By Mariel Alison L. Aguinaldo

Digital communication tools such as Zoom and Slack have become indispensable as companies shift to a “hybrid virtual model” of work, which management consulting firm McKinsey & Company described as a setup wherein one part of the workforce works from home while the other works on-site. 

Related story: Zoom doubles forecast of sales as users surge

While these tools have made communication safe and more convenient, they also have downsides that the workforce must be aware of.

Kea, a 25 year-old digital marketing specialist for an entertainment company, was used to face-to-face meetings and frequent interactions across their different departments. When her company was forced to work remotely due to the pandemic, she found it difficult to adjust to this new means of communication. “We’ve had at least three Zoom meetings in a week, but I still felt like it was a struggle to communicate to each other online,” she recalled.

Kea’s company has an on-site skeletal work arrangement in place: rank-and-file employees report to the office once a week, while supervisors and managers are required to come in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. 

Similar arrangements are becoming the norm and will probably continue even after the pandemic. Despite the advantages—such as increased productivity due to the elimination of lengthy commutes—licensed professional counselor and mental health professional Danielle Cruz cautioned against the pitfalls of online communication, the main one being a higher risk of misunderstanding because of the additional layer of technology. 

“Face-to-face interaction has less barriers in the process of communicating with one another. That’s why we have to be more careful since whatever we say might get misunderstood or misinterpreted easily,” she said of online communication through screens.

Employees may also feel that the boundaries between their home and work lives are blurring. “Some might think that they still need to observe proper office decorum but of course, it’s hard to accomplish that when you’re not in an office setting,” said Samuel I. Cabbuag, an assistant professor from the University of the Philippines Diliman Department of Sociology.

Face-to-face communication has also been hampered by the need to wear face masks, which hinders an employee from holistically processing a colleague’s facial expressions. This could be especially taxing for the likes of deaf and autistic workers, who rely much on non-verbal cues during communication. 

Gestures like handshakes, hugs, and the hand on the shoulder, which convey feelings of trust, gratitude, and comfort, are used sparingly or not at all due to social distancing protocols. This may affect the well-being of and camaraderie among employees, as touch has been found to help reduce stress and foster connectedness with others. “Friendly touching serves as social glue that binds people in the workplace and in the community. It engenders feelings of trust and cooperation. It makes coworkers have more team spirit and more empathy for each other,” said David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, in an article by Fast Company.

With these barriers standing in the way of effective communication and fruitful social interaction, what can be done to lessen the chance of misunderstanding?

For online calls, Harvard Business Review suggests using video for all participants and ensuring that all of their faces are visible. This provides non-verbal cues and makes everyone feel that they are all truly in the same meeting. Of course, this suggestion is only as effective as the speed of one’s Internet connection.

Related story: Filipinos struggle to work from home in internet-challenged country

When it comes to written material such as e-mail, Turalt, an online communications AI solutions provider, said that empathy is key. Try to imagine how the recipient may interpret your words. Reviewing before sending also helps, as it helps you spot unnecessary words or points that need to be emphasized.

In order to prevent the blurring of one’s home and work selves, employees must set up separate spaces at home for work and rest. “In that way, you will also create a psychological boundary between personal and professional space,” said Ms. Cruz. “As much as possible, avoid working inside your bedroom because you have to program your mind that your bedroom is a space for rest. Designate a workplace in your homes where you can work. Once work hours are done, leave that space so you can condition your mind that you are about to rest.” 

Employees can institute time-based boundaries. Harvard Business Review suggests sticking to a predetermined number of work hours and aligning this with your family in order to prevent any misunderstandings. “Disconnect hours” in between work also provide a leeway for rest, house chores, and errands. 

As social beings that thrive on proximity and communication, COVID-19 presents challenges that affect us not only at work but also in other aspects of our lives. While these may initially be difficult to manage, there are ways of thriving and surviving—even if from a two-meter distance or through screens.