Let's face it, communicating at the best of times is hard. Communicating in a fast-paced environment under pressure is harder. Communicating in a fast-paced environment under pressure when you can't see or talk to the person you're communicating with is harder still. This is where many of us find ourselves in May 2020 as a result of social distancing and working entirely remotely.
A consequence of this shift is a greater reliance on written communication. No longer can we drop by a colleague's desk for a quick question, or catchup and clarify over a coffee. Face-to-face anything is a no-no. Real-time messaging tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack appear attractive - here's an easy way for everyone who's online and working to chat.
Yet with written communication, we lose the ability to read body language, hear the tone of voice and get a sense of the intent of the message. And we read the message in whatever mindset we're currently in - rushed, tired, hungry, frustrated. So if we're solely relying on the words someone's written, we're missing out on a significant portion of the communication puzzle.
As a result, I think this period is turning some communication hairline cracks into sinkholes.
At the core of these communication challenges are a few fundamental building blocks: a lack of clear expectations, a loss of context and a hodgepodge of communication tools and methods in play.
Communicating expectations has always been necessary. When you're face to face though you can pick up on implied expectations from someone's tone of voice and body language, you can overhear them telling someone else on the team what they expect.
When you're remote and relying on written communication, those additional inputs aren't available.
From a message sender's perspective, it can be unclear when you should expect a reply to something you've posted or sent.
If it's important in your eyes, does it deserve a response in one hour or three? Is it necessary to explicitly say this in the message, or can the reader infer it?
Does the communication channel change the expected response time? Is a message in a real-time messaging tool like Microsoft Teams or Slack more time-sensitive than an email? Or perhaps it's the content of the message itself - a message about JobKeeper and eligibility needs to be read and actioned by everyone.
The situation can be just as murky for the message receiver. Should they be monitoring their email every 15 mins? Can they triage email responses based on perceived urgency and importance? Of course, if every email you receive has urgent in the title, it's like the boy who cried wolf. Pretty soon it'll be the emails without urgent in the subject line that get your attention!
Communicate with context
Context can be a casualty of written communication since we lose the ability to read body language, hear the tone of voice and get a sense of the intent of the message. There's an inverse relationship between the ease of sending a message and quality of context that's shared.
For example, in a real-time messaging app like Microsoft Teams, you can send a message in seconds just as if you were having a conversation face-to-face. Yet it's likely that a short message such as this carries minimal context with it.
Email is often the default communication tool in the workplace. It's asynchronous, which means people can respond in their own time. The sender and receiver don't have to be actively online at the same time. There's minimal friction for the sender - click create, add a subject line, some body copy, quick spell-check and send.
And now you wait.
Once the message has been sent, can you assume it's been read? If you don't receive a reply, does that mean the email's been read and no reply is needed? Or the receiver needs time to action it and then respond? Or they simply haven't read it yet.
Also with email, you're in the dark about what people do and don't know. I know for me I can read something, even a few times, and feel comfortable with it. Yet when I try and recall what I read say an hour or two later it's fuzzy. I'm assuming we all receive many emails each day, so there's no way we can retain information from them all. That's a problem!
So what can we do?
Ok, so it's clear there some challenges exist with written communication, especially for teams who are remote. So what can we do?
Here are three suggestions.
1. Set and share expectations
Ideally, a guide exists as to how staff and teams within your organisation communicate with each other. I like The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication and the GitLab team handbook, both of which are shared publicly. Perhaps it's not surprising that both these companies are fully remote. Basecamp has 60+ employees around the world, and GitLab has over 1,200 employees in 60 countries.
However, even if a guide does exist I think it's valuable to state our expectations explicitly.
If we're writing an email and we'd like a response by a specific time, we can ask for that if it's reasonable and achievable. Even better, we can explain why, to give the reader context, which may shape their thinking and response.
If we're writing a real-time message, explicitly stating when we'd like a response or the message to be actioned goes a long way. There's something about Slack messages for me that communicate urgency, even if that's not the intention from the message sender.
3. Communicate with context
Communication needs to be precise and direct. Ideally, you preempt questions you be asked about what you've written. If it's a message or document, it should stand on its own and not require additional explaining. This is harder to achieve in a message than a document but is worth striving for.
It can help to assume that the reader has no understanding of what you're writing about. And that they want to learn as much as possible in as little time as possible.
Minimal contextContextCan you please send through a summary of the Q4 budget when you get a chance? Can you please send through a one-pager on the Q4 budget? Specifically, I'm interested in a comparison with Q4 last year and the rationale behind any changes. The recent Q4 report that Finance did is a good example of what I'm after.
3. Agree on a communication channel
In my experience, the primary written communication channels seem to be email, followed by real-time communication tools. In addition, I know a few companies are experimenting with microlearning here too.
Microlearning may seem a curious inclusion, but it has merit. At its core microlearning is a way to communicate small packets of information. It can be beneficial in two ways: it's quick to create and consume, and if repeated over time, can improve memory retention and understanding. So not only is the message communicated, it's also being given a chance at actually being retained.
Ideally, your organisation's communication guide spells out which channel to use for specific types of messages. An announcement about company strategy could go in Microsoft Teams and followed up by a short microlearning burst to refresh knowledge and understanding. A project brief could be written in an asynchronous tool that supports comments and threading so that the conversation about the document happens within it. Rather than being scattered throughout email, phone calls and meeting notes.
Regardless of the delivery method chosen, it's essential to set expectations around it, along with how people know which communication channel to use.
Wrap upWhile communicating remotely can be difficult, there are ways to ease the burden. Setting expectations, communicating with context and getting clarity on what communication tool to use when can all help.
Are you using this forced remote work experiment as an opportunity to review how you communicate with your people?
Lachy's our Managing Director. He's our resident rationalist and ideas man. He also reads way too many books for our liking.
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