Professional Communication in a Virtual Environment

As students return to campus and instructors finalize the details of your courses, there is normally a distinct buzz in the air. But 2020 has been anything but a normal year. With the ongoing pandemic, the beginning-of-term buzz is now around tools and strategies for learning and interacting online.

While virtual communication platforms have been indispensable to continuing your pursuit of engineering knowledge during these uncertain times, they are not without obstacles. This is particularly true when learning is most collaborative and interactive. And let’s face it, meaningful projects require collaboration and interaction. But, working well together in a virtual forum is absolutely possible, and the key is good communication.

Virtual Communication Tips

Here are five communication tips to help your online collaboration go smoothly:

  1. Think about your message. What are your goals for a meeting with profs or peers? Make these clear and tailor your speech to achieve these goals.
  2. Active listening. Communication is a two-way street. The goal of any meeting is to share understanding of a topic; this is only possible if you are listening carefully. It’s also important to let the speaker know that you are listening; use verbal or visual cues (if your camera is turned on).
  3. Turn on your camera (if possible). Research suggests that non-verbal communication makes it much easier to achieve one’s communication purpose during an interaction [1]. You may not be comfortable bringing a camera into your current workspace, but if you can, it will go a long way. If you feel strongly that your surroundings are an issue, try to rejig your workspace (you’re going to be there a lot). If adjusting your workspace is not possible, consider a virtual background if the technology allows.
  4. Use additional visuals. Engineers often work with small details or complex spatial concepts. It can be challenging to use words to describe some of these subjects. To reduce the burden on verbal description, use software drawing tools and share your screen. You might even hand-sketch your ideas and display them on the camera.
  5. Slow things down. Communicating virtually is bogged down by distractions. Tech must be managed, open windows and documents compete for your attention,  parents and  roommates mill about in the background, the list goes on. To cut through all the noise, be more deliberate about your speech. You wouldn’t rush through a presentation, so there is no need to rush through a meeting online.

Above all remember that the person(s) on the other side of the screen is another human being. Ask how they’re doing; establish a rapport.


[1] M. Eaves and D. Leathers. Successful Nonverbal Communication, 5th Ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.