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Remote working etiquette: the ultimate dos and don’ts guide

31 Mar 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

As UK staff juggle their personal lives and home working, experts offer advice, including ‘if you think emojis are silly, you need to get over yourself’

Instant messaging, video chats and conference calls. These three elements form the foundation of staying connected in any successful remote working scenario. However, simple as these methods may seem, they come with a set of unspoken rules and etiquette, which if not adhered to can be the downfall of productive working relationships. 

Since the UK government requested all organisations – where possible – switch to home working and closed schools across the UK, households are facing the challenge of fitting home life around regular working practices. With restless little ones running around, video calls could easily mirror that infamous BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly in 2017, which was unexpectedly – and amusingly – interrupted by his children bursting into the room. 

The line between allowing people to be human and poor etiquette is deceptively thin, as the decision to include an emoji could be all it takes to push a seamless interaction over the line into a damaging miscommunication. 

But is having laundry visible in the background really a sign of poor etiquette, or just part and parcel of these unprecedented times? Luckily, People Management has done the legwork for you, and sought the advice of experts to establish a handy ‘dos and don'ts’ guide:

Do... 

Give remote working guidance to leadership 

Guidance should be given to line managers, especially when it’s not usually “part of the DNA of the company” says Kate Bishop, group chief HR officer at FNZ, which has been taking a “head and heart approach”. 

“People will be dealing with many things outside of work so recognising this is crucial right now,” she says. HR leaders at FNZ have implemented “LinkedIn learning courses related to remote working and wellbeing”, she explains, and have ensured coaching and “virtual touch points” are available. 

“HR has a critical leadership role to play in such uncertain times,” says Bishop. “We’ve been reinforcing to our managers how important it is to look after our team members. This is a shared responsibility for all of us.”

Maintain workplace traditions 

Matthew Phelan, head of global happiness at The Happiness Index, warns that “functionality [of technology] is the bare minimum and HR needs to be doing more than that”, because the biggest impact on staff is the “social aspect of work”. 

“For the first few days people love working from home but after a while the social element will kick in,” he says. “Say you always have pizza on a Friday with your team, you can't forget to do that virtually. It will feel a bit strange doing a virtual meet-up, but if you don’t then the bonds in the workforce will rapidly start to degrade. 

“Think about what the social plan is for people who won't physically see each other and keep traditions going in whatever way you can.” 

Ask your staff what will work best 

“The workforce are already distressed. Don't chuck a load of new technology at them at short notice,” says Phelan. “Go with what people are comfortable with. Stick to whatever tech is already in use in the office and keep it in line with what people are comfortable with because it’s now too late to implement something new.”

Bishop says FNZ, which has a team in China, is taking a collaborative approach by encouraging employees to issue “tips and tricks”. “FNZ asked employees and leaders to share their stories of how they manage remote working and supported employees based on their individual needs,” she says.  

“I’ve used the ‘be sensible’ phrase a lot recently when leaders are faced with new decisions to make. We’re finding it’s actually driving a different sense of community and everyone is helping out.”

Don't...

Rely on text-based communication

In the telecommunications hierarchy, text-based communication is the worst of them all, according to Dr Nick Morgan, chief executive of Public Words and communications theorist.

Without being able to read emotional intent, humans rely on their negativity bias to fill in the blanks, which can lead to misunderstandings. “We have evolved to become an anxious species and tend to assume the worst when we don't have all the information on the emotional intent in communication,” says Morgan. “Most of us write text-based messages as if we were communicating face-to-face, but without those emotional cues things are misunderstood most of the time.”

Morgan suggests combatting this with the effective, judicious use of emojis: “If you think they are silly and childish, get over yourself. They will save an enormous amount of time explaining a simple misunderstanding.”

Distrust your workforce 

Phelan says in the current situation, trust is “paramount”, as micromanaging and constant checking in could cause discontent within the team. “People don't want to be micromanaged, but sometimes when an employee works remotely the manager wants them to always be connected or report in every hour with what they are doing,” he says.

“The etiquette is two-way trust and being really clear about what the outcomes of the work are, and what you want achieved.” 

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