So you’ve landed that job after reading my interviewing tips, right? When you start that job, what skills do you think will be necessary for success? Obviously, you’ll need the relevant knowledge, technical, and physical skills to get the job done. Unfortunately, one very important part of a successful employee is often neglected due to ignorance or indifference. Based on the title of this blog post, you may have guessed that the often lacking skill is “communication.” To clarify, the following advice can be applied to many types of jobs, but focuses on technology and office-oriented service positions.
It’s a shame that this skill is so poorly understood by many professional workers and academics, because it’s absolutely critical to conveying our ideas, knowledge, processes, and skills to colleagues and coworkers. Here are just some of the scenarios in which good and proper communication is key to success. These are just the things that I thought of in the last 45 seconds! The interested readers among you can probably come up with many more relevant examples.
- Transferring domain specific knowledge to new workers or replacements
- Training new workers on domain specific processes
- Conveying company policies, rules, and regulations
- Working within the immediate team to provide regular updates, feedback, and support
- Communicating with remote coworkers, customers, and clients via video conference, teleconference, instant message, email, and phone
Transferring Knowledge and Training
There are often circumstances either within your control or beyond your control that may require you to transfer domain specific knowledge to a coworker, a new hire, or a replacement. As the resident expert in the domain, it’s important to yourself and your company that you accurately transfer knowledge to other people. Think of all the knowledge you’ve gained in the years that you’ve spent at the company. It’s a huge loss to everyone involved if you simply walk away without assisting others in learning enough about the domain to partially fill the giant hole once you’re unavailable.
If it’s the first time such knowledge transfer is occurring, make sure to document each important step so that future transfers are nearly hands off. This will require less time dedication on your part after the initial training sessions are completed. Additionally, you are no longer considered a point of failure in the “knowledge tree.” If you’re out for the day or spending a few weeks on vacation, the ease at which another person can pick up the slack is increased due to well documented processes. This is especially important if you’re leaving the company. There’s no way for people to contact you after you’re gone, so it’s critical that you spill your knowledge to paper.
A huge part of teamwork is good and regular communication. This is especially true if your coworkers are relying on you to finish a portion of a project before they can proceed or complete. Without giving regular updates, the rest of your team will be misinformed on where you stand in the schedule. Think about establishing a monthly progress report for larger projects, weekly progress reports for smaller projects, and possibly bi-weekly stand up meetings between immediate team members to keep each other informed of relevant and interesting information. Progress reports can be a simple email or a structured document depending on the needs of your team. Stand up meetings are just a quick opportunity for people to spend a minute detailing any important blockers or information to the rest of the team.
In addition to supporting a schedule via regular communication, it’s important to be on friendly terms with all coworkers. I’m not saying that you have to absolutely love every thing about every person in the company, but you need to at least be willing to open a dialog when necessary. I’ve worked on teams where some members refused to talk to other members because they “didn’t like them.” Professionals aren’t in high school anymore. It’s time to grow up.
There are many reasons that such a communication breakdown is harmful to morale and the project. First, the trust between team members quickly erodes. People start gossiping about unnecessary drama which only serves to distract from the project goals. Second, critical information, feedback, and suggestions are lost because people keep to themselves. If two members are on non-speaking terms and both rely on feedback from each other about some stage of a process, how exactly is the process going to function properly? The answer is: it won’t.
This is a big one, and it’s only going to increase in importance as technology improves and as people become more mobile. In both professional and academic environments, people are increasingly separated from the rest of their team beyond convenient in person visits. For that reason, there is no excuse for any professional to slack off with making yourself available to remote workers. Communication in this regard includes software like Skype, Lync, LiveMeeting, Office Communicator, various e-mail, various instant messengers, and the classic telephone. There’s a lot more, but the point is that technology and professional work culture is moving towards a more separated workforce.
I get the feeling that many companies who dissuade people from working remotely simply don’t understand or don’t care to understand how to make the communication part of the ordeal work properly. Every now and then you’ll read about companies shutting down their remote worker policies in the name of “innovation” and “improvements” and “employee efficiency.” Whenever I read this, I just have to roll my eyes at the obvious hampering of progression. Many skilled workers live across vast geographical boundaries that you will lose out on if you shut the door to remote work entirely.
The sad thing is that remote communication is not even difficult, yet people complain as if it’s impossible to get anything with separated teams. Plenty of successful video games, web sites, applications, graphics, sounds, music, and more have been developed by teams who are located all around the world. How do these people make it work? By making sure that they take advantage of the technology at hand, understanding that the distance between each other is just a number, and constantly sharing updates with each other.
E-mail is required in the workplace. It serves as a good form of communication documentation and allows for thoughtful back-and-forth conversations. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to let things slip by due to abuse or misuse of the technology. Too often have I seen people complain about “getting too much mail.” First, attempt to understand why you think this is so. Are you really required to be on all those mailing lists? Do the e-mails really require your attention? Can you setup some automated rules to file things away for organizational purposes? The technology is there; use it.
It’s important to let people know that you have read their messages even if you can’t take immediate action on any requests in said message. For example, let’s say you’re responsible for a project. A coworker e-mails you asking a clarifying question about a particular aspect, but you don’t have time at the exact moment of receipt to respond in detail. At the very least, you should provide some form of feedback that the message was received. Some e-mail clients offer delivery receipts, but those same clients often offer the ability for the receiver to disable them. Why? I have no idea. That said, a simple message in the form of, “Thanks, I’ll look it over in a bit.” is sufficient. This lets the sender know at the very least that yes, you are alive and interested in the message. Obviously, you might be away when the message comes, so it’s not like the sender should be expecting an immediate response, but something within 24 hours is appropriate depending on the nature of the message.
When you finally get around to responding in full, make sure you read and understand the entire contents of the message. I have often received responses that made no sense in context or completely neglected to address important questions. It’s respectful to understand the message before you respond. If you don’t understand, ask clarifying questions in a way that isn’t rude or angry. Messages are often sent under many assumptions which may not be immediately clear to the receiver. Don’t get offended if you’re required to clarify these assumptions. Take it as an opportunity to help improve a communication!
Many meetings are conducted with some participants on company property while other participants are located remotely. This is challenging for people who are unprepared to deal with the split nature of the meeting. Success also relies on the company equipping certain meeting rooms specifically for conferencing. This includes working video and audio equipment, a capable network, and capable drawing/sharing hardware. Audio is mandatory. Video is nice to have. I want to stress the importance of functioning equipment. I’ve worked for companies who spent tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade meeting rooms as “conference ready” only to be met with flawed and glitch-filled hardware.
Assuming your office is equipped with working gear, keep in mind that visual cues are lost on people who aren’t in the same room as you. This means that important non-verbal language is essentially wasted on remote workers. Don’t go out of your way to make hand gestures and definitely don’t start drawing on a whiteboard that only you and the people in the physical room can see (especially if you’re explaining something that remote workers need to see). Take advantage of the technology!
I hope that I’ve convinced you to take a second thought about the ways in which we communicate in professional environments. If you think you or your coworkers suffer from some bad habits, just air it out in the open during the next staff meeting in an attempt to improve things. Don’t let unspoken grievances tear down the trust within your team. Make everyone aware of some new techniques or processes that you think would help improve teamwork and inter team communication. Trust me, it will improve the working environment, increase the “fun” factor at work, and lead to more successful projects and people.