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Departments: First Word

 

  
   

VOIP Me, We'll Do Lunch

Technology gives us the remote employee and even remoter communication.

by Dirk Dusharme

 


A
in't technology wonderful? Because of exponential advances in microprocessor speeds, cheap memory, blazing-fast Internet connections and voice over IP (VOIP) telephony, we can conduct business in ways unthinkable (or at least cost- prohibitive) even five years ago. Take the remote employee. Right now, I'm sitting at my kitchen table, barefoot, unshaven, wearing threadbare jeans and a crumpled T-shirt--OK, not so much different than how I show up at Quality Digest world headquarters--but my point is, technology makes it possible for me to be here instead of there. In fact, Quality Digest has seven employees who work from home, including one in Brazil.

Isn't that great? Well, maybe. As convenient as it is to work from home, there are certain drawbacks, the biggest being the quality of communication. Good communication isn't simply the ability to instant message (IM), e-mail or use VOIP to call anywhere in the world for practically nothing. Those are formal modes of communication with the explicit intent to convey information. The problem is, there's a lot of important informal communication that takes place within an office environment that remote employees miss out on. For example:

You overhear a conversation about a problem client and you jump in. Result: You share knowledge that leads to a happier client.

In idle chatter with a fellow technician you learn a unique technical trick. Result: You improve your performance.

Via the grapevine you hear that a co-worker is upset with you over what turns out to be a misunderstanding. So you go to that person to address the issue. Result: You bypass official channels and deal with the issue one-on-one.


In each of these cases, informal communication transfers knowledge, bypasses bureaucratic intervention and smoothes the way for business.

Unfortunately, remote workers are almost completely disconnected from this type of communication. There is no "overhearing" a conversation. As good as IM is, it only works if a person makes a conscious effort to communicate, and even at that the communication is person-to-person and not broadcast.

The result is often lost information, wrong information, stepped-on toes and misunderstandings. Particularly the latter--have you ever misunderstood the "tone" of an e-mail or IM? This isn't anyone's fault; it's just the nature of the beast. When we're at home by ourselves we become the masters and mistresses of our own domains. We make decisions in a vacuum, often with unintended results.

So here are some suggestions: Any time you have to make a decision that may affect another person, or in response to another person's action, contact that person by phone or IM and let them know what's up. When sending an e-mail, be sure to copy anybody in your organization who may have a stake in the topic--it's easy to delete extraneous e-mails, not so easy to act on information you don't have. If you feel a remote employee has "done you wrong," call or IM them and deal with them as if you had just sat down in front of his or her desk.

Working at home can be nice, but it isn't conducive to the free flow of thoughts and responses. Technology can be used to enhance teamwork, but only if we all make a little more effort to proactively communicate.