The words ‘unprecedented times’ and the ‘new normal’ have well and truly entered our vocabulary. We are all finding our way and having to work differently and we know for some this can have a significant impact on their wellbeing and mental health. We are also hearing variations of the words communicating remotely.
We also know that at some point we will come through this and schools will reopen fully, though this is likely to take a long time and be done through a number of steps and phased activities.
We are likely to face a range of ‘new normal’ and all of it featuring some aspects of having to continue working remotely.
Some staff may have welcomed this and taken advantage of opportunities such as:
- No commute on days they do not have to go in to school, if they are part of a rota supporting key worker and vulnerable children.
- Likely greater flexibility on how they manage their day and the tasks and teaching they undertake.
- Possibly more opportunity for proactive and strategic actions that they never usually get to do.
- More time with their own family.
- More time for conversations and to talk to their line manager, peers, colleagues and members of their team.
The last of these could be a real opportunity for many. We may be forgetting that regular conversations are pretty difficult when in school, particularly for those spending all or most of their time in the classroom.
E-mails and other forms of on-line text messaging make up a large part of how we communicate with each other in school and this is often a challenge. It can be difficult to always get over what you mean in written form, you are unable to see people’s reactions and there are inevitable time delays in moving things forward.
Can we take the time to improve how we communicate now, even though much of it may be remote? Will this also help those staff who are finding the current way of working a real challenge?
For me the answer to both these questions is yes. Like anything that you want to do well, it will take planning, structure and practice.
How can you effectively communicate with those you lead and work with remotely?
There are a number of ways in which we are remote from our team members and colleagues.
- Physically – we are in a different place.
- Organisationally – we may work in a different department, function or role.
- Culturally – we have different values and beliefs and ways of working.
Our personal upbringing and experiences are also likely to have some impact on how we have responded to the current situation, as will our personal circumstances, and particularly the number of people living in the household and our financial situation.
Having younger children and people to care for is likely to make remote working more challenging, as is a lack of space and access to the right equipment and environment.
Focusing on the cultural aspect is the most important of these and is something you can address by making sure any communication addresses individual needs.
Follow the tips below to make sure you are doing this as effectively as you can:
Embrace video calls and meetings
The three most used technology for schools is Microsoft Teams, Google Meet (or hangout) as part of G Suite or Zoom (make sure you use password protection). Whichever you use, they are all simple to set up, invite others and generally offer good quality (internet connection dependent).
Video calls and meetings are much better at countering the isolation some staff are feeling, compared to other communication methods, whether or not they recognise this. I know some people are saying they still don’t like video and we must persevere and practice. In addition talking ‘face-to-face’:
- Allows you to better show empathy
- Build rapport; and
- Show understanding
Share the ‘why’ when communicating remotely
Whenever a conversation leads to action, make sure you share the ‘why’. What is the reason behind it or purpose. This taps into the values and beliefs of individuals and even if they disagree with an action, understanding why they are doing it will make it far more likely they engage with and deliver their part.
Check in, not check up
When you are distant from people it is very tempting to always want to know what they are doing. But checking up on people simply tells them you do not trust them. Sharing the why in the previous step and agreeing outcomes and allowing individuals to work in the best way for them is the best way forward.
It is important though to check in regularly – a simple and authentic ‘how are you’ or ‘what is happening for you’ is all that is needed. Staff do want to be listened to though, so it is important you hear their answer and not the one you would like them to give you.
Ask about more than just work
As well as checking in, ask about more than just work. Show you have an interest beyond this and what is happening for them with family and friends. They may have vulnerable people within their household who are shielding (including themselves) or relations and friends facing the same danger.
Some will sadly have lost people close to them or know others that have. Spend some of your time asking open questions and on subjects that they want to talk about.
Plan when you will talk
Having a good routine is important when working remotely and from home and you can help team members and colleagues by planning when you will have the majority of your conversations and team meetings.
When a specific outcome is needed plan the questions you will ask and follow up only as agreed. Have a clear agenda of what is to be discussed and if this needs the considered input of others make sure you have provided the information to them ahead of the meeting and in time to allow them to effectively prepare.
Always start and finish at the times agreed (unless there really is an unavoidable emergency).
On top of planned conversations and meetings, call or text from time to time just to show you are thinking about them.
Speak with clarity (and deliver clear messages)
Identify clearly when action is required and focus on the outcome or outputs, rather than trying to micro manage inputs or what they will do to deliver what is needed.
Ask them to repeat back what they have understood from any conversation you have had and what they think needs to be delivered.
Self-awareness and awareness of others
Be aware of your own communication style and how you come over, whether using video, a voice call or in written messages. Think through your intent and ensure your delivery matches it.
If you are talkative or tend to dominate, then you will need to think how you create the opportunity for others. This can be hard on those video calls with a larger number of people and think about how you can ask questions and go around those on the call and ensure they all have a voice.
Other things to consider are:
- How you can create opportunities for others to input to the agenda prior to any call and take more of a lead.
- That different people have different preferences in how they communicate and the comfort they feel. Accept this and don’t assume everyone will feel or behave like you.
- Watch for unconscious bias or how your experiences of people make you behave when communicating remotely. If people are quiet or do not engage well remotely, it may not be because they aren’t engaged – there could be many other reasons and you should ask.
When communicating remotely you should create space for celebration
Just because you can’t meet people or see much of what they are doing, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be finding ways to recognise and praise them. Find authentic reasons to do this and catch as many staff as you can doing things right each day. Set yourself a target.
Look for the smallest wins to celebrate and constantly talk about the things that are going well and not just areas that need improvement.
Keeping staff motivated and engaged is a key challenge of remote working and one that is so important in supporting their wellbeing and delivering the many outcomes needed.
Communicating more effectively sits at the heart of this and following the suggestions above will make a real difference.
If you have any questions about communicating remotely or anything else to do with staff wellbeing or would like to find out more about the best ways to improve it, please get in touch.