W orking remotely has presented significant challenges, but perhaps the toughest one is effectively communicating. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise because we’ve spent an entire human history talking face-to-face and only in the last few decades have seen the implementation of e-mail, text messages, and video calling. This radical change in the way we try to connect with others quite simply can’t match what we’ve been so used to for so long. But in a world of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, virtual communication is ou r only choice. To help, here are my top 6 tips for effective communication to reduce confusion, frustration, and miscommunications.
Match the Message to the Mode
Even without face-to-face communication, we have a variety of ways to connect. Video calls, phone calls, voice recording, e-mail, instant message, text message, and more are all at our disposal. So, which is best? It depends on what your message. Messages that are tactical, those dealing with the Who, What, When, Where, and How, are what I call “2-Dimensional” and should use a similarly “flat” communication mode like text or e-mail. Conversations that are “3-Dimensional” and involve the Why, or the emotional charge behind a message, should be presented in a “deeper” communication mode like face-to-face, video chat, or at least on the phone. If you try to have a deep, emotionally driven conversation (think political debate) using a flat, 2-Dimensional mode (think Facebook), it never ends well.
State Your Intentions (Both Ways)
As humans, we really, really care a lot about people’s intentions. When we know that someone truly has our best interest at heart, we take any constructive criticism they have for us joyfully. The same feedback given by someone whose intentions we don’t trust causes serious interpersonal issues. The problem when communicating via e-mails is that lack the body language and tone that convey most of the message being sent. So when sending a critical email, always explain both what your intentions are (“My goal is to help us all become better”) and what they aren’t (“I’m not trying to nitpick a specific instance or beat you up”). It can make or break the relationship.
Respect the 3-Email Rule
One of my closest friends is an attorney who works to protect companies from themselves. His advice when dealing with disagreements over emails is that after three exchanges of emails, the conversation needs to be taken offline. Imagine a client emails you to say that a site needs to be swept up to finalize post-season obligations. You have already sent crews to this location, so you respond letting them know it was done already. They reply the site the site hasn’t been swept. You send back the logs from the crews of when it was done. The client says the lot condition doesn’t look swept and is unacceptable. You’ve reached the three-email rule and it’s time to pick up the phone. Any more emails will only continue to degrade the relationship and possibly land you in real trouble (see Tip #6).
Intentionally Create Social Connections
Before social distancing, when we used to work closely in shops and offices, social connections would happen organically. People would pass each other near the water cooler, in the kitchen, when turning in timesheets, or just passing by each other and they would casually learn about weekend plans or kid’s birthdays. The social bonds are important. In fact, Gallup reports that employees who say they “have a best friend at work” at seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs. But when working remotely, there is no way for this to happen naturally. So, we need to make it happen intentionally. This could be a virtual happy hour towards the end of the workday. Or even just five minutes at the beginning of a conference call to learn what someone watched last night or had for dinner. Focusing only on work and ignoring friendships will lead to an apathetic and burnt out workforce.
Schedule the Right Amount of Time
Your calendar app probably looks like mine with little bars dividing it into 30- and 60-minute blocks. It’s time to ignore them. Before you schedule your next meeting, think about how much time is really required for each of the items you need to discuss (you may need to reach out to other participants and ask). Then schedule the meeting for the right amount of time. I’ve scheduled 9-minute conference calls, 17-minute video chats, and 38-minute check-ins. I let people know we’re going to start on time and end on time. It helps me be more prepared and everyone is more focused and appreciative of the result. Whatever the right answer for length will vary, but I can almost guarantee it won’t be exactly what your favorite meeting app suggests by default.
Set Up Your Environment for Success
First impressions still matter and ensuring effective communication requires removing as many distractions as possible. In the world of video calls, this means considering lighting (you should a window to your right or left, but not in front or behind you) and creating the most basic background possible (and, no, virtual backgrounds should not be your solution here). Invest in a solid microphone and webcam. Comb your hair and lock the door. Stand and smile when talking. It all leads to a more professional image and a better chance that your message will be received. After all, isn’t that what we need in times like these?