My upcoming book, Making Your Voice Heard, helps readers develop their communication and influencing skills. Now that we are working from home, what has changed? When it comes to general advice on influence, not that much: the ways in which we build a reputation at work and grow our inner confidence have not changed, and the need to understand the social context and the cultural and gender expectations also remains unchanged. Nonetheless, working from home is not the same as working in the office. Here, I apply some concepts from the book to think about how to communicate better while working from home.
When we communicate, there are four channels we can use: linguistic (words), paralinguistic (voice), visual (appearance) and kinesthetic (touch and proximity). At first glance, a video call might seem no different from an in-person meeting, but it is missing an important element – the kinesthetic channel of communication. These are the subtle messages we communicate through proximity and touch; how close we sit or stand to someone else, whether our body is turned away or toward them, the firmness of a handshake, and so on.
On a video call, not only is the kinesthetic channel of communication unavailable, but the visual channel is partially blocked because we can only see the person’s face and shoulders, and their body language is somewhat unnatural as they sit facing a computer screen. If the internet connection is poor, the channels of communication can become even more impaired as the other person’s facial expression might not be easily visible or their vocal tone not easily audible.
Without all four channels of communication, a video meeting with multiple attendees loses the spontaneity of an in-person meeting. We cannot see when someone leans forward to show they are about to speak, or makes eye contact to show they want to respond. During an in-person meeting, we don’t realise how much we rely on these subtle signals – until we find ourselves on a video call and wonder why we can’t seem to find the right time to speak. The more people on a video call, the more difficult it is to know when to jump in with a comment. We might start to speak at the same time as someone else, or wait in silence too long, thinking someone else is about to speak.
None of these are insurmountable problems – there are many people and teams who work remotely on a regular basis. But if you are not accustomed to it, it may take time to adjust. Below are a few tips to help make that adjustment.
Working from home will never be a perfect substitute for the connections we make in the office and in person. But, until we are able to get back into the office, we need to think about how to make our voices heard while working from home.
Connson Locke is a Professorial Lecturer in Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where she teaches Leadership, Organisational Behaviour and Negotiation. Her debut book, Making Your Voice Heard, will be published by Octopus Books in March 2021.