Essential Soft Skills for Working @ Home: Communicating Effectively
With so many people transitioning to working from home for the first time, we here at WIN wanted to share some of our best advice for how to maintain your soft skills from your home office! As you may or may not know, the majority of the WIN Family has worked remotely (not in a centralized office) for years, so we have developed some tried and true virtual work hacks.
However, for this first post, I wanted to interview one of our team members, Matthew Wagner, who worked in the Kingston headquarters full time and has just recently transitioned home so that he can give us insight on how he has had to adapt.
Jessica: To get us started, Matthew, will you tell our audience a little bit about yourself?
Matthew: Absolutely. My name is Matthew Wagner and I’m a regional account manager with WIN Learning. Right out of high school, I joined the Marine Corps and served four years honorably, as a Combat Engineer and a Legal Chief. When I got back, I went to Shippensburg University and got my bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and then started working for WIN Learning. I didn’t really think about my career path or the skills I developed along the way and how that would transition into every day life, but they teach you a lot of soft skills in the Marine Corps. Communication especially is key for mission accomplishment!
J: That segues us right into our topic for today: Communicating Effectively at home. Communication looks really different when you’re working from home versus when you’re working from an office, so I wanted to bring Matthew in today to discuss how he is changing his communicating strategies to adapt to this new environment. Let’s talk a little bit about what communicating effectively looks like. It’s not just talking; it’s also writing; it’s active listening. My first question is: why is it important to communicate effectively while you’re working remotely.
M: As a regional account manager, having a phone call is great because you can pick up tone inflections and cues in people’s voices. Sending emails is harder because the message you are sending is not always interpreted the way you intended. So as soon as we started shelter-at-home, the first thing I thought was, “How many emails are going to get sent that are going to be misinterpreted and start a firestorm in all different organizations?” Our Communicating Effectively course not only teaches how to write effective emails, but also how to have proper etiquette and how to listen.
J: Would you say that in recent weeks, has a lot of your communication become more written? Fewer calls, more emails? Or the reverse?
M: For me reaching out to prospects, I’ve tended to use email communication so I could craft a more heartfelt message. Once we started adapting to our new environment, I’ve noticed more people have started calling. People are started to get used to working from home.
J: When we communicate via email or phone call, it’s a lot different than when you are face-to-face with someone where you can check out someone’s body language and make eye contact. When someone emails you, there’s always a “listening” process to incoming emails that sometimes gets missed. What do you think are good strategies for people to actively listen to phone calls or emails?
M: Well, for phone calls, definitely take yourself away from distractions so you can focus on what the person on the phone is saying to you. What I like to do is get up and walk around the room. When you’re walking around, it helps your brainwaves fire off a little more. Then, for email communication, I don’t necessarily walk around the room, but it’s a good option to sit back and read the email a few times and think about what the client is asking for, and then when you reply, make sure to provide them with the answer they need along with additional information or resources. Give yourself time to provide a thoughtful response.
J: I know what I see happening a lot with our own team emails, people will copy and paste the exact questions from a previous email and answer in-line with a different font or text color. That way it’s really clear which answers are for which questions.
M: Speaking of being on the same page, it’s ideal to have a tool where you can collaborate on documents in real time and add comments virtually, like Google Docs or Google Sheets.
J: Right. That can be so important because sometimes emails get missed in the thread or someone gets left off the email chain. Having a centralized location for collaborative work can be so helpful. One of my other questions for you is: how has your etiquette with clients changed during this time?
M: That’s a great question. I don’t think my etiquette has changed much, just because being the person I am, I like to help people. So I’m still reaching out to people and still providing the same high level of service, but maybe my opening sentences are more cognizant of what’s going on in our nation and the world during this pandemic.
J: I think a lot of people mistake the fact that you can be professional and sensitive. They’re not mutually exclusive qualities.
"Moving to this remote,
can’t-stand-within-six-feet-of-people mode of operations is difficult for me."
J: How can we develop personal connections and network and improve business relationships while maintaining social distance?
M: That’s really difficult for me as an account manager because I’m used to traveling around every week, meeting people, shaking their hands, and collaborating on how we can improve the workforce. Moving to this remote, can’t-stand-within-six-feet-of-people mode of operations is difficult for me, but then again, some clients are willing to jump on a video conference and collaborate virtually, so I really appreciate that.
J: Let me ask you another question: What’s the importance of having a growth mindset while working from home?
M: Definitely it’s important to wake up and do your normal routine before you go to work, workout, get dressed, look presentable, which will help you get into a mindset of productivity. A lot of times I create lists, so I’ll create a task list for the day and keep it by my desk to remind myself of my goals.
J: Yeah, that’s a great way to be a more active learner, too. When you’re setting goals for yourself and maintaining good habits, it can help you grow more every day.
J: My last question for you is: we know tensions are high and people are stressed, what are your best strategies for de-escalating a miscommunication or conflict type situation from a remote office?
M: Well, of course there are different levels of de-escalation based on how upset the client is. Hopefully it hasn’t reached the point where you have to walk away and let a manager communicate with them. Sometimes it’s good to invite in a mediator of sorts, a third person who can help detangle the misunderstanding. Sometimes the client is so upset with you personally that they would rather talk to someone else. I thankfully haven’t had that kind of conflict working remotely, but yeah, of course I would prefer a face-to-face conversation any time there’s a miscommunication.
J: I have to insert for people who don’t know, if there’s a conflict over email, the follow up communication needs to be a phone call at the very least. Tone and inflection can be extremely important and both of those things aren’t reflected well on email.
M: Absolutely. It reminds me of studies of parents and children where if one person is being combative, the other person lowers the volume of their voice, and it diffuses the situation.
J: Is there anything else you want to add about communicating effectively from a virtual office?
M: I would just say, any time you can have a face-to-face conversation, even if it’s over a video call, then that’s your bread and butter. Your going to get the most information – tone, inflection, body language, nonverbal cues – that’s always the best form of communication, then phone call, then email. Also, if you’re video conferencing and you have a pet that likes to disturb you, lock them in the other room. (laughter as Matthew’s cat walks across the keyboard for the third or fourth time during the interview)
Additional Insights from WIN Staff
After my interview with Matthew, I asked the rest of the WIN Family for their advice on communicating effectively from home.
Tim wrote: Make sure the tone fits the audience.
Great advice, Tim. We talk more about tone and audience in our Soft Skills courseware.
Holly reminded us that: barriers to communication like noise can distract the end user from listening to the message.
Remember: It’s better to reschedule your call than to not be able to hear or be heard!
John advised us to consider the following tips for virtual meetings:
- Always have an agenda
- Assign roles
- Review goals and outcome
- Engage in two-way conversations
- Summarize decisions and action items
I love that, John! Nobody likes to feel like their time is being wasted so having structure can be really helpful.
Ginger recommended getting situated prior to the meeting by checking your webcam and audio, silencing other devices, tidying your background, and making sure note-taking materials are within reach.
Fantastic points, Ginger! I especially like the tip to have pen and paper nearby so that you won’t have to shuffle around to take down an important point.
Our CEO, Teresa suggested inserting some work-appropriate comic relief to lighten the mood when possible.
I completely agree. In fact, I might use this tip a little too often myself.
Lesa wrote: Mute your mic when not speaking!
Even though this takes practice, muting while not speaking allows others to be heard more clearly. And speaking of hearing more clearly…
Karl advised to use a headset or earphones with a builtin microphone which will greatly reduce problems with echoes or feedback.
Crystal emphasized choosing video conferencing over telephone calls when possible to create a face-to-face connection.
Steve recommended finding a work space with good lighting, where you can shut the door for privacy. “Also, tell your pets you’re on a video conference and put your kids in the crate. Or maybe that is the other way around…” he added.
And finally, Kevin urged that if you must eat during a virtual meeting, avoid hot wings or barbecue ribs and always, always, always, wear pants or a skirt or kilt or whatever, you know what he means...
Blog Post by Jessica Chasteen
Jessica is an employee at WIN Learning. In her role, she serves as Manager of Customer Support providing immediate technical assistance to learners, districts, and workforce partners across the country.