How Remote Work Has Changed Professional Communication Skills

In his book The Social Animal, cultural commentator David Brooks argues that our subconscious minds, influenced by countless nonverbal cues, determine how we behave. Salespeople and other influencers already know this. For years, they’ve been successful because they communicate well with nonverbals. But has the rise of remote work, and the decline of face-to-face contact, changed this?

First off, let’s admit that some communication skills that will never translate well as virtual experiences. There’s no true online counterpart to a warm handshake or a hug. (I disagree with my friends who insist that such things can happen in VR.) Many nonverbal cues Brooks describes can only be experienced in a live context. Think about meeting a prospect or client for lunch or a drink—where ambient sounds and smells help good communicators thrive. Trying this in a virtual world would be unsatisfying, to say the least.

But live encounters are less likely today. Remote work is on the rise. As a result, virtual interaction will increasingly dominate our business interactions. So, how do we adapt our existing professional communication skills to this new reality? And how do we develop new ways to communicate effectively—without the benefit of live interaction?

Taking Traditional Skills Virtual

Body language is important, as a popular TED Talk explains. It’s also a major component of good professional communication. “Face to face sales can be as much about what you do as what you say,” according to a great blog by financial services practice lead Brett Evans.Most sales enablement coaches would agree, but effective body language takes practice.

Using body language online is tricky. Often we’re just too close to our webcams. The client or prospect may only see our face and shoulders, which limits our nonverbal options. (Suggestion: Try to sit further away from the camera—and make sure your webcam and lighting are high enough quality to capture more of your nonverbals.) But practice is just as vital for online body language—maybe more so. With an online sales training portal like Viddler Training Suite (VTS), be sure to include lots of practice assignments that include body language elements.

A related nonverbal communication skill is eye contact. This seems like an easy one to use online, but be careful. Webcams are usually above the screen, which often makes it seem like you’re looking down. Be sure to “talk to the camera” during your practice sessions.

Of course verbal skills are important, whether you’re online or live. Fortunately, this is one area where online practice reinforcement can help either way—and more affordably than live, in-person coaching.

Developing the Right Online Communication Skills

The remote workforce has many new communication tools—perhaps too many. According to a 2014 blog by communication expert Geoffrey Tumlin, digital distractions don’t just make it hard to focus on work; they make it hard to focus on people. For those of us engaged in sales, this can be fatal. If we’re not fully engaged and listening during a call, a Skype session, or an online presentation, our audience will know it. Right about the second or third time they see a message alert during a screen share presentation, they will emotionally pull the plug and start chasing distractions of their own.

Of course there are ways to avoid this, like turning smartphones and digital alerts off during important online meetings. Implementing and respecting a “do not disturb” mechanism for your entire team is also a good idea. But the art of “monotasking” only comes with practice.

Even if you and your team use email, chat, text, notifications, and other communication tools wisely, there’s no guarantee your clients and prospects will do so. That’s where practice reinforcement comes in handy. When you create sales practice assignments in VTS, don’t assume your audience is free from distraction. When you use recorded Skype sessions as a training tool, make sure the person playing the customer has everything turned on. The person playing the salesperson role can practice the art of patiently and politely bringing the conversation back to the point. In VTS, other team members can also watch, comment, and learn.

The remote work phenomenon has permanently disrupted how we communicate. Fortunately, there are great ways to overcome technology’s limitations, and develop great professional communication skills.