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What gets lost in translation when working remote

May 11th, 2023

Read the article in Smart Business Magazine.

Steve Peplin

Communication is extremely effective when unspoken messages are accurately conveyed and received. However, issues often arise among colleagues because of mistakenly interpreted communications. This can happen whether a message is verbal or non-verbal.

I was at a bistro listening to a wonderful young lady sing jazz. It was very improvisational, with a lot of vamping and riffing. The solos felt very free form. When it was the bass player’s turn to run loose, he did his thing. After a while, it was time to hand the reins back to the singer. I saw them steal a glance at each other, which instantly communicated the timing and intent for when the singer was to take back over. No words were uttered. I thought, ‘Wow, they read each other’s minds.’ It felt like magic. What instantly went through my mind was how great that would be if my colleagues at work were able to communicate that seamlessly.

Some people in the business world struggle with non-verbal communication while for others it’s intuitive. Getting both types to work well together is imperative. At times, I think bad communication is the root cause of virtually all problems.

Unspoken communication struggles mightily in a remote work environment. Trying to effectively get a subtle, nuanced message across through video is challenging. The problems getting across a non-verbal message are compounded by not being in the same room and ‘feeling’ the participants and the situation.

At our offices, like many, we are now working using a hybrid model. The remote environment makes me feel, well … remote from some of my colleagues. I recall fondly the pre-COVID era. We used to all eat together, often bringing in shared meals. The sense of being on the same team or family was strong. Even with our best attempts at improving communications in this remote era, the vibe is just not the same — at least with those who work predominantly remote. I fear if we are not careful, we could inadvertently create two types or classes of employees who struggle to communicate effectively with one another.

But it’s not all bad. I saw an example recently when two co-workers — one who normally works remote and the other who is typically in the office — were sitting next to each other working collaboratively on a project. It was obvious (and we discussed it after) that if they were not both in the same place, it would have taken days, not hours, to successfully wrap the project up. The opportunities to enhance synergies by working co-located were obvious.

I am a student of human nature. I attribute much of my success with colleagues, and therefore in business, to the skills I’ve learned observing and interacting with people of all types. I have always been comfortable in settings as varied as a board room or a biker bar. I am confident I did not hone this skill by being on a lot of video conferences. ●


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