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Breaking old habits: Hybrid-working setups call for different ways of communicating

Much of the future of work will center on a mix of in-office and remote working. And onus will be on leaders to adapt how they communicate so that employees remain connected, motivated and productive in such environments.

Employees — tired and uncertain from the pandemic — are reevaluating their relationships with work. And business leaders are having to balance negotiating this frontline alongside the day-to-day running of their operations. To get it right, they require the soft skills necessary to humanize the workplace during this bumpy ride.   

We spoke with academic and industry experts to find out what communicative skills are necessary to navigate these new waters successfully and lead happy, productive teams. 

Writing the new playbook 

When it comes to addressing the future of work — specifically remote and hybrid models, as well as a mix of part- and full-time workers — the most successful teams will “write the playbook together,” said Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. “Virtual work can make it harder to foster genuine connections and build the psychological safety for employees to speak openly with their thoughts. You don’t want people holding back concerns or questions — that are in some cases mission critical — because of interpersonal fear,” she said. 

The first step toward evolving workplace communication involves breaking old habits. Rather than focusing on habitual leadership styles of command and control, the new era embraces positive feedback, transparency and a learning mindset. Such a culture focuses on sharing: concerns, data, methods, successes and encourages people to seek out the perspectives of others. In many ways, it is an art within a science, according to Edmonson. 

In order to achieve these goals, and outgrow old habits, a new method of workplace communication becomes necessary. Edmondson metaphorically described a “linguistic system of science,” that co-opts our communicative habits with parts of the scientific method, creating a culture that says: Here is what I see, here’s some hypotheses and experiments that we could try. Let’s remain open to the data we receive and to others’ ideas. 

“This is a very different mindset from old fashioned management,” added Edmonson. 

Soft touch in a hard world 

For the freelance market, work opportunities ballooned during the pandemic. Companies felt pressed to champion agile strategies in a competitive market and looked to the gig economy for the answer, minimizing fixed costs in the process. 

In light of a more outsourced workplace, having more general knowledge of the people you work with and where they come from is important. “You’re going to encounter people with different varieties of language — whether that is an accent, style or an entirely different language — that you need to mesh well with,” said Alexus Brown, a PhD student of linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh. “Really good communicators reduce stressors and bring in that human component — respect in how you communicate with others — where you don’t just feel like a cog in the machine, you feel like an essential part of a team.” 

If leaders take the time to focus on how they communicate with others, they can capture a critical aspect of humanizing the workplace: softs skills. Brown further elaborated that sociolinguistic style — how you tend to converse and interact with people in a particular setting — influences how connected a person can feel in their workplace, affecting not only their drive to learn the ins and outs of the job, but where they fit into the culture at large.

Technical difficulties

The modern workforce is made up of four generations, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z, and they all have different habits and expectations when it comes to digital conversations. For instance, in each age group the tone and style of writing in a Slack message will differ from that used in an email. This raises the question, what is the appropriate manner to behave yourself through each modality? 

Hybrid and remote work has ramped up the use of communications tools like Slack, Zoom and Teams. In navigating these various communication channels, certain new norms develop in terms of conversation management. “These different modalities [digital tools] are framing devices for parsing out what the stances and styles are going to be,” said Dr. Scott Kiesling, department chair of Linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh. “Different modes have different social meanings and it’s going to be through conversations that people figure out which are most useful for getting the desired message across.” 

Stance and style are two important linguistic factors that can determine the quality of social interactions. Stance is expressive of a person’s attitude or relationship to the people they’re interacting with, including the subject they’re talking about and the language they use. For example, how you express your stance might be clearer in person and video chat, because of body language and tone of voice, than with instant messaging. 

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