Whether you and your team are working remotely a couple of days per week, or you (or they) are remote all day, every day, you’ve probably found that being remote has made you better at some tasks than you were when you worked in an office.
Maybe you’re better at actively listening to customers on the phone because your remote office workspace is quieter.
Maybe you’re better at forecasting contact center staffing needs because you don’t have colleagues stopping in to talk to you every 15 minutes, and you can concentrate for longer periods of time.
One thing you’d better be better at is writing. Remote workers write more than in-office workers. They’re more likely to use writing to advance everyday tasks and blue-sky projects than in-office workers. A remote worker who cannot make a clear point in writing will be a weak link on any team.
Five reasons remote workers need great writing skills:
1. They’re writing in more channels. Yes, of course, we were using email, chat, text, Teams & Slack messages, newsletters, intranet posts, and more when everyone worked together onsite. But because we don’t have that in-person physical contact in remote settings, we’re relying on this range of channels more heavily when we work remotely.
To cope with this number of written channels, remote workers need to know how writing practices differ in each channel (“Should I be using Outlook or Slack for this particular request?”) and in which channels individual colleagues are more responsive. It’s a lot.
2. Email is poor at conveying tone, so remote workers need to be better at building rapport through writing. At some point, every one of us has had our email tone misinterpreted. Our reader has wondered, “Why are you angry at me?” or “Who do you think you are??!”
In person, it’s much easier to convey a tone that builds rapport. Via email, it’s much harder to make your tone come across the way you intended, so remote workers must be better at this skill.
A remote worker who cannot make a clear point in writing will be a weak link on any team.
3. We’re communicating higher stakes topics via writing, so we have to be more persuasive and detailed. In-office workers can schedule in-person meetings when they want to brainstorm about a new project or propose a high-investment expansion. When we work remotely, however, we must know how to brainstorm in a Google doc, for example, or write a great proposal to pitch that big, expensive idea.
4. Managers are too busy to coach remote workers on their writing. Remote work is taxing for managers, and they may simply run out of time to help remote workers improve their writing.
“Excellent writing skills” has long been on the list of must-haves for customer care professionals, but some people who lacked these skills were fortunate enough to develop them with the support of an attentive manager. These days, remote managers just don’t have time to help their team members become better writers.
5. Set-your-own-schedule remote work means fewer opportunities to talk to colleagues, thus more writing. Your coworkers may be in another time zone, another country, or right down the street from you but on an entirely different schedule. You’re working together…asynchronously. If meetings are impossible, most of the time you’ll be writing instead.
Four writing skills remote workers must have:
1. Put the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). Remote workers need to know how to write emails (and lots of other products) that begin with the main point, i.e., the bottom line. They need to be able to write content that helps readers understand, right away, what they should do or know.
Using BLUF requires courage, clarity, and conciseness. The payoff is that writing the BLUF prevents misunderstanding and avoids wasted time or effort.
2. Use a tone that develops relationships. Remote workers need to know how to establish a professional, connected tone, so everything they write will build their relationship with the reader.
A person who thinks it’s pointless fluff to start an email with “Hi Robert, I hope you’re doing well…” will not succeed as a remote worker because they’re dismissive of the simple courtesies that show people you care.
Being able to write in a tone that builds relationships instead of harming them is critical today: people are stressed, it’s harder to create connection when we’re apart, and many of us just don’t know our colleagues or customers the way we used to.
Remote workers must be good at managing their tone in writing to prevent misperceptions. They must also be able to respond with a careful intentional tone in high-emotion situations, such as apologizing to customers for a data breach, telling colleagues that a VP has unexpectedly resigned, or reminding a deadline-missing contractor that they’ll be removed from the project if they don’t complete their tasks on time.
3. Make content scannable. Because so much—for their companies and for their careers—rides on their writing, remote workers need to know how to make their writing easy to read. In today’s workplace, easy to read equals scannable.
Writing that requires less effort from the reader is writing that includes headings and subheadings. Scannable writing makes the topics of each section easy to see and uses bulleted or numbered lists to display the subpoints of a main idea.
Knowing how to make content scannable is a skill remote workers need whether they’re writing knowledge base articles, customer service emails, documentation, blog posts, or white papers.
One of the highest compliments a reader can give a writer is, “You wrote this so I wouldn’t have to read the whole thing. I could easily find the sections I need.”
4. Adjust style, punctuation, and grammar to communicate internationally. Guess what? American English is different from British English, Canadian English, and other Englishes. Remote workers whose colleagues or customers don’t write or speak American English need to be aware of the differences and adjust their writing. They need to know when to write July 10 and when to write 10 July, whether to spell apologize with an s, and when the period (full stop) goes inside the quotation marks.
Which skills are less important for remote workers?
The answer will surprise many but perhaps not all of you. They are flawless punctuation and grammar skills.
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone needs adequate punctuation and grammar skills. Believe me, I’m not coming out as “pro apostrophe error”!
But for today’s remote workers, the willingness to use grammar- and spell-check software to check everything they write is more important than perfect punctuation and grammar skills.
Many employers are struggling to fill vacancies today, and many prospective employees have made it clear that remote is the only kind of work they will consider.
But if permanently remote work is going to actually work, we’ll need to hire people who can put their thoughts down in writing—accurately and with care.