When was the last time you said ‘thank you’ to the person who checked out your groceries at the supermarket—not perfunctorily while glancing up from your phone, but in a way that showed you really meant it? Or the last time you thought about how your terse work email might have been perceived by its intended recipient?
Human beings are communication machines who are increasingly using machines to communicate. And the replacement of face-to-face interaction (in both social and work contexts) with technology-aided communication has added another layer of complication to the simple task of sending and receiving a message. Now, you are likely being judged on your choice of words, your ‘Last Seen’ status on WhatsApp, or the emojis you use. And if you’re a part of a distributed workforce, a lack of proper communication can have serious consequences within the team, such as misunderstandings, delays, frayed tempers and negative perceptions—often based on very little actual cause.
There are certain principles for communicating with far-flung teammates, and the foundation of these principles are mindfulness, empathy, and gratitude. Here’s how to form real connections with your colleagues and prevent confusion or misunderstandings from derailing output, team morale and work relationships.
Figure out what works for everyone: There are many workforce collaboration tools out there: from VoIP call apps to Slack and project management tools like Asana. Find out what your colleagues prefer based on their willingness to use the technology, internet speeds, etc. and choose the tool or platform that suits everyone. Also make sure everyone mutually agrees on the cadence and time for catch-ups to avoid confusion or schedule clashes later on.
Be disciplined: Showing up for calls and meetings on time and fully prepared, and respecting task deadlines can seem like obvious advice. But cultivating that kind of discipline can be tough, especially if you’re snowed under with work. At such times, keep in mind that there are people depending on you, and it’s unfair to leave them hanging. Individual discipline and professionalism is at the root of successful distributed teams.
Zealously record discussions: Humans communicate much more through expressions and body language than they do with words. However, when information is being relayed through digital platforms, there can be serious losses in translation. The best way to overcome this is to take comprehensive notes and share highlights, next steps, deadlines and owners of specific tasks with the entire team.
Surface confusions or problems immediately: Don’t wait for someone else to notice (or fix) confusions, errors or gaps in communication. Take action right away. If you’re not sure about your role in a project, get it clarified. Similarly, if there are other small problems that could cause big issues later, alert your colleagues right away.
Pause before you communicate: If you receive an email or text from a co-worker that you interpret as rude or unprofessional, pause for a few minutes before shooting off a response. Does the person have a legitimate point? Could it be that you’re misreading the tone? Could it be that the sender is too busy or stressed? And is there a positive, professional way for you to respond that doesn’t escalate into a mud-slinging match?
Make empathy your default mode: Related to the previous point, make it a point to give others the benefit of doubt. Just because someone delays responding to an email or misses a deadline, it doesn’t mean they’re slacking off. Reach out to people with empathy, and if you think they might be struggling, offer a helping hand. If you must share corrective feedback, do it with compassion.
Don’t be afraid to disagree: Nobody likes confrontation. You might even have developed a habit of being overly polite in emails for the fear of being thought rude. But that can get in the way of clarity. As long as you stay professional, empathetic and focused on the ‘problem’ rather than the ‘person’, you’re fully within your rights to express disagreement.
Practice gratitude: Studies show that expressing gratitude to others boosts our own happiness—for up to a month! The next time you want to thank a team-mate or partner, do it properly and with specific details. For example: “Thank you for sending the requested data across on time, it helped me prepare the budget document before the deadline!” This especially helps if the person you’re thanking is junior to you. Also, wherever possible, express gratitude in front of a group. This will come as an even bigger boost of happiness and encouragement to the recipient and make it more likely to get their whole-hearted co-operation the next time you work together.
Catch up offline: If you value your work relationships, look for ways to strengthen them through in-person interactions. Schedule face-to-face meetings or regular visits to other offices so that members can spend time with each other. Get to know who they are, beyond just voices or letters on a screen.
Have you had any interesting or unusual experiences in communicating with your remotely-located team-mates? Let us know, at firstname.lastname@example.org!