After our second date, I very nearly never saw my (now) husband ever again. It was a good date. Great even. But the texts that followed… not so much. The tone of his texts didn’t show me he was interested. My texts gave him the feeling that I was seeing other people. In truth, we were both agonizing over every word that we typed – trying so very hard get across the emotion and energy that we wanted to convey. And then it happened. He picked up the phone and called me. Actual tone of voice and laughter and personality filled in the gaps where words and emojis had not been sufficient. We’re about to celebrate our second wedding anniversary. Thank goodness he made the call.
As most of the world moves to remote working, I’ve been thinking about the channels we use for communicating in the workplace. We’re spoilt – we have so many. And yet, we’re now missing the most important one: face-to-face communication. Yes, we have all kinds of video calling, and I think we’re using them more than ever both for work and keeping in touch with friends and family. But I can tell you as someone who has worked remotely for the past two years, it’s not the same. There are sometimes technical issues. It’s not as effective for reading body language or gestures. Most importantly, you can’t just walk over to someone’s desk and have a conversation – sensing the right moment to do so, reading their energy, engaging in dialogue in the same physical space.
Right now there’s an extra spanner in the works: many of us are working to different schedules in order to juggle childcare and other responsibilities. Skype, Zoom and Google Hangouts are highly efficient when there’s time in your diary, but it can be tricky to mimic that day-to-day, face-to-face workplace communication in real time.
In short, whether through a messenger service, email or text, we are all relying more on written communications right now. That carries a few risks, but also a great opportunity.
Research by UCLA psychology professor emeritus Albert Mehrabian found that 7% of a message was derived from the words, 38% from intonation, and 55% from facial expressions and body language. There’s much that we can do with written communications to create the right intonation. We have word choice, syntax, punctuation, letter case, and sentence length to help us reflect our mood. We have emojis. But when you send that message or email, you lose the control. Because the mood that you write in is not the same as the mood of the person who receives the message. That’s when our imaginations go wild filling in the blanks as to what the sender of the message intended, gaps left by the lack of non-verbal cues.
That’s a tricky situation at the best of times, but let’s be honest – at this moment in history many of us are feeling stressed, anxious, tired, even scared. Just the right cocktail of emotions for you to potentially misread the tone of an email.
So what can we do to write effective communications that help fill the gaps when we’re missing non-verbal cues?
First, recognize that much depends on the relationship you have with the person you are writing to. I have team members who I communicate with almost entirely through emojis and cat gifs, and everything is understood loud and clear. But that’s not the same for everyone.
The grey area usually lies with people who you know, but not particularly well. You don’t need to be overly friendly – that can come across as inauthentic. Conversely, however, you don’t need to be formal. High levels of formality, if that’s not typical of your workplace culture, can be read as cold, and put people on edge. You don’t need to sound formal to be professional.
The best advice I have is to try and match the tone you would use when speaking to people face-to-face. Do that well, and you’ll create an even stronger working relationship – building on efficiency and productivity, but also feelings of camaraderie and togetherness, which are all-important at this time.
And here’s the real opportunity in this situation. When we’re dealing with uncertainty, unusual schedules, and a world turned upside down, how wonderful to be able to write carefully chosen and considered words that can really make an impact on someone.
Beyond deadlines and work requests, I can send a message to a colleague in Europe asking how they’re doing, and know they will read it in the morning and it might make them smile as they begin their day. I can choose just the right words to motivate a team I’m working with across timezones and working schedules. A colleague of mine recently sent an email sharing his feelings after standing outside his home in London and applauding during ‘Clap for the Carers’ in the UK last week. He was deeply moved by it, and in turn I was moved by his email – carefully chosen words, generously shared.
There’s no doubt that with a bit of thinking upfront, written communications can be incredibly powerful and a great tool for reaching people on their own schedules. Of course, I still recommend planning those video calls – we all need as much facetime as we can get right now.
And don’t forget the telephone. Sometimes just calling to follow up on an email or text can truly change everything.
Havas People Director of Creative & Strategy, North America