Remote Working – SMILE!

Ernest Borgnine… smiling! (Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons)

With the impacts that Covid 19 has (and will continue to have) on our lives, it suddenly seems like there is a lot of information out there to provide advice for remote communication and work. This information has been there for a long time, but now it’s critical to many people. From what I have seen recently, I’m not seeing any really new information being offered… and after many video chats in the past few days, I realized that my click-bait title for this post should be:

For the love of god… SMILE!

Have you ever seen up close the make-up applied to stage actors? It’s often exaggerated and looks bizarre when you’re next to it. The reason is that they are communicating with people far away in the theater, so the make-up is designed to assist them with physical communication of their craft by accentuating their features. Theater is a communication tool, where people learn the skills required to maximize the effect of that tool.

When we are working with each other digitally, social and physical cues can be hard to recognize and interpret. The tool of video conferencing requires that we adopt skills to make it effective, and knowing when and how to apply them depending on the communication style of the person we are conversing with. Today I realized that when I am on skype/zoom/webex/gotomeeting/hangouts/teams (insert other option here) I have adapted to try to provide overt social cues to the person I’m speaking with. I nod, I tilt my head, I grin, I give thumbs up. I might look like some kind of animatronic anomaly… but… I do it to reinforce my interactions with the person on the other end of the call. I’m trying to make them comfortable and to confirm that we have successfully communicated with one another. As to whether this works or not, that’s another question. But, it seems logical to me.

Give this some thought. We all have certain resting features, and they do affect our face-to-face communication. That effect is likely amplified when we are screen-to-screen. Good communication involves understanding the communication style of the person with whom you are speaking, and benefits from you adapting to that style in order to help them hear you. We also hope that they are doing the same for us.

I share the above to hopefully add something new to the current remote workplace conversations. Beyond establishing work protocols and that we should wear the same clothes as we would to work (including pants), we need to recognize the subtle aspects that help to normalize our digital communications. We are in ominous times, and there is a reality that we can ease the challenge of remote communication by intentionally telegraphing the cues that help other people hear us. At a minimum, smile, modulate your voice, and move your head a little. When people don’t do that, it can be unnerving speaking with them. Don’t be unnerving.


I am giving things a lot of thought right now and may post again. When I write, it’s in part to share information, but I also use it to clarify my thoughts (selfish me). In case you see another post, here’s some information that might give me some street cred on this topic:

My firm is a small company with six employees based out of Anchorage, Alaska. “Remote office” for us has been an ongoing evolution for the past ten years. This evolution began with a single person in an office in Juneau, and has included various employees in home offices in varied locations in and out of state, and the flexibility to allow staff (and myself) to work when away from our home turf. Each year brings better bandwidth for our internet connections, better options for software and applications… and more understanding about the trials and tribulations of integrating remote work into our workflow. It’s not easy(!), but it allows us to be flexible, and flexibility is something that staff like.

About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has an ongoing preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see:

One thought on “Remote Working – SMILE!

  1. Love the title and topic and this is very appropriate for those of us who have, until now, been conducting most of our business in person. I have to say I miss that face to face interaction especially for relatively new colleagues or clients and certainly for new endeavors. It’s when first impressions are made, we set our goals our attitudes and our passion for the new task at hand. Conversely, I find that my older relationships both personal and business are perfectly fine with a phone call follow up or short message.
    I have recently participated in more MS Teams video meetings than ever before and the “smile” would make a huge difference I agree. It’s much easier to cue in on the eyes too. I noticed that the last callers that had just finished talking were still in video mode but visibly disengaged, looking up and around, scratching their nose etc. It’s what we do when we are on the phone as we concentrate with our ears and our voices. It’s natural and it’s human and if this article does nothing else but make us aware then that is a great service. “Smile” is a great way to start.
    I have observed something else too. Our standard one hour meetings are wrapped up in 45 minutes. That’s awesome … I think but what is missing? I think it is the impromptu sharing, side bar conversations and social bonding that is missing. I get to see my colleagues but don’t get to catch up afterwards or get to hear from the person in the room who is waiting to share an alternate opinion. It might be harder for some to speak up in this new media requirement.
    I have found that some one on one follow up calls have been very beneficial. That person I wanted to hear from but didn’t is still there and still engaged and still contributes but the group video and phone media doesn’t let us pick up on the simple “smile” of acknowledgement from across the table not from the speaker on the mic but from those around the table contributing with a smile or nod of approval or request to speak up. Great topic, thanks for writing this.

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