Q: I am a therapist with a client who is looking for resources for navigating the virtual world. This client is distressed with all the changes in his work environment due to the coronavirus pandemic. He dislikes email, texting and the like because there are no cues. Further, he finds running meetings via video platform to be very challenging.

He has expressed concern that he may be required to continue working from home permanently. I suspect he is not alone in his feelings and was hoping you could address this topic.

A: Your client is absolutely not alone in his desire to get back to an office setting. According to a recent survey conducted by Future Forum, a consortium formed by workplace communication platform Slack, 20% of workers surveyed want to continue working remotely full time after the pandemic is no longer a safety concern — but an almost equal number, 17%, want to return to the office full time. Just because we’ve showed that being productive from home is doable doesn’t mean we all want to do it forever.

Still, even if your client’s employer invites him back to the office, it will also probably accommodate those colleagues who prefer to continue working remotely. In the post-pandemic world, Future Forum VP Brian Elliott says, flexible policies and technology will be essential in “keeping a level playing field for people regardless of whether they’re at home or in the office.” All of which is to say that even if he’s at an office, your client will probably still be communicating with colleagues via email, text and video meetings much — if not most — of the time.

The good news is that the technology is only going to get better and more intuitive. It’s the interaction of the hardware and software with our personal wiring that gets tricky.

Humans evolved to survive by communicating and responding to cues, down to minuscule shifts in tone and expression. Each stage of separation in communications — from in-person to video to phone to email to text — strips away more of those nuances and cues, increasing the risk of misunderstandings and conflict.

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Avoiding miscues involves being transparent about your needs and boundaries and making a good-faith effort to understand and empathize with others’. Social bonds with your colleagues, in which you have a sense of each other off-the-clock, can smooth over a lot of those bumps, but the spontaneous water-cooler moments that help forge those bonds are hard to come by in an all-remote environment. That’s why remote-work-technology provider LogMeIn.com makes a point of scheduling virtual check-ins and polls employees on their “work-from-home persona,” according to Jo Deal, its chief human resources officer. “We talk about empathy a lot,” she says.

And here are tips I’ve picked up from years of failing at, thinking about and teaching business communication skills:

— Always make sure you’re using the right medium for the people involved and the job at hand. Should this meeting be an email, or would in-the-moment interaction work better for this topic, with this person?

— Familiarize yourself with conventions in different media. Briefly dropping eye contact is natural in person but can come across as evasive on video. Jumping into a message without at least a “Hi” is abrupt and rude in email, but less so in a text. You don’t have to adhere to all expectations, but it’s important to know and acknowledge when you’re breaking them.

— Be aware of how artificial visual cues — punctuation, images, word choice — compensate for lost physical cues such as tone and facial expression. “Thanks.” “Thanks!” and “Thanks …” all land differently depending on the medium and the audience.

— Keep in mind that all messages are filtered through different brains in different emotional states with different histories. Assume neutral intent, and do your best to convey the same. If you know you come off rude in emails, have someone review your tone before you hit “send.” If you receive a rude email, pick up the phone and let the sender’s tone of voice tell you if you were misreading it.

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— Most of all, know yourself, and help others know you. “It’s hard for me to keep up in texts. Can we talk this through live so I can ask questions?” “Do you mind if I keep my camera off so I can focus on what’s being said?” Speaking up about needs and preferences is encouraged at LogMeIn, says Deal, so workers can accommodate one another: ” ‘This is how I work best.’ … Who’s going to say no to that? But if you don’t say it, they won’t know.”

Pro tip: Missed cues also arise during in-person interactions for people who are neurodiverse or working in a different culture or language from the one they grew up with. So looking at workplace solutions that those groups have adopted might also help your client. Visit the websites Understood.org and Askjan.org for ideas.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)