The internet is great for a lot of things: an endless supply of streaming TV shows and movies, and memes and gallows humour as a salve for the bleakness of reality. What the digital world isn’t great for, however, is interpersonal communication. Here, the landscape is flat, without the texture of tone or facial expressions (unless you’re on video calls all the time, and even then you often get a blurry, frozen face). You end up leaning hard on word choices (debating “hello” vs “hey”), punctuation (are you starting a fight if you end “okay” with a period?), and carefully curated emojis (why did my colleague react with the eyes emoji?).
These days, with COVID restrictions, people are more online at work than ever before. But many of the communication rules still aren’t clear. How long should your DM be left unanswered before it’s not annoying to send another one? When is it okay to use @channel instead of @here on Slack? Is there a best practice for using certain communication mediums in certain situations — this calls for an email, that can just be a note on our tasks app?
Taken by themselves, each awkward moment isn’t a big deal. But with some people now nearing month three of working from home, little misunderstandings have begun to pile up and reach a boiling point.
“I think when someone on Slack is typing and stops and then starts again, over and over, for up to ten minutes, that can make me really anxious,” says Jessica, 28, who works in communications. “Especially when we’re working in a fast-paced environment and waiting on replies. It's so easy to imagine scenarios of what’s happening on the other end and feel attacked by it. So I try my best to stay calm and patient — but I can't say it's getting any easier even after months.”
So what can you do when you feel anxiety and disconnect in online communication channels? Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer at bob, an HR management platform, has some useful insights.
More low-pressure interactions. You might feel like you have too many video calls pencilled into your schedule these days, but the key here is low pressure. Having so many meetings take up space on your work calendar can add unnecessary stress to a workday. Instead, try to replicate the off-the-cuff interactions you might have if you were back at the office. “Sending a text message to someone or a Slack message to someone — and I subscribe to this regularly — [and saying] ‘Do you have a second? I want to talk through something’ is not generally unwelcome,” says Staples. “The chance to have a live conversation is so much more efficient.”
Are you sure you want to say that? Another difficulty about online communication is just how many ways a message can be interpreted. It’s also a lot easier to be careless and brusque when you’re not making eye contact with the person you’re speaking to. Maybe, after months of quarantine, your coworkers feel less real — their in-the-flesh presence is fading as they become more associated with a name and avatar. “A lot of the responses I get from coworkers via Slack seem more aggressive and anxiety-driven, which causes some conflict and tension that I think wouldn't exist if we were able to talk things out in-person,” says Jessica. “It feels as though my coworkers are more territorial over their work. I think people are more quick now to take credit for what they do right, and play the blame game for something they do wrong. In part, I think this is because it's easier to get away with when it's all remote and not face-to-face.”
“Read, read and reread,” suggests Staples. “I can't advise this enough. I have a very hard and fast rule for myself: if I've written something in haste or under stress or anger, I sit on it for a little while, I read it a few times and I try to read it in a different frame of mind. Step away from your desk and come back to it.”
Ask yourself if you would honestly say what you’ve written, in these exact words, if the same group of people were sitting around a room right now and looking at you. If it helps you rein it in, remind yourself that you probably will see your coworkers in person again. How do you want them to feel when they see your face? Among all the challenges of virtual communication, this is actually one of the benefits — you have the space to take a moment. You can be composed before you compose that email.
Use emojis. If you want to come off more personably to your coworkers, practise using more emojis. It’s 2021 and it’s time for everyone to reflect on their emoji literacy. They’re an excellent way to add tone and can be especially useful in a time of remote work. Whether it’s a new set you downloaded during quarantine or just a few classic hearts, they can not only bring levity but also do some heavy lifting on conveying nuance that’s unwieldy to describe in words. “The use of emojis is totally acceptable,” says Staples. “There's a reason that they're there. It's intended to convey emotion.”
Over-communicate. “It feels like everything I say goes in one ear and out the other,” says Diane, 28, who works as an art director. “I find myself without context for a lot of projects and tasks, which affects the end result.” Over-communicating doesn’t mean constantly messaging your coworkers; it means that you make a special effort to let colleagues know you’ve received their message, or double-checking on something that might seem obvious. A simple thumbs up or “got it, thanks!” can go a long way in easing anxiety about whether the two of you understand each other.
But don’t bombard. We’re sending and receiving more emails and messages in quarantine, and the notification badges can rack up quickly, leaving people overwhelmed. “When I receive a long message that requires me to really invest more than just a glance — I have a tendency to shut it down,” says Staples. “So if I get a really long WhatsApp message, I'll open it up and I realise that I've got to get through this. I might forget to go back to it.”
Think about how you can relay important information concisely, and also about which medium is best. If it’s a longer message with a lot of details, that’s probably better for email, even if it’s a coworker you chat with pretty much all day. Try to consolidate all the relevant info in one place if you can.
Be patient. Being online sometimes leads to an expectation of immediate responses or solutions. But you don’t really know what your coworker has on their plate today or this week. “Consider how urgent the matter really is,” says Staples. “I think the biggest pet peeve that most people have is when someone creates a sense of urgency when one doesn't exist.” Expecting someone to be always available is a surefire way to sow resentment. “If you were asking me about something actually due on Friday, you shouldn't be sending a follow-up message to me any less than a day before deliverables are due,” she adds.
Diane definitely feels a lack of boundaries when coworkers expect her to be always available. “I'm super burned out, and these days work/life separation is really hard to come by,” she says. “I have basically stopped using Instagram so that I don't show as ‘active’ in DMs, and I won't open any DMs after hours or on the weekends. I'm a freelancer and paid hourly, so I can't bill these interactions and I need to protect my mental space.”
“This morning, I was getting texts before my company's official meeting hours,” she continues. “I was in a Zoom workout, getting texts about something that ended up not being important. If someone is going to text my personal line about work, I assume it's an emergency, otherwise it's totally inappropriate.”
Step away. If you’re anxious and finding yourself overanalysing everything your coworkers say to you, or counting the number of seconds it takes for them to start typing a reply, Staples advises that you walk away from your computer until you can approach it from a less emotional perspective. “Don't leave yourself open to so many channels that could catch you by surprise,” she says. “Use the features in Slack or in email to say that you're away from your desk or you're not accessible, you're tied up in a meeting.”
In the end, there’s only so much you can do about how your colleagues communicate virtually, but it might help your own peace of mind if you’re better at reading messages in a more charitable light. “If we're not speaking to people regularly, we can forget that personal connection that we have that makes us read their communications to us in a certain tone,” says Staples.
Jessica also believes that colleagues being more aggressive and territorial is an empathy problem. “A lot of people in my field are sincerely afraid of losing their jobs right now,” she says. “I would have hoped that during this time we could work together to support each other. That's certainly been the case for a lot of my team, but definitely not everyone.” Recognising what individual struggles we might all be having at this time could help iron out some of those tensions.
The discomfort we experience when relying on so much virtual communication is something we’ll probably be returning to with increasing frequency. In many ways, the ability to communicate from long distances is a real privilege. “We've been able to communicate over the past 12 weeks,” says Staples. “It's really enabled us to be productive despite the fact that we're not all together in the same space.” And it means that in this moment, we’re all trying hard to learn how meaningful connection can transcend the physical, even while there are significant growing pains to it.