How Working Remotely Forced Me to Improve My Communication Skills

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that – while there are plenty of things in this world that I’m good at – written communications isn’t one of them.

(And for those of you who are new here, you can see the entire process I use to create posts here in my “Getting Shit Done” article.)

I’m great on the phone, so – up until recently – I’ve been able to cover for my lack of email skills by doing most of my communicating person-to-person.  If I needed to talk to clients, I’d schedule a phone call.  If I had assignments to pass out to my team members, I’d do so in person in our San Francisco office.

But that all changed when my wife and I recently relocated to Santa Monica, where I’ll be opening up Single Grain’s new Los Angeles office and she’ll be going back to school for her MBA.

Obviously, my ability to have face-to-face interactions with Single Grain’s current team members has gone down as a result, but to make matters worse, I don’t get any cell phone service in my new apartment.  No more in-person meetings and no more phone calls – not a good situation for a person like me!

In some ways, this transition has been frustrating, but if there’s a silver lining to everything, mine has been that working remote in this new environment has forced me to get better at communicating.  Since I can’t rely on calls or meetings to get my point across anymore, I’ve had to get better at writing – and the truth is that I’ve improved 100x over.

The move has also forced me to get better at using tools like Skype, Google Voice calls through Gchat, Google Hangouts and HipChat – all of which save me time and make me more efficient compared to carrying everything out in person.

This shift has been huge for me and I’ve been able to draw a few wider lessons as a result.  I hope you find them helpful – whether you’re going through major transitions in your own life or you simply want to maintain the status quo.

Lesson #1 – Tackle challenges in order to improve

Throughout my life, I’ve come up with workarounds for being bad at writing.  Don’t want to send an email to a customer?  Set up a conference call instead.  Don’t want to write blog posts?  Put a team in place to help translate my thoughts into digital words.

And while taking these steps has helped me to get things done in the past, they’ve essentially acted as a crutch.  Certainly, I’ve run into times when I absolutely had to send emails or communicate using some other written form – not even the most extensive system of workarounds could get me through every single situation.

If I hadn’t had to confront the issue as a result of relocating, I’d still be uncomfortable with my writing skills.  It hasn’t been fun to be forced to get better in this way, but I’m ultimately glad that I was.

If you’ve got a similar weakness that you’ve been covering up, don’t wait until factors outside of your control conspire to confront it head on.  There are some skills that you just can’t avoid forever, and you’ll likely find that it’s better to tackle them on your own timetable than to be forced into improvement.

Lesson #2 – Shake up your environment to prompt personal growth

The thing that prompted me to work at improving my communication skills was the change in my physical environment – the move from San Francisco to Santa Monica.  If I hadn’t relocated, you can bet I’d still be falling into the same trap of covering up my weaknesses with cleverly-designed workarounds.

So while I definitely recommend tackling the things that you know are issues now, I also understand that taking that kind of proactive action isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do!

One way to force yourself to improve is to shake up your physical environment and to put yourself in a position where you’ll be forced to confront these challenges head-on.  Of course, I’m not saying that you have to move across your state to do so.  Even something as simple as changing the layout of your desk or the coffee shop where you work can make a big difference.

As an example, suppose your biggest challenge is making conversation with random people (a skill that’s a must for networking these days).  If you usually work in anonymity from your local coffee shop (headphones on, laptop screen up), try spending a few days a week at a coworking office.  There, you’ll be forced to introduce yourself to new people and to make conversation about who you are and what you do.

It’s scary, but I think you’ll ultimately find that it’s worth it.

Lesson #3 – Never say never

The last thing I want to caution you against is the trap of telling yourself over and over again that you’re no good at something.

The reality is that just about every skill can be improved on.  Sure, I’m never going to be a New York Times bestselling author, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t improve my writing skills enough to feel more comfortable engaging in this way.

If you constantly tell yourself “I can’t do this” or “I’m no good at that,” your mind is going to believe you.  You’re never going to make forward progress just because you’ve convinced yourself otherwise – the mind really is that powerful.

So I want you to take some time to unpack the assumptions you have about yourself and your skill sets.  What makes you think that you aren’t good at some particular task?  And even if you’ll never master the subject, is there anything you could do to get a little bit better?

It can be hard to be this honest with yourself, but it’s an important exercise to undertake every so often.  Chances are you can do more and be better than you ever imagined possible – if you only take the time to bring about the necessary changes in your life.

Are there any unexpected skill sets that you’ve improved – either out of a desire for personal growth or because a situation outside of your control forced your hand?  If so, I’d love to hear your story in the comments section below:

Comments

  • I check email 3 times during work hours and 1-2 times in the evening. No specific schedule but I try to leave a few hours in between.

    I’m a productivity nut so I broke down my time and found that it takes me way longer to answer each email if I check it throughout the day than if I were to do it in chunks. It’s about 3.6x faster in 3-4 chunks.

    Tools: Boomerang for Gmail & Mailplane

  • Hi Sujan,

    I hope you il be great. In present my biggest threat is Writting email, whenever I am trying to write an email , I always lost my mind. After reading your above mentioned thoughts, I am feeling motivated. Please suggest me some good excercise or tip with help of that i can improve my english written communication.

    Cheers,

    Himanshu

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About Sujan

Sujan Patel is the VP of Marketing at thisCLICKS, the makers of When I Work & Wage Base. Previously Sujan founded Single Grain, one of the top Digital Marketing agencies in San Francisco, CA. With more than 10 years of Internet marketing experience and has led the digital marketing strategy for companies like Sales Force,…