There is no doubt that workplace collaboration tools have made us more productive and have encouraged us to replicate the ‘water cooler moment’ digitally. Within the past year especially, these tools have been our saving grace, allowing us to work more effectively and build rapport with team members, many of whom we may have never met in person. Because of these tools, we can now get more done and communicate and collaborate better, even to the extent of being able to effectively convey emotions.
But have we become too relaxed and forgotten about who owns the information on a work machine when we are using company-provided technology? When we join a company, we contractually agree to the fact that we take responsibility for the hardware and software provided by our employer and use technology on behalf of the company we work for. What we say and do in the workplace makes up corporate knowledge, just like our digital footprint defines us when we use social media. This may be obvious to us when sending emails or presenting in a meeting, but what about when we are in a Zoom or Microsoft Teams conversation or chatting in Slack?
As an energetic, caring mother of four, I genuinely love getting to know people, what motivates them, and how I can help them meet their career goals and objectives. Unfortunately, I also have a natural knack of too often inserting my right foot in my mouth to only replace it with my left foot, which does not bode well when everything is written down and recorded.
How can I be vigilant about what I say, while also being sensitive to how I say it? How do I get the team on board with my new vision and direction while working long hours and juggling all the things the world is throwing at them while also interjecting humor to ensure they smile?
Here are some suggestions on how I believe it is possible to strike this balance effectively.
Understand connection through EQ
Emotional Intelligence (also known as an individual’s Emotional Quotient, or EQ) is what we rely on when we empathize with our coworkers, have deep conversations with significant others, and attempt to manage an unruly or distraught child. Our level of EQ allows us to connect with others, understand our daily experience and derive meaning from these interactions.
Without being face to face, we can bring this awareness into our online interactions in a few actionable ways. To ensure miscommunication doesn’t happen, be succinct with your messages, be respectful of colleague’s off-hours and avoid too much back and forth. Consider three to four messages on a topic to be the max before hopping on a call.
Understand cultural differences
For many organizations, growing and building a full team remotely is uncharted territory for both managers and employees alike. But the current moment offers us a unique opportunity to make inclusivity and empathetic communication a priority in an online environment. Even after we return to the office, many of the hybrid online working and collaboration practices we are currently familiarizing ourselves with will become much more common.
Communicating inclusively online means fully considering which voices need to be heard in order to ensure an equitable and inclusive end product.
To consider what this might look like, ask yourself:
- Who is currently involved in this conversation and planning?
- Who is not represented on this chat thread in Slack?
- Whose voice on the team is not being heard?
- Who is responsible for making decisions?
Perhaps there is someone on the team who can’t make an important meeting because they have a newborn or are caring for a sick loved one. Be empathetic and make accommodations to ensure they also have a voice on a project. Make sure you are not making decisions from conversations on Slack or email without actually considering which voices need to be heard in order to ensure an equitable and inclusive end product.
Recognizing communication nuances across cultures can be tough. Especially in a business setting. One way to break it down is to understand the difference between high-context and low-context cultures. This model may sound familiar from those introductory-level anthropology or sociology courses from your university days.
In low-context cultures (e.g. the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, and the UK) good communication is precise, transparent, and clear. Repetition is appreciated if it helps to clarify deliverables after a meeting or conversation. Messages are expressed and understood at face value.
In high-context cultures (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia) good communication between colleagues is nuanced, layered, and can be viewed as more elusive or sophisticated. Speakers expect you to read between the lines of spoken and written messages. At times, points are implied, not as overtly expressed as an American or British person may communicate. While exceptions certainly exist, having a baseline understanding can give you a framework to reference when interacting with international colleagues.
Small talk can be very important for Americans to build relationships and trust. British people are more likely to rely on humor. Some European colleagues may be keener to check with the group or boss before responding to a message. Summarizing action items or deliverables stemming from a presentation or team call can be seen as diligent and useful for low-context colleagues, whereas high-context colleagues may view repetition as a waste of time. Your recap of next steps from a meeting could be misinterpreted as condescending or come off as assuming the other party wasn’t paying attention.
To avoid these pitfalls, first, understand where you lie on the high vs. low context spectrum. Avoid open-ended phrases such as “I guess so” or “we will see.” Be intentional with your message from the start and master the art of code-switching between cultures.
Understand intent vs. impact
I was once told by a CEO early on in my career, that if you wouldn’t say something to your own mother don’t say it at work. This rule has helped me time and again, whether it be via email, a Zoom call, or otherwise. Especially being a visible executive in the organization, I make a special effort to try and invoke the right tone with every message I convey.
Getting the tone wrong can often be detrimental to relationships and quickly sour a collaborative workplace. This may sound obvious but I’d argue that too many people think less about tone in a virtual environment than they would do in person. Maybe it’s a rushed message or an off-the-cuff comment that leads to someone interpreting what you’ve said differently to what was intended and reacting badly.
Whether you’re providing constructive feedback, working through a difficult decision, or showing public appreciation for a job well done for a specific team, look at a message and ask yourself: “Does this say what I need it to say in the way I want someone to take it?” Pause and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you’re not 100% confident that it does, you need to take a step back and rethink how to frame your message.
Educate your staff about how to navigate virtual-only collaboration
In a virtual or hybrid office environment, the rules of engagement have changed. Online communication is no longer a supplementary way to provide direction to new team members or follow up from a face-to-face meeting. Now your visibility and reputation in an organization are no longer dictated by an in-person presence. Instead, almost everything you say, deliver, provide critique on, or joke about is done online. This means your entire business persona, from start date to your annual review, a potential promotion, and everything in between is dependent upon how you present yourself to your organization online.
This new environment presents significant risks and liabilities that organizations have never had to deal with before on such a large scale. It is important to recognize that everything, from an emoji to feedback on an important new business presentation is potentially searchable, retained, and ultimately discoverable in the future. All of the knowledge and information you share on your work computer is the property of your organization.
For employees, this means the risk of saying something that may land you or your organization in hot water should always be top of mind. It’s important to be aware that there is always a record of unacceptable behaviors, whether it is disclosing confidential information or inappropriate interactions with colleagues. This means that employees and employers alike could be at risk of unforeseen lawsuits, litigation issues, fines and other liabilities that they’ve never been exposed to before. If not mitigated well, employers also risk high turnover rates, a tarnished reputation, and low employee morale. Making sure all your employees are aware of these risks is key to keeping them and your organization protected.
Looking towards the future
As remote work and virtual interactions are here to stay, it’s important that we don’t become too relaxed and overly casual when interacting with colleagues across collaboration tools. Real-time messaging may seem informal but don’t let that informality become a problem for your staff or your organization. Every time you hit send that correspondence is stored and discoverable in the future. View yourself as an advocate for the best and most ethical behavior in your company.
All of this also means that we are actively creating a workspace in which a more transparent, ethical work environment can thrive. To ensure our employees succeed in today’s world it’s more important than ever to emphasize positive reinforcement whether this be a “kudos” Slack channel, a kind email, or LinkedIn shoutout, as it’s mission-critical our people know how much we appreciate them.
As we work together and continue to navigate this new hybrid collaborative work economy, we just need to remember that it needs to be done in a more strategic, pragmatic, and thoughtful way where every word really does matter.
Michelle Wideman is the chief customer officer of Onna.