Your mode of communication is just as important as the message. Rethinking how you communicate at work can lead to vastly better results.
This meeting should have been an email. That email should have been a Slack message. That Slack message should have been an in-person discussion or video call. How we communicate and the method we choose can make all the difference to the outcome. Workers have long been frustrated when the mode of communication is wrong for the message because it’s ineffective, reduces productivity, or wastes people’s time.
What We Can Learn From All-Remote Organizations?
I’ve been writing about this subject for years, most recently in my book The Everything Guide to Remote Work(Opens in a new window). Remote organizations must necessarily think harder about workplace communication than in-person organizations. Why? They need to be thoughtful about how they communicate because they don’t have the same options as in-person teams. Remote organizations, which tend to be younger, also don’t typically have the same cultural baggage that older organizations do. Older organizations are more likely to be set in their ways. A classic example is a company whose culture gives undue significance to in-person meetings. People believe that the in-person meeting is the best way to, for example, kick off a project or regularly check in with a team merely because that’s the only way they’ve ever done things. Eventually, it creates an expectation that in-person meetings play a crucial role in the process.
By contrast, remote organizations have to rethink how business gets done. Their leaders are less likely to assume that a meeting has magical powers, and they’re more likely to be open to trying new ways of communicating that end up being better for the message.
So what can we learn from remote work to make all workplace communication better?
1. Start By Asking, ‘What Is the Purpose?’
Before you book your next meeting or draft your next email, stop and ask yourself what is the purpose. What do you need to accomplish? Are you:
- Delivering straightforward information
- Collecting information
- Soliciting ideas or opinions
- Solving a problem
- Encouraging discussion
- Giving feedback
- Or something else?
Instead of thinking about what you need to say, figure out what you want to happen.
2. Get to Know All Your Options
If your go-to forms of workplace communication are meetings, email, and face-to-face conversations, it’s time to stretch your wings and get to know what other options you have at your disposal.
Every method of communication has strengths and weaknesses. The trick is to pick the one that fits best with what you want to accomplish.
Team messaging apps, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, are great for delivering short, direct pieces of information. They’re also super handy for polling your team, whether you want to know the best time to hold a meeting or feedback about your processes. Polling colleagues regularly is a form of communication that can help encourage more open feedback by making it part and parcel of daily work.
Most people already know they can use audio and video calls to communicate, so now add to that mix screen sharing and the incorporation of an online whiteboard. Some whiteboards come with video conferencing tools, while others, like Miro, operate independently.
And that raises the option of using an online whiteboard to communicate and collaborate without having a video call. Likewise, for some types of brainstorming, a simple shared document, like a Google Doc, will do just fine. If there is no purpose to being on a call simultaneously with your collaborators to brainstorm, as an example, then just let people brainstorm in their own time. It gives them more time to think about their ideas and lets them work on those ideas when it’s convenient to them, not whenever the meeting is arbitrarily held.
You can combine options, too. Give people a shared document or whiteboard where they can list their ideas and then hold a much shorter meeting a few days later to discuss the ideas.
3. Decide on the Right Format
Once you know what you want to happen, use that information to pick the right form of communication. If you deliver straightforward information, you don’t need people to be together in real-time, so don’t hold a meeting. Consider instead writing an email and taking the time to revise it, so it’s clear. Emails are useful for longer messages that people might need to refer to multiple times. If the information is not long, consider posting a message in a team message app. Or maybe a series of messages would be best so you can repeat the information and make sure everyone sees and hears it more than once.
A different example would be giving feedback. If you have tough constructive feedback, you should have a face-to-face conversation, even if it’s virtual, because the other person needs the opportunity to ask questions and get clarity. And they deserve the dignity of hearing the words from a human being with all their body language and tone of voice intact. With feedback, you should be considerate of the other person’s time and space, too. If you know you’re going to have a tough conversation, you want to do it in a place where the person can react comfortably, so not in a public space with other people around.
4. Be Explicit With People Receiving the Message
A tenet of remote work is to over-communicate as much as possible. Repeat yourself. Acknowledge a job well done. Spell out the details of new procedures in minute detail.
In all kinds of workplace communication, we can always be more explicit, which is yet another way to over-communicate. “I’m sharing this information because…” “The reason we’re having a meeting is so everyone can ask questions.”
Honestly, sometimes it feels like pulling teeth to get people to be explicit. How many people still create meeting invites without any agenda? But it shouldn’t be hard. Just tell people what you want to accomplish (remember step 1, what is the purpose?). If you clarify your purpose, other people can do their part much better.
Here’s another reason being explicit makes a difference: When everyone understands the purpose and the rationale, you increase your chances of getting their buy-in. If you make a good case for why you’re holding a meeting and not sending an email, people are more likely to agree with your decision and be on board.
5. Be Open to Change
How will you know if the way you chose to communicate worked? Ask! Once again, over-communicate and be explicit by asking people for their honest opinions. “Did that way of brainstorming work for you?” “Should this meeting have been an email?” Or better, “Was this meeting effective, or how do you think we could have reached the same or better outcome in a more effective way?”
Be open to making adjustments, but also don’t give up too quickly on new-to-you methods of communicating if they feel uncomfortable at first. Figure out what value they have and when it’s best to choose them over another method.