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Returning to the office? Here’s how to avoid miscommunication in the new normal

By Rachel Trent, Cross-Platform Associate Producer at CNN

As video conferences replaced conference rooms and direct messages replaced water cooler talk, workers in a wide array of industries started asking questions they have never asked before and changed how they view their job.

For some, working from home means more productivity. Others are craving the socialization that comes with running into a coworker in the hallway.

Many companies are bringing workers back into the office. However, barring a Delta variant surge, many employers are maintaining at least a partially remote element to the job. The struggles of communicating with coworkers at a distance aren’t going anywhere, but there are ways to combat them.

Turning on the video

Lori Smith worked as a regional office manager at Truist Bank in Atlanta during the peak of the pandemic.

She told CNN that people at her company were originally encouraged by the break that came with working from home at the start of the pandemic. But that turned to drudgery, and she had to think about how to motivate people again.

She said making the switch to virtual meetings was a big help, for those brave enough to turn their video on.

“You have to be highly flexible and adapt,” she said. “If something doesn’t work you’ve got to switch techniques, switch strategies, try something new. If that doesn’t work go to the next thing.”

Sarah Chapman, who over the past year worked as a social media manager in Dayton, Ohio, said turning on video was a big part of staying engaged and how her company was, in part, able to maintain a strong culture.

“When you turn on your video, other people will,” she said. “You’ve got to get really good with the tools.”

These meetings allow an opportunity for conversation about topics not related to work, too, which can help satisfy the need for socialization in extroverts who miss the small talk of the office, said Tatiana Matthews, a licensed professional counselor and certified rehabilitation counselor at Atlanta Specialized Care, who does workplace consultations.

This kind of interaction requires more planning in a remote setting, John Daly, a professor of communication and management at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN. Daly recommends setting extra time before or after meetings to have that casual conversation.

“You’ve got to be more intentional with your communication when you’re at a distance,” Daly said. “You’ve got to plan things that typically would have been spontaneous otherwise.”

Video calls also help prevent miscommunication, as you’re able to hear the inflection of someone’s voice and see their facial expressions and body language.

Intentional messaging

Matthews said she has seen less workplace conflict in the era of remote work. Smith agreed, suggesting there was less opportunity for de-escalation with remote work at her company with those who had conflicts face-to-face.

But the ambiguity of text messages, emails and direct messages can lead to miscommunication. That means it’s not only important to be intentional with the method of communication, but also be intentional with the content of the message.

To avoid miscommunication, Matthews suggested sticking to the facts with words that are objective and nonjudgmental.

That means avoiding terms like good, bad, right and wrong, she said, and opting for effective, ineffective, helpful or “harmful”– which are less judgmental.

Also be conscientious about how you use punctuation or emojis.

“When we’re having verbal dialogue we don’t have to think about the fact that maybe an exclamation point could come across as judgmental. Or if we’re texting, that an emoji is maybe meant to say one thing and it comes across as another.”

And it’s not just about avoiding certain words, punctuation or emojis. You need to be extra clear about what you are trying to communicate when in a virtual setting, Daly said.

“What you want to do is be more redundant, because we think we’re communicating something clear at a distance but we don’t get the same kind of feedback,” he said.

One way to do this is by giving people a couple of different examples when trying to explain something.

On the other end of the conversation, ask for clarification if you’re unsure about the intent of someone’s message.

“We’re less likely to see folks struggle with communication when they are reminding themselves that there’s a possibility that they may not fully be understanding what is being communicated,” Matthews said.

You can take out some of these factors of uncertainty by picking up the phone, or even better, getting on a video call.

One team

While there is less connection for those who are used to working in an office, employees who were working remotely before the pandemic are noticing a welcomed level of increased inclusion.

Elizabeth Mockley worked from home as a senior business systems analyst at Central New Mexico Community College for years. She told CNN it was difficult to get included in meetings when she was off campus, but that was no longer an issue once technological challenges were addressed as more employees were sent to work from home.

Before the pandemic, “I’d be scheduled in a room that didn’t have the equipment or I’d have to rely on someone like a project manager to be there to actually start the equipment up,” she said.

Chapman said she feels her company is also offering a more equitable experience for virtual workers now that remote work is more common, noting that a recent quarterly all-staff meeting that would normally welcome around 3,000 employees in person was held online.

“It’s still a strong company culture, but now instead of thinking in-person first, we might think digital first,” she said. “But it’s still about how do we build relationships, how do we build engagement, how do we take care of people.”