present in the office. We will also touch upon this issue in the next section.
Phone calls are not as common in the workplace as they once were, but they are still a useful form of communication, especially when it comes to external communications.
However, phone calls can also be problematic, especially if they are not well-organized or planned in advance. Additionally, the lack of non-verbal cues can make it difficult to gauge the tone of a conversation, which can lead to misunderstandings.
There are many other methods of communication that can be used in the workplace, including instant messaging, text messaging, and social media.
However, it is important to note that each of these has its own set of challenges and should be used sparingly or not at all in the workplace.
One of the newest and most promising tools for workplace communication is the virtual workspace.
Virtual workspaces are not only becoming more common, but they are also becoming more sophisticated. For example, Kosy is a virtual workspace that does everything all the other communication tools mentioned above do (except for phone calls — but who needs that anyways :D), plus you get to bring in your favorite documents, and design your own office too.
Additionally, virtual workspaces allow for more spontaneous communication in the workplace which boosts team-building without needing to rely on scheduled meetings or calls.
Communication challenges in a remote workplace
Now that we've discussed why communication is important and looked at some of the most common methods of conducting it in the workplace, what's next?
In order to help your team communicate effectively, here are nine of the most pervasive communication challenges you can face in a remote or hybrid model and what you can do to overcome them.
1. Inability to build trust
This is one of the most common issues when it comes to communication in a remote workplace.
Trust in a modern workplace is essential for employees to feel comfortable sharing information and ideas. It is the foundation that allows a team to work together efficiently and effectively.
However, trust is incredibly difficult to build especially in large organizations that work in a remote or hybrid setting. According to Owl Labs, 55% of employees already think employers tend to have more trust in full-time office workers than hybrid or remote workers. This distrust of upper management can not only impact interpersonal relationships but can also significantly damage team spirit and employee performance.
There are many ways to build trust in the workplace and one of the most important ones is to encourage social interaction and communication. This can be done by hosting regular team-building meetings or using video conferencing tools to create an environment where employees feel comfortable socializing and sharing ideas.
Managers who tend to show "proximity bias" can also help build trust by making an effort to get to know their remote and hybrid employees.
However, nothing beats spontaneous interactions and so it is important to create opportunities for employees to interact with each other on a daily basis. This can be done by using Kosy to build a virtual office where remote employees can literally come up to their in-office counterparts and strike a conversation.
2. Lack of right internal communication channels
Every workplace is different and so are the internal communication channels that they use.
However, when there is not enough variety in how team members can contact each other, it can create some unwanted communication issues.
For example, if your team mainly uses email to communicate, they may miss out on important information or even fail to notice when someone is trying to reach out to them. Plus, as mentioned before, the expectations toward email communication are rarely defined (e.g., when to answer, how to message, whom to CC)
This can lead to misunderstandings and frustration, especially when urgent matters need to be addressed.
Another common problem is poorly written communication that fails to get the point across. Furthermore, the lack of nonverbal cues makes it easy to misinterpret the tone of a message, which can lead to miscommunication and conflict, especially if there are language barriers in place.
The solution is to provide employees with the right communication channels and define how they are expected to be used. This way, they can select the one that best suits their needs at any given moment.
As we mentioned before, some of the most popular communication channels in the workplace include email, instant messaging, video conferencing, and a virtual office (here you not only have a proximity chat, video calls, and instant messaging but teammates can even tap each other on the shoulder to ask a question).
Have discussions as a team and experiment with various communication tools and channels in order to figure out what works best for you. By encouraging your team's input and feedback, you can find the right tools and pre-emptively eliminate communication barriers while allowing employees engage on their own terms.
3. Lack of employee engagement
Employee engagement is essential for any organization, yet it can be especially challenging to maintain in a remote workplace.
For example, 31% of employees struggle to build trust at work because it is harder to engage with their teammates online. Furthermore, one of the most common issues remote workers have with online meetings is feeling disengaged with the format of the meeting.
There are several ways to tackle the problem of employee engagement and both involve the improvement of internal communication between teammates.
First, in order to help employees engage each other online, you need to give them the right communications channels to work with as well as facilitate spontaneous interactions (you can read how BuyerGenomics did just that).
Second, consider mixing up your team meetings to ensure employees feel engaged. One of the newer meeting formats that used to be exclusively done engineering & product teams but since have been adopted by other organizations with hybrid teams is the daily standup. This type of meeting allows each employee to quickly update the rest of their team on what they are working on and if they need any help. During a daily standup, teammates can practice their active listening skills, share encouraging feedback, as well have something to further talk about after the meeting thus building trust and strong communication.
There are even more types of meetings that can promote honest communication and knowledge sharing.
4. Lack of face-to-face interactions
Bumping into one of your teammates, having spontaneous brainstorming sessions, and even sharing a sandwich with someone who forgot to pack their lunch might seems like small, insignificant things.
But these social interactions are crucial for a healthy and engaged workforce. The problem is, poor communication through emails and scheduled video calls simply can't replicate the same level of spontaneity for remote workers.
So it's no surprise that 7 out of 10 people say they miss face-to-face interactions while working from home. It makes them feel isolated. Lonely.
Research from the Smith School of Business shows that teams whose members report feelings of isolation experience:
- 37% higher absenteeism
- 18% lower productivity
- 16% lower profitability
It is crucial to improve employee communications not only in work-related areas but also to encourage socializing. Otherwise, employee satisfaction, mental health, and productivity can all potentially go down when your team is scattered across the country/globe with no ways to socialize or bond.
To fill the void of social interactions in a remote team , you can establish a virtual environment to fill the void of social interactions in a hybrid or remote work environment.
In a virtual office, you can have your employees "walk up" to their colleagues, strike a discussion, or relax together while sipping on a cup of coffee even if they are located on the opposite side of the globe.
Additionally, by keeping their video on, teammates can create a sense of familiarity and closeness even if they have never met in person.
5. Sense of distrust and lack of transparency
The lack of effective internal communication can often lead to a lack of transparency in the workplace.
In a remote workplace, this can be detrimental as it can lead to employees feeling out of the loop and distrustful of their company. Where there once existed an open-door policy or exchanging company news with a teammates that shares your cubicle, now there is only a computer screen.
There is also the fact that during team meetings, 79% of remote employees are hesitant to interrupt someone to ask a question and leave the meeting feeling confused.
Lack of transparency and feeling out of the loop can quickly lead to a sense of mistrust in management.
In order to fix communication issues such as this, employers need to focus on two-way communication. This means not only sending out company updates but also actively soliciting employee feedback and creating an open culture where people feel psychologically safe to speak up.
Additionally, consider setting up office hours in a virtual workspace where any employee can come in and raise an issue, get more information, or clarify any confusion they may have.
Just because a hybrid team is separated by physical barriers doesn't mean you can't create a more trusting and transparent workplace for all.
6. Cultural differences
When you have a remote team that is located all over the world, there is bound to be a diversity of cultures represented. And while this can be a strength, it may require some adjustments to your internal communications strategy.
In order to embrace cultural differences while also preventing communication barriers, you might want to reach out to HR professionals to host a cultural differences training session.
This will help to educate employees on how to avoid miscommunication and keep all parties involved working together harmoniously.
Additionally, make sure to have an open-door policy in place even in a remote working model where employees from any culture feel comfortable approaching management with any questions or concerns they may have.
7. Lack of feedback
Oftentimes, companies with internal communications problems fail to provide proper feedback to their remote employees. With less face-to-face interaction, it can be easy for managers to forget to give their team members the regular feedback they need to stay on track.
At the same time, lack of feedback can lower employee engagement rates and make those working remotely feel like their work is going unnoticed.
In order to keep your team engaged and motivated, make sure to schedule regular check-ins (weekly or bi-weekly) where you can provide feedback on recent projects.
And when it comes to giving feedback, be specific, objective, and timely to ensure that your team members can use it to improve their performance.
By using Kosy you can have access to a variety of meeting templates from daily stand-ups to retrospectives all the way to quick catchups.
If possible, make sure to give your feedback via a video call so that your team members can pick up on non-verbal cues, such as your facial expressions and body language. This will help to ensure that the message is communicated effectively.
We don't need any communication breakdowns due to a poorly worded chat that was sent with the best intentions.
8. Technology issues
With so much reliance on technology for day-to-day communications, it's no surprise that technological problems are one of the most common communication challenges in the workplace.
From audio and video issues during conference calls to spotty internet connection in certain areas of the world, there are a number of potential problems that can arise.
And while technological challenges can be frustrating, there are a few things you can do to try and mitigate them.
First, make sure that your employees are communicating effectively via several channels. This will help to ensure that information is still being exchanged even if one method of communication is down.
Additionally, consider tasking someone with catching up their remote teammate on what was discussed during a meeting if the connection was lost. This will help to ensure that no one is left out of the loop and that everyone is on the same page. Additionally, this will help with building trust between teammates as well as prevent anyone from feeling isolated.
9. Oversaturation of team meetings
As employers try to make up for the lack of face-to-face interactions in their hybrid team, they tend to schedule a lot of team meetings.
And while it's important to keep everyone in the loop, too much of a good thing can actually deepen communication problems and bring productivity down. In fact, both in-office (35%) and remote (38%) employees feel like they spend too much time in meetings. It's what gave birth to the infamous "I survived a meeting that should have been an email" meme.
With scheduled meetings and curated topics of conversation, remote teammates aren't actually getting what they are truly missing -- spontaneous interactions with their co-workers.
Additionally, when team members are constantly being pulled into meetings, they have less time to focus on their actual work. This can lead to frustration and even resentment towards management.
To avoid this, try to limit the number of meetings you have each week. And when you do have a meeting, make sure it is absolutely necessary and that there is a specific purpose for it.
You can also try breaking up large team meetings into smaller, more focused group meetings. This will help to ensure that everyone is able to contribute and that the meeting stays on track. If you want to spice things up and keep your remote team highly engaged in, try more goal-oriented meetings such as brainstorming sessions or workshops.
Spontaneous interactions and non-verbal communication, however, can occur organically through the use of Kosy's social spaces -- from a cafe and break room to an outdoor camping ground and a pool.
Even with plenty of communication methods available to modern companies, poor communication can still be a big problem in the workplace.
By being aware of the most common communication problems and taking steps to address them, you can create a more cohesive and productive team -- whether they are in the office or working remotely.
Let's sum up the key takeaways on communication challenges in the workplace:
- The most common communication problems in the workplace include the inability to build trust, miscommunication, and the absence of face-to-face interactions.
- These problems can be exacerbated by cultural differences, lack of the right communication tools, and oversaturation of team meetings.
- To address these problems, companies should consider using the right channels of communication, scheduling regular catch-up meetings, and providing opportunities for spontaneous interactions.
By following these tips, you can create a more cohesive and productive workplace -- no matter where your employees are located.
If you are struggling to figure out what exactly is causing a breakdown in your employee communications, make sure to have regular check-ins and one-on-one meetings with your team. This will help you to identify any potential issues as well as build trust with your employees.