(This post appeared as a talking head in episode 170 of the 21st Century Work Life podcast. The player at the end of this blog post is cued to play that section.)
Text based online communication has done wonders for shy people, introverts and those who like to organise and plan their thoughts before sharing them. You sit behind your computer and type away, without having the other person in front of you. You don’t get immediate feedback about what you’re saying, which sometimes means that your thoughts don’t get derailed. Of course, it also means you can’t adjust your message if it’s landing badly.
Written communication is an essential part of remote team communication, and when transitioning from the colocated office, team members are often afraid that suddenly all communication will become impersonal, that all our conversations will be typed out, risking miscommunication in oh-so many ways.
The Dangers of Text
There are reasons to be worried about relationships breaking down, if all we do is communicate via written text (although asynchronous communication doesn’t always involve just text, it could also include sharing audio or video). A small study (300 participants) carried out by the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley found that when one group of people listened to or watched arguments on “hot-button” topics, and another group read the same message, “Those who had listened to or watched someone say the words were less likely to dismiss the speaker as uninformed or heartless, than they were if they were just reading the commenter's words.” (You can read about the study in the Inc. article “You Should Never, Ever Argue With Anyone on Facebook.) The messages were highly opinionated, so researchers concluded that debating or disagreeing is best done through audio or video, to avoid our perceptions of each other deteriorating.
I’ve witnessed how in general, not even just those working remotely, people have become used to comfortably firing out emails (or text messages or WhatsApp’s in the personal environment) rather than making phone calls. In my parallel career as freelance voiceover, I now rarely get phone calls from clients based in the same city as myself. I often receive emails asking me whether I’m available the next day. This is just a time-saving tactic.
There seems to be less friction when you want to type an email, especially if you’re already working at your computer, than when thinking about picking up the phone, looking up a number, waiting for a dial tone and getting a voicemail message. It also overcomes any fear of interrupting something with a ringing phone which must be responded to. There is also the time-saving technique when needing to reach out to more than one person, where one message is sent as a “Dear All”.
Getting Too Comfortable with Text
When shifting to remote, we need to look out for the kind of behaviours which help us feel comfortable and like we’re saving time, but which can also result in us feeling slightly detached from others. If we’re not careful, difficult conversations (such as those where we try not to show just how frustrated we are, or those that include sharing some sort of bad news with others) will also start happening in the written form, increasing the chances of our relationships breaking down.
Asynchronous Communication Beyond Text
In teams where there are time zone differences which make real-time conversation difficult, it’s worth investing time in figuring out ways of connecting at a richer level. Using audio and video recordings instead of text is one option; using some of the time where we have working hours overlap to gather together online, is an even better one.
Asynchronous communication has the advantage that team members can engage with the conversation at a time that suits them best, and that a digitised record is created. Written communication works best when sharing concrete information and when communicating simple thoughts. Of course, text is also great to communicate complex thoughts, (see blogs, books, articles…) but I’m not sure it’s great for complex conversations.
In their upcoming book, “From Chaos to Successful Distributed Teams”, Mark Kilby and Joanna Rothman mention the need to keep an eye out for those asynchronous conversations, including email, that go on and on and on...
"If the communication bounces three or four more times without resolution, switch to a synchronous channel as soon as possible. We recommend a rich and natural channel, such as video or voice.”
Get Ready for Change
So if you think you are all in danger of damaging your relationships because you rely heavily on text-based communication, address this issue before it becomes a problem.
Come up in your team with an unwritten rule that helps people commit to tackling complex conversations head on, in real-time, across a voice line or video; come up with a way of signalling when people are ok with being interrupted, so that others can tap them on the shoulder and jump onto a real-time conversations with them.
Monitor yourself. Make sure you are signalling the importance of non text-based conversations by initiating them often and, just as importantly, by being completely present and engaged when they take place.
Schedule regular meetings and one-one conversations with team members. Find different ways of gathering together in a rich communication medium, so that you can engage not just with team members’ words but also with their tone of voice, their mannerisms, the non-verbal iterations and when on video, their gestures and facial expressions.
Get comfortable with initiating brief and unscheduled video or audio calls, "Can we all jump in on a quick call to discuss this, it will save us time and headaches!” More and more collaboration platforms make it really easy to jump on a call - it doesn’t require planning, preparation or full make-up!
A Face is Worth A Thousand Words
Finally, don’t forget your profile pics. If you’re using some sort of online platform to communicate (and you should, you really should get away from email for communication in an online team, restrict it when possible to those outside the team) make sure you have your smiling face next to all your text. I’m pretty sure it makes a difference to see day in and day out, the smiling faces of your colleagues. I can’t quote any research here, but if you know of any that supports or contradicts my assumption, do get in touch - a phone call would be great.