a woman on a video call gesturing with her hands
PHOTO: Matilda Wormwood

The rush to work from home in the shadow of COVID-19 has altered how people communicate. Professionals rely on video calls as a primary channel, when as recently as January people considered video tools as ancillary.

Analytics is no exception. Analysts are always tasked with explaining trends, influences and conclusions against business objectives. But when all this takes place amongst a team of remote workers, effective communication of next steps can be murky, which hinders the delivery of results and the sharing of key messages throughout an organization. 

So what should a team do to enhance communication? The key to effective remote work is to create an environment of trust, where teammates can elaborate on details and find answers to common questions.

With that in mind, here are a few tips that can make discussions while remote effective.

Set Boundaries That Avoid Micromanaging

All analysis usually assumes a proactive effort on the part of the analysts. But when the work is conducted remotely, proactive effort requires consistent guidance, so that analysis teams are not wasting time on unnecessary data queries or programming tasks.

Setting guidance on immediate and long-term goals can help minimize the distractions of ad-hoc projects that pull attention away from more important tasks. It also reduces unnecessary micromanaging by directing questions and discussions around the strategic tasks. Micromanaging limits personal initiative by creating a “check with someone else” bureaucracy in which nothing gets done without endless review.  

Related Article: 3 Management Mistakes Which Hurt Remote Team Performance

Discuss How to Use Tools and Techniques

People use software everyday, but not always in the same manner.  Some may be more efficient with tools while others may only need familiarity with a few features to get their jobs done. Every one, even those who have been trained on a given software, uses platform features to individual preference.

Make sure everyone on the team knows how to use analytic reports and query tools. The discussion should not be left to binary answers — “Yes I know the tool” or “No I don’t.” Instead, discuss specific features so your team develops deeper familiarity with the tools. Doing so will highlight training needs or repeated challenges that require revised training or even revised tools skills. 

Related Article: The Key to Analytics for the Masses

Create a Central Repository of Documentation

These discussions will often produce insights which can help you refine how you document activities and supporting software. Many how-to resources for solutions are available online, while development tools are increasingly incorporating ways to leverage real-time communication. In a previous post I mentioned one framework used for documentation, Markdown, as an example. I also noted a tip for using annotation in Google Analytics.

To select a good documentation platform, think of your technical documentation as a constitution and a bill of rights rolled into one. Both documents outline the overall roles of government and the rights of the people being governed. Technology documentation should outline the role of the programming media being used and the impact of the people using it in a step-by-step process. Adding a documentation list can answer frequently asked questions.

The right content in documentation enhances communication. Creating a central repository of documents outlining basic features and common processes will also help team members onboard more easily.

Related Article: How to Create Engaging, Relevant Intranet Pages

Be Clear and Succinct When Explaining Data

Storytelling techniques help add context to data and metrics so stakeholders can make a decision on tests, projects or other next steps.

When starting an email, analysts should succinctly explain the problem to be solved (or the question being asked), give an overview of initial possible directions (or what has been tried previously), and then explain what testing resources may be needed. 

Related Article: The 'Soft Skills' Every Analyst Needs to Succeed

Don’t Yell at Someone Through Your Laptop

This tip is personal: I have worked with small firms whose use for Azure Synapse, SPSS, or Google Data Studio is as great as a large organization.

But teams from small firms can be idiosyncratic in how they handle errors from messages. It is usually better to ask clarifying questions, and avoid being accusatory. Interpreting behavior thought digital media is like looking at someone through a keyhole. You may not see all the context for decisions and choices, so mistakes that seem questionable may have a plausible reason. More importantly, the fix may be really simple to implement.

Video Conferencing Is Good, Casual Talks Are Best

Video conferences can be a great way to examine a dashboard with people in real time. Comments and questions appear transparent.   

But video calls require more focus than a face to face meeting. A 2017 research study by several marketing professors from the McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin and the Rady School of Management, University of California found that while smartphones allow for constant connection to dialogue and information, the cognitive capacity of callers was significantly reduced when a smartphone is nearby. This implied its proximity a could undercut cognitive performance for other tasks.

The study also suggested that video call attendees unconsciously work harder to process nonverbal clues, resulting in a limited or potentially incorrect interpretation of the stakeholders' acceptance of results. Are they really satisfied? Or are they deeply disappointed with the results?  

A good takeaway is to not be overconfident on decisions from a video chat. Plan a follow up phone call or email that asks if there were any additional thoughts. Taking a few minutes to communicate casually demonstrates a genuine interest in a colleague’s opinion, which has a subtext of being concerned for their welfare. That interest can also lead to better discussions the next time you're explaining your analysis.