The remote worker’s guide to communication etiquette

Picture of the author

For many of us, working from home is the new normal. If youre new to the remote routine, the adjustment can take some getting used toTo top it off, working from home is full odistractions that threaten to derail productivity and focus (I’m looking at you, kids). Luckily, we are better equipped than ever before to conduct our work from the safety of our home offices, kitchen tables or warm laundry piles.

For some time now, smartphones and apps like Slack, Zoom, JIRA, Asana, GTo Meeting and OneDrive have been easing us into this transition. However, the culture component isa trickier problem to solve

You can’t just pop over to your coworker’s desk anymore. Instead, you’ll have to hastily typ“Hey” into a chat window and wait for signs of life. During in-person meetings, we enjoy the peace of mind that comes with eye contact and solemn nods. But with conference calls, it can be disheartening to watch eyes wander to other tabs or hear typing in the background. And there’s always the risk of forgetting you’re on camera and using the bathroom in front of your team. 

During this new normal, it can be helpful to remember that we’re all in this together and we still need to get stuff done. Here are a few remote-work etiquette tips to help you stay on the up and up with your colleagues while maintaining efficient workflows.

The Great Debate: Phone vs. Email vs. Chat vs. Video

The “This meeting could have been an email” meme has never been more relevant, and many people are learning that a quick discussion can solve just about any problem in a quarter of the time. So, how do you decide which communication channel to use? Here’s a handy guide:

  • Phone call: Time-sensitive communication with one person to get approval or make a decision.
  • Email: You need to communicate something concrete with a deadline that isn’t today. Bonus tip: Always include level of urgency or a call to action in the subject line to ensure it gets the attention it deserves. This could be something along the lines of “Urgent” or “Action Items” or “Input Needed.” 
  • Chat: You need to communicate something with a deadline of today.
  • Video: You need to discuss something indepth and want real-time input. (Or you just miss your team like I do.)
  • Just ask: Ultimately, everyone has a different communication channel they prefer—especially leadership. Likewise, don’t hesitate to tell people how you like to interact.

Make Your Status Known

Now that coworkers can’t physically check to see if you’re busy in a meeting or heads-down at your desk, it’s more important than ever to communicatyour availabilityThis means keeping your calendar up to date with meetings as well as times you’re making lunch and tending to the needs of your family (fur or otherwise). Blocking your calendar with “busy” will suffice. 

If you regularly use chat platforms for communications with colleagues and clients, keeping your status current is essentialIt can be as simple as marking yourself as Busy or Offline, or you might want to offer another way to get ahold of you. Bonus tip: If you are using Slack, there are several ways to sync your status with your calendarwhich you are now obsessed with keeping up to date. My personal favorite is the Oliv app.

Ultimately, chat is about more than making your status known. It’s also about communicating your intentions. Pinging someone with “Hey” doesn’t really let the recipient know if you have an urgent need or not. Instead, try to round out your initial message with additional context such as “Hey! Do you have a moment to review this?” or “Hi! Trying to find time on your calendar, but it looks like you’re all booked up. Is there something you can move?”

What’s Your Agenda?

If you can’t think of a clear agenda for your meeting, then maybe it isn’t necessary yet. And that’s ok! Think about it for another day or two. In most cases, the first meetings people bump are the ones that don’t seem urgent or don’t have a clear purpose. So, give your meetings purpose with a detailed agendaThis doesn’t need to be an eye chart or a minute-by-minute schedule. Feel free to use this framework to ensure clear communication about your needs:

This meeting is to make sure we are all in agreement about what to eat during our synchronized lunch. 

Please come prepared to discuss:
A few things you currently have in your cabinet
What you normally eat for lunch
Something you’ve been really craving lately

By the end of this meeting, we will have decided what to eat.

A few additional reminders for planning your agenda: 

  • You are the leader of the meeting. Therefore, it’s your job to keep everyone on track.
  • Add some paddingAccount for a few minutes of small talk at the beginning—we’re all adjusting to the new normal and it’s important to see how everyone’s doing. Plus, virtual meetings tend to not start exactly on time because technology can bea bit bumpy. If everything goes smoothly with limited banter, you can be the hero who “gives time back.”
  • Use your agenda as a framework for your follow-up email. Yes! You should send a followup email to thank everyone, give a recap and provide takeaways and to-dos.

ikind. Unclear is unkind.” – Brené Brown

The majority of human communication is non-verbal. Without being able to see each other in person, now is the time to over-communicateGo above and beyond to clarify your needs, expectations and feedback. What may have been a perfectly fine two-word response in person may read totally differently via email or chat. As Brené Brown said, “Clear is kind.” And we all need a little kindness right now. 

What to read next