The flexibility and autonomy many people desired for years became a reality overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to allow employees to work from home. And while being able to work from home may seem like a silver lining, a new study from VitalSmarts found that while it may have boosted employee satisfaction, working from home also negatively and significantly impacted a key performance indicator – communication.
People are more than twice as likely to avoid speaking up about concerns with colleagues and managers virtually than when they worked together in person, according to the online study of 1,145 people conducted in February 2021. In the past year, this silence has led to more unresolved issues that harm both the employee and the organization’s bottom line.
Top frustrations for remote employees include colleagues and managers not following through with commitments, making changes to projects unilaterally or without warning, and giving half-hearted commitment to their priorities.
When these types of concerns and frustrations popped up before the pandemic, 22 percent of respondents say they let the problem drag on for a few weeks before trying to address the issue. But in the past year, that number has more than doubled. Now, 54 percent admit to letting their concerns go unresolved for weeks before saying anything.
These unresolved issues led to pretty harmful outcomes for both the employee and the organization, the most common being:
- More stress (23 percent)
- More time-wasting (21 percent)
- Lower morale (21 percent)
- Lower productivity (14 percent)
Researchers comment that these factors are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the negative impact of organizational silence.
“Working with people inevitably leads to some level of conflict,” said Joseph Grenny, leading researcher and coauthor of Crucial Conversations. “But the conflict itself is not what leaders should fear. Rather, the greater risk is employees’ resistance to speak up and surface concerns in ways that will lead to resolution. The health of any relationship, team, or organization can be measured by the lag between employees seeing something and saying something. The longer they stay silent, the greater risk to your results.”
Speaking up and establishing a culture of dialogue is essential to ensuring employees feel able to address and solve individual, cultural, and organizational challenges. Just consider the impact and importance of the conversations people are currently avoiding in a virtual workplace.
According to respondents, the top five crucial conversations they are struggling to hold with their manager or colleagues include:
- Poor performance
- Behavior concerns or violations
- Perceived bias and inequities
- Failure to meet deadlines, budgets, project specs, etc.
- Concerns about team strategy
Researchers say if these crucial conversations aren’t occurring, leaders need to step up.
“This study confirms distance is destroying dialogue,” said Emily Gregory, researcher and Vice President of Product Development at VitalSmarts. “Thirty years of research and consulting has taught us that in cultures where silence prevails, individuals disengage, relationships and teamwork are at risk, and results are elusive. Ultimately, leaders are responsible for monitoring dialogue and facilitating it when and where it isn’t occurring—especially with remote employees. Distance can’t be an excuse for silence.”
How To Hold Crucial Conversations Virtually
Grenny and Gregory share the following tips that leaders can use to facilitate dialogue with their remote teams. While the fundamentals of communication may be the same, different considerations should be taken for remote dialogue.
- Invite dialogue: Sometimes, all it takes to encourage dialogue is to invite it. Ask people how they are doing, what concerns they have, what you could do better to support them, etc. Don’t mistake silence for contentment; often it’s just the opposite.
- Don’t assume: What we think is crystal clear can be understood differently or even be unknown to someone else. Make sure you get confirmation from others that they received and understand your communication.
- Over communicate: The more you correspond, the more you’ll strengthen the relationship and the less likely misunderstandings will arise—or when they do, it’ll be easier to resolve them thanks to the relationship you’ve already established.
- Use your voice: Writing an email or message may sometimes be easiest, but doing so exclusively isn’t enough. Face-to-face meetings or at least phone calls can help prevent misunderstandings and lend a personal touch.
- Determine what you really want: Before bringing up your concern, look at the long-term goal you want to achieve, not only for yourself but for the other person and the organization.
- Show you care: Make time during your virtual calls to have small talk and build personal connections. When speaking up about an issue, show your co-worker you care about them and their feelings and explain your motives up front.