Communication

A strong communication plan will help managers set expectations and successfully orchestrate a diverse group of distributed employees. A thorough plan ensures that employees get what they need to stay connected with their team, customers, stakeholders, and the University. Discussions about communication tools, protocols, and the ways in which people use these to interact with one another are ideal at the onset of a team approach to flexwork; however, anytime is a good time to establish or revisit a communication plan. A successful plan requires shared understanding and commitment so it’s important for all team members to participate when writing or revising a team communication plan. Please also see CWD’s “Leading and Managing in a Hybrid Work Environment Toolkit” which includes more in-depth and how-to advice for building skills for a culture of fluid communication in the context of flexwork. Teams should develop a communication plan that addresses:

  • Communication Tools: Establish a contained number of agreed-upon tools that the team will use (emails, IM, personal cell phones, video-conferencing services, etc.). The HUIT website provides an overview of tools and services for staff working remotely or on campus.
  • Staying Inclusive and in Sync: Once you have agreed on the kinds of tools you will use, identify how and when to use them. It can be useful to operationalize and formalize expectations for scheduling and managing online meetings, calendaring and signaling availability, and participating effectively over video or conference calls. Remember that all meetings must include options for remote attendance; this supports effective collaboration and ensures inclusivity.
  • Formal and Informal Communication Methods: Define how team meetings, one-on-one leader meetings, staff meetings, and other forms of communication will be used during this period and establish if and when it is appropriate to use personal modes of communication such as personal cell phones. Look for ways to reproduce informal, in-person communication: for example, a daily bulleted productivity report may replace stopping by a manager’s office on the way out, and teams might designate pairs of colleagues to act as each other’s point person while teleworking or away from work. Many online meetings can make room for brief collegial conversations to maintain the social bonds that are integral to engaged teams.
  • Expectations of Team Members: The team should collaborate and agree on windows for responsiveness. Teams may also need to adjust their practices around timelines, deadlines, and accountability. Expectations concerning the use of communication tools will vary according to circumstances; for example, teams might agree that exempt employees working compressed work weeks should be available for time-sensitive concerns by phone – but not email – during the standard workdays when they are not scheduled to be working.
  • Evaluating the Communication Plan: Effective and honest communication is foundational to trust, so it’s a good practice for the team to check in frequently to see how well the plan is working and how well everyone is following it. If something isn’t working well, it’s wise to acknowledge that and change it before the plan fails – and trust is eroded.
  • The Importance of Mutual Accountability: It is a leader’s responsibility to consider the values, beliefs and core principles that guide employees' interactions with customers, stakeholders, and each other. The team (leaders, together with managers and staff) should determine and agree to basic and inclusive behavioral norms, build shared understanding for working flexibly as a team, ensure that all new hires are introduced to these expectations, and all employees should hold themselves and each other accountable to these agreements. This process of mutual accountability starts with the assumption of positive intent when working with multiple flexwork arrangements. Best practice examples of behavioral norms include:
    • Equitable process — Managers will ensure an equitable process for those proposing new or altered flexwork arrangements; staff will understand that an equitable process does not mean an identical or even similar outcome.
    • Post schedule and contact information — All members will place a sign in a highly visible spot at their workspace (if applicable), announcing when they are working remotely and providing contact information. Team members will also keep their online calendars up-to-date, noting periods of absence and using the “remote” designation where appropriate.
    • Email specificity — To support email management and improve productivity, emails requesting action should include “Action Requested by (date)” in the subject line to support prioritization.
    • “Buddy” systems — Pairing colleagues is a useful way to ensure that any employee who was unable to attend a meeting receives critical information.
    • Availability — Exempt employees working a compressed workweek must be reachable on their non-work day for time-sensitive concerns and be willing to attend meetings that are scheduled in advance and require that person’s presence.
    • Peak seasons — Everyone must be available for seasonal and peak “all-hands-on-deck” periods, if applicable.
    • Accountability — If a situation arises where a colleague is not honoring a flexwork principle, direct, timely, and constructive conversations with that colleague should help to resolve the issue.
       
  • Guarding Against Signaling an Expectation of Constant Work — Harvard has always encouraged managers to examine their own behavior and what it signals to teams. By sending emails at late hours, managers may inadvertently be sending the message that employees should check emails regularly when they are not meant to be working. Recently many have been forced to attend to family caregiving and work responsibilities simultaneously, which sometimes has the effect of pushing work into the late evening, early morning, and into weekends. Teams should, therefore, get clear about their expectations for response times. To avoid modeling behavior that may unintentionally shift these expectations, it is helpful to be familiar with email tools that schedule message delivery during standard business hours and use high/medium/low importance indicators. One innovative email signature addition includes: “Sent at a convenient time for me; feel free to reply when it’s convenient for you.”

Next section: Managing Teams