The challenges of remote communication for new workers

Socio-Technical Centre
Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Dr Helen Hughes is an Associate Professor at Leeds University Business School, and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. She has expertise in workplace collaboration, studying the social dynamics of workplace relationships and the ways that these can be harnessed by organizations to improve both their performance and efficiency, and the wellbeing and satisfaction of their employees. Currently, she is a Co-Investigator on an ESRC funded project: “Adapting Offices for the Future of Work”, which is looking to support economic recovery by identifying effective office design and work practice adaptations that also support remote and hybrid working.

A laptop screen with a virtual meeting taking place

This is the third blog post in a series exploring the experience of remote and hybrid working for those starting their careers during the pandemic. The previous blog posts are available to read:

Effective communication is at the heart of an effective business – employees need to know who knows what, and when and how to communicate appropriately with colleagues. It is therefore no surprise that 2020 saw a digital revolution in communication tools, as organisations sought to improve the speed and efficiency with which their businesses were able to communicate. 

However, while it is important to have the technical solutions to communicate, effective communication is fundamentally a social process. It is not just about the words that are said, but about the tone with which they are said, by whom and to whom, and sometimes what is not being said is of equal significance. 

In other words, effective communication requires us to ‘make sense of’ the information we are receiving, and as well as interpreting the words themselves, we do this by picking up on cues from the work environment around us. When we work online, we are without many of the non-verbal cues we usually rely on, such as body language and facial expression. While some of these cues can be idiosyncratic to individual employees – we get to know if someone is generally just a bit grumpy, as well as behaviours that are really out of character – seeing colleagues in the context of others can also help us to quickly build a sense of the organisation’s culture – how do people generally communicate? What is generally acceptable? What is not? 

Employees new to an organisation have to quickly learn how to communicate with others so that they can effectively do their new job, but they also need to make sense of their new employer’s politics and communication norms. Those new to the workforce altogether will have to do all of this with little prior work experience to benchmark their experiences against.

Since June 2020, I have been working with colleagues to research students undertaking 9-12 month paid internships within organisations across the UK and Europe, to understand the specific barriers and opportunities they have experienced while remote and hybrid working. We conducted interviews with 25 interns and analysed questionnaires and essays written by 182 interns. One of the themes that has emerged from this research relates to the challenges of communicating when undertaking a remote internship.

Most of the interns involved in our research had spent the majority of their internship working remotely, with little face-to-face interaction with their peers and managers. While this had changed with the course of the pandemic, for a large proportion of interns the entire placement had been remote. Where hybrid arrangements were in place, the most common hybrid internship arrangement was to work from home three to four days a week, while some came to the office on pre-agreed rotas. Others were given choices about where they worked. Over the course of the internship some had been asked to alter their working pattern to spend fewer, longer days in the office.

These working arrangements meant that communication practices varied across interns, but on average, interns reported communicating with colleagues more frequently than with their line managers. In nearly 10% of cases, they communicated with their line manager just once or twice a month. 

There are pros and cons to remote communication

Interns noted a number of advantages to remote working:

  • Invisibility – they could hide behind notes and prepare answers to questions in advance.
  • Planning – interns could plan for conversations and so were being put ‘on the spot’ less frequently than they imagined they would be in an office.
  • Attending meetings – they could attend meetings that might previously have been restricted due to room size or travel costs.
  • Levelling the field – other colleagues did not realise they were ‘the intern’ or have any idea about their seniority when they attended online meetings. They often therefore reported feeling that everyone was given equal voice in meetings.

However, there were also a lot of negatives to remote working:

  • Fewer social cues – online meetings could feel unnatural and missed the richness of face-to-face interactions (e.g. body language, facial expression, pauses).
  • Impromptu conversation – there were fewer opportunities for impromptu discussion that might lead to a development opportunity. Most conversations occurred through meetings and so interactions were generally both planned and purposeful. There were fewer serendipitous conversations (‘water cooler moments’).
  • Small close network – most communications were within a very small network from the immediate team. Access to more senior colleagues and other teams occurred less frequently and often through intermediaries. Conversations with more senior colleagues would be formal. Less formal modes were only for peers or the immediate team.
  • Conversation was generally task-related – interns felt that chatting would be seen as ‘wasting time’ so they would not generally just ‘call’ a work colleague or a senior. Most interns described their workplace relationships as ‘strong but transactional’. Only a few considered their work colleagues to be ‘friends’ or people they would stay in touch with.
  • Miscommunication – miscommunications could happen more easily. Implicit instructions that could have previously been learned through watching others needed instead to be explicitly stated – for instance, to ensure colleagues were clear about what they were working on.

Online versus face-to-face presentations

Several interns said they were comfortable presenting online to a live audience. However, interns frequently referenced their perception that there was a difference between online and face-to-face presenting skills.

Many interns referred to these perceived differences when considering their skill development through the internship. Several said that they would look for a summer internship, other employment experience, or time in their final year at university to develop face-to-face presentation skills:

In terms of presenting, I need opportunities to work on the little things like my posture, stance and eye contact, but also how to respond to an audience. Presenting in person is a lot more intimate than online as you can't even see people’s faces over a laptop. Therefore, you need to think more about the way you deliver it and how you look.

'Building relationships' or 'building a network'?

Interns often perceived remote networking to be harder than face-to-face networking. It was interesting that they often considered building relationships in the workplace and building their network to be two different things. ‘Networking’ was perceived to be something that one does only to harness career opportunities, whereas the same people talked about how they had readily built relationships with their peers for social support and comradery. 

Interns generally reserved the term ‘networking’ to describe formal practices, where the purpose of reaching out was to help them build their social capital, leverage a development opportunity, or gain visibility for their work or career.

Some of the same interns who described the challenges of remote networking described their ease at building strong connections with people "like me" - other interns or colleagues their age or grade. One intern explained the name of their peer-level WhatsApp group was “The Kids”. Many interns described such peer-level relationships as easier to build, and that these were facilitated through various channels – e.g. social media messaging platforms, meeting up for drinks or lunch (even when working from home), or through joining virtual social clubs, groups, or networks within the company. 

Yet, despite the potential these ‘peer level’ relationships might have in yielding future career opportunities, few interns referred to their peer relationships as ‘networks’. 

Getting the right level of visibility and exposure

Interns described their struggles ‘reading the room’ when working remotely. One intern reported their frustration at being perceived as ‘shirking’ because they had not contacted their manager about a project, when they were trying to demonstrate independence and courtesy, and so deliberately not interrupting them. Another referred to the challenge of demonstrating emotional awareness, empathy, and support when working remotely.

I often felt that with remote working it was more difficult to make an impact and shape conversations.

Joining other social groups was an important way that some interns increased their visibility and exposure within the organisation. Some interns recognised the multiplicity of the benefits that these social groups offered them – they helped them to feel part of the organisation and would enable them to meet with people from across the organisation, even if they did not necessarily yield obvious development opportunities.

Some interns felt that remote working had affected the size of their networks, as they were typically working in small teams with reduced exposure to others in the wider business. For many interns networking and social structures were not put in place by the organisation, so interns either created them for themselves (and plenty gave examples of them initiating such activities), or they found themselves operating in much smaller teams, where networking initiatives seemed more challenging.

“You’re on mute” has become a catchphrase that epitomises the year 2020 for many office workers, with the challenges of remote communication discussed around the globe. However, our research suggests that remote communication might create distinct challenges for those new to the workforce. They might need some help to see the networking potential in their peer relationships, and some prompting to help them develop proactive communication behaviours that might not be as needed in a face-to-face environment (e.g. to help them check their understanding on how their work fits with the work of other individuals or teams). 

More simply, they need opportunities to see and hear office interactions, and ask questions in real time. While remote and hybrid practices might well be here to stay, our research shows that interns do benefit from meeting other people in person. 

For further information:

Read the next blog post: The importance of being proactive at the start of your career when remote working.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.