Virtual Communication Best Practices During COVID-19

Author(s): Rebecca Factor

Employees may need clarity on how (through what channel) and when (how often) they should be communicating while working remotely. Establishing guidelines will align employees and should also help mitigate an overabundance of virtual messages.

New working communication norms are best established team by team. There will be different barriers depending on the job tasks required and how the team operates. Having said that, there are some general best practices. The following guidelines can provide a starting point for managers and employees:

Manager and Team
to Discuss


Best Practice

  • Should we share our calendars, hours of availability, and/or IM status?
  • Employees may feel watched or not trusted.
  • Get feedback from your team about whether this would work. Explain why you would want to share schedules or status (e.g. to not disturb them when they are busy, to guide requests to other team members).
  • Ensure the intention is genuine.
  • How often should we meet as a team and one-on-one?
  • Too many meetings can be cumbersome.
  • Determine what your team and employees need. During this time, it is recommended to increase communication so that employees are kept in the know about any changes and you can make sure they are doing ok (health and wellness checks). Err on the side of too many meetings and adjust from there.
  • Should we institute a time when we should not communicate virtually?

  • This is not possible, and employees are still bombarded during the time that is supposed to be protected.
  • There is little visibility into what others are working on during this time.
  • Investigate if this is doable with the team. Perhaps there are different times when each team member can have an hour protected from being IM’d or emailed internally – through the team. They could also be encouraged to turn off notifications during this time.
  • Weigh the benefits of uninterrupted focus for productivity against the downsides of having team members not checking notifications. Discuss mitigation strategies within your team (e.g. backup emergency communication channels, staggering dark hours among team members).
  • Which communication channel should we use in what context? How should we decide which communication method to use?

  • There may still be some confusion even after discussing this as new scenarios arise.
  • Have employees discuss what they think would be the best communication channels to use in each situation. For example, typically IM is best for quick questions and answers and email is preferred for a longer context or more fruitful question/answer – especially when cc’ing external venues.
  • Spearhead a team activity where the team discusses which medium is best, when. You can refer to the Communicate Effectively Facilitation Guide for some example activities.
  • Encourage the use of meetings for quicker alignment if necessary.
  • Should I share guidelines for email and meeting etiquette (or any other communication methods)?
  • Employees may wonder why guidelines are being discussed at this time. Has COVID-19 changed any norms?
  • Reiterate virtual communication guidelines and/or discuss with your team what they think is appropriate. Be sure to explain why you’d like to go over these at this time. You can access our note on virtual meeting guidelines to serve as a starting point. In addition, some tips you may want to include for email etiquette are having a clear subject, making sure all respondents are included in the sender list, being concise in the body content, and conveying any action(s) clearly for the reader. Specify within the email whether “reply all” or “reply to sender” is preferred.
  • Should we establish a new team charter?
  • Employees may not understand why this is helpful.
  • It takes time.
  • There may be employees who were recently redeployed to the group. Other employees may not know who is responsible for what in the new team. Working through a team charter outlines a clear understanding of who is responsible for what so that communication is streamlined to the right people.
  • Timebox the meeting and work from a charter template, if possible, to streamline the process.
  • What feedback does the team have regarding how we’ve been communicating?
  • Challenges may arise slowly and not be noticed until they are a major problem.
  • Team members may not feel comfortable bringing challenging situations to the manager’s attention when there is not a dedicated time to do so.
  • Communication needs may change rapidly as the situation evolves.
  • Hold regular feedback check-ins with your team to evaluate what is working and what can be improved.
  • Use a start/stop/continue exercise to focus the discussion.

Be sure to communicate that employees can continue to come to you with concerns regarding new guidelines and norms. You can formalize a feedback session using a start/stop/continue exercise, as mentioned, or you can consider running a COVID-19 engagement survey.

Employees may also have to add more administration time to answer all their emails, IMs, etc. Talk to them about the time it is taking and if it is impacting their work priorities. Work with other managers and HR specialists to collaborate and contribute to organization-wide tips surrounding virtual communication norms.

Our Take

While considering these guidelines, talk to the team to understand their needs. Share your goal: to promote clarity while reducing stress for employees. Make sure to welcome and make changes accordingly. You may get feedback you do not agree with; try to receive it without judgment and work together to find common ground.

There may not be a standard to which you can compare new working norms; you are experimenting and creating a new standard that works for your team.

Want to Know More?

Your One-Stop Primer on Virtual Meeting Etiquette

Ten Ways to Connect With Your Employees

Maintain Employee Engagement During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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