The Melbourne Telephone Exchange commenced operations in 1880, when the city’s population was around 280,000. It wasn’t as big as the telephone exchange in Paris or London, but still ­– it would have been a sight to behold. There were hundreds of switchboard operators talking to subscribers and managing walls full of cables. Experienced operators were masterful in the way they directed the flow of communication.

Things are different these days. We have a global pandemic, high speed internet, and a whole lot of HR managers scrambling to direct the flow of information from home. Even experienced personnel can sometimes feel like a switchboard operator on their first day. Remote work is a new way of operating, a new way of thinking – and despite all the slick tools and systems in the marketplace today, it can leave us feeling like we’re plugging cables randomly into the wall and hoping a connection is made. How can we increase our skill and direct the flow of information to improve organisational performance?

Accounting for non-work issues

Business is business, to be sure – but today’s professionals are performing their duties in extraordinary times. Building positive work cultures in this moment involves a higher degree of empathy for what we’re going through as a team. To that end, effective teamwork involves more than a good idea about a project currently underway, or a timely response to a request. Managers should foster open lines of communication, and strike chords of empathy where possible.

It’s a balance, of course – communication should be efficient, and not every team member is keen to add ten minutes onto a digital meeting to discuss Netflix specials – but maintaining a trustful, respectful, and open cadence is important.

Minding our tone of voice

Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule is commonly used to illustrate the power of non-verbal communication. He theorised that when people speak, their choice of words accounts for only 7% of the total information exchanged. Vocal qualities (tone of voice, inflection) account for 38%, whilst body language delivers 55% of all the information exchanged during a given interaction.

Experienced HR managers (and the rest of us, for that matter) knew about the power of non-verbal communication before coronavirus – and by now, we all know that seeing each other on screen, in our digital splendour, is not quite the same as sitting together in person. A thing or two tends to be lost in translation.

But it’s critical to work with what we have, and tone of voice is significant even by Mehrabian’s in-person standards. That’s not to say that one tone or voice or another is always appropriate, but being mindful of tone is an important practice when managing remote teams.

Entertain a throwback approach

Modern solutions for communicating in the age of coronavirus – including platforms like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and so many others – are useful and important in the right dosage. They can also be exhausting and cause eye strain. In many contexts, the humble phone call or e-mail can keep things succinct, accessible, and personable. Being flexible with different modes of communication allows your team members to help define what works. This is an important tenet of building great work cultures.

Avoid crossed lines

One advantage to being switchboard operator in 1880, as opposed to being an HR manager in the second half of 2020, was the finite nature of the job. As long as you maintained a professional cadence and managed the cables correctly, you’d have your result.

To succeed in the present business climate, team leaders require a nuanced approach to the flow of voices within a given team, department, or organisation. Given the long-term salience of remote work, we have every reason to master it well.

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