Best Practice

The answer to what’s being lost in remote and WFH communication: more digital empathy.

In the transition from face-to-face communication to the WFH world we find ourselves in, something is lost, and our natural and intuitive reliance on body language, facial expression, and tone of voice to interpret meaning is thwarted.

The easy camaraderie of the workplace is replaced by a flurry of emails, text messages, phone calls, and Zoom meetings. As we interact with our colleagues in this new socially distanced society, there is a need for more intentionality in our communications.

It’s especially important to keep this in mind when using email, texts, and messaging platforms. When our only means of communication is through typed words on a screen, it’s easy for misinterpretations and misunderstandings to occur. 

The challenge for all of us is to represent ourselves as authentically as possible in these unprecedented circumstances, including all of our capacity for empathy and understanding⎯to show up as full human beings even from behind our computer screens.

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For managers and employee communications specialists, the importance of empathy and encouraging genuine dialog cannot be overstated. Here are some suggestions for increasing the effectiveness of your communications in the current remote work environment.

Hear the words you’ve typed

Many people “hear” the words they’re reading, and the impact may be different when perceived in that way. Either read your communication out loud, or in your own head, to see if you sense anything other than what you had intended. In some cases, you may want to read it aloud to a trusted colleague to get another perspective.

Be real

To maintain and build trust with employees and teammates, avoid sending communications that rely on corporate jargon or seem to be passing the buck. In French, the word mot refers to a word as a unit of language, whereas parole means a spoken word. Parole also has the meaning of a promise⎯to give someone your word, or to be true to one’s word. Aim to create missives in the spirit of parole, and not “just words.”

Put yourself in their shoes

Imagine yourself as the recipient of the email or text message you’re sending. How would it feel to receive that communication? Are there assumptions inherent in what you are saying? Is there a subtext? A context that is not fully acknowledged? These are all vital considerations if you value clear and honest communication.

Pay attention to details

Everyone knows that typing in all capitals is akin to shouting. But there are other important considerations to keep in mind to project a caring voice in digital messages.

  • Use people’s names when addressing them. Names are powerful, and when people are addressed by name, they feel “seen,” even if the speaker is across the globe.
  • Emojis are cute and fun, and can add a lighthearted touch to communications, but use them carefully. A misplaced emoji that seems to be laughing at or making light of something that is important to the reader can cause them to feel hurt or disrespected.
  • Make your communications an opening to further conversation, offering to answer questions or engage in follow-up dialog if it is desired.

Use your voice

Sometimes email just doesn’t cut it. Sensitive or difficult conversations may require that you pick up the phone.

Although it’s not the same as face-to-face contact, there is the reassuring sound of a human voice, and all the nuance that can be communicated by tone of voice, real laughter, and the silence of a pause.

Phone calls allow the give and take of a true conversation – questions can be answered and confusions cleared up quickly, without devolving into long email threads ripe for misinterpretation.

Take it face-to-face, but check first

Video calls may truly be the next best thing to being there. But people may not always want video on. They may feel self-conscious about kids running around in the background, a messy house, or the fact that they’re still in their pajamas. In addition, videoconferencing from home may expose socioeconomic differences that are not apparent in the workplace, and that may lead to unconscious bias. If someone prefers not to video chat, be respectful of that choice.

At a time of widespread social disarray, our practice of digital empathy can be a powerful force in sustaining a sense of community and compassion in our workplaces. We need each other now more than ever.

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