The onboarding process for any employees — whether they’re remote or in house — follows the same procedure. Create an email login, sign into chat, set up your voicemail, save the conference dial-in number, and plug in your webcam. (Most companies stop short of assigning carrier pigeons to their employees or handing out guidebooks on Morse code.)
Communication is crucial in the workplace, and its level of effectiveness can make or break a project or an employee’s experience. As the digital office has evolved, communication has also developed its own set of rules. Here’s how modern employees best use their communication tools, and how you should use them in the office.
How Have Our Office Conversations Evolved?
Before we look at the tools we use to communicate, we have to look at what we’re saying. Previously, conversations between managers and teams focused on what needed to get done, but now people primarily discuss how to do things.
“Employee productivity and efforts have been improved, allowing them to place more emphasis on more important things such as precision and creativity,” says Elizabeth Dukes, Partner at iOffice.
“The level of expectation of clients and co-workers has also changed as a result of technology in the workplace, keeping everyone connected on a constant basis. Results are expected much faster than ever before.”
Productivity software like teamfocus has been a major contributor in this transition, and some people are even advocating for it to completely replace email.
Jill Duffy, author of Get Organized, believes email only makes employees stressed and overwhelmed when it comes to project work. “The last few years, productivity enthusiasts have pushed knowledge workers to get off of email, or at least to ditch internal company email. An excellent way shift away from email is to all but ban it from project work and move that communication to a project management service instead.”
However, like the conference call and voicemail, email will continue to be an important part of communication. In fact, many of today’s communication tools will remain in use as long as each of them has an important purpose in the workforce.
“Each of us has personal preferences for communication based on what we feel is easiest — for example, some people have an easier time writing than speaking, and some people prefer meeting in person rather than the impersonality of text,” says Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom.
“But it’s important to see beyond the limits of our own convenience. The selection of a medium can have a drastic impact on both the efficiency of your communication and the interpretation of your message.”
The rest of this article will discuss when each form of technology is appropriate, and how teams can use it to the fullest.
When Should You Meet in Person?
The oldest form of technology is our human bodies, which communicate verbal and nonverbal cues more effectively than any other channel. This is still the preferred method when forming personal bonds and discussing sensitive information.
“A study from Adobe found that Millennials value interpersonal interaction over digital interaction at work,” says Sarah White, writer at CIO. “While 81 percent of Millennials said ‘state of the art technology’ was paramount to an ideal working environment over perks or amenities, 55 percent they valued in-person communication at work over digital.”
However, she says those same respondents tended to overestimate how much everyone else relies on digital communication tools. “46 percent of respondents anticipated their peers to value IM and texts over interpersonal communication, but the real number ended up being just 11 percent.”
Just because young people are known for texting and online communication doesn’t mean society’s preference for human engagement is changing.
But sometimes, unintentionally or otherwise, messages get lost in the digital either.
In an article for Quartz, writer Max Nisen covered the story of Bart Teeuwisse, a remote employee at Twitter who found out he was laid off when he couldn’t access his work accounts.
“When a manager can’t just pull someone into an office or a conference room, sometimes, as in this case, the logistics of layoffs — i.e. closing out company email accounts — get in ahead of informing the affected staff personally. Even the phone is not the option it once was, now that so many of us ignore calls and voicemails.”
With remote work, it’s not always possible to meet in person, but managers should be mindful and make a concentrated effort to get on the phone with affected employees before sensitive news breaks.
Are Phone and Conference Calls Still Effective?
Many people have become frustrated with the conference call. It’s viewed as a time suck and a way to talk about work without actually doing it.
“You have to both be engaged and seem engaged,” says writer Laura McMullen for US News. “You have to fight for just. one. second. to jump in and add your two cents without feeling like Godzilla, stomping on other people’s words.
“You have to somehow catalog every team member’s voice and distinguish one from another. And you have to wrestle with bad connections, sound delays and other technological voodoo that seems to curse every call.”
However, despite the frustrations, many remote employees enjoy regular check-ins, and they use them as opportunities to ask questions and get to know their team members.
“You may think you are 100% approachable as a manager,” writes the team at JustWorks. “But if you don’t actually explain to your remote employees how you can be approached, they’re going to err on the side of not approaching you at all.”
They recommend setting regular calls to give employees a chance to discuss issues and ask questions.
“[Create] a daily or weekly meeting that is always scheduled where the employee has a reason to call in and talk to you. It can be for ten minutes a day, but what you’re giving them is the chance to talk.”
Of course, weekly phone calls are only as effective as your team is at listening. One survey by West Unified Communications Service found 64% of employees do other work while on a conference call. Meanwhile, the rest are using the time for other activities.
“Workers take full advantage of the multitasking opportunities that mobile conferencing provides,” they write. “Respondents claimed to be doing all kinds of other tasks while on a mobile conference call. The multitasking activities included: getting other work done, sending emails, eating, texting, social media, video games, shopping and even going to the restroom.”
In fact, 27% of respondents said they’ve fallen asleep during a conference call.
While phone communication and conference calls are here to stay, voicemail is officially optional. Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor writes that companies like Coca-Cola and JPMorgan Chase have disconnected voicemail entirely because it’s considered outdated and time-consuming.
“We’ve all sat through rambling, five-minute-long messages from people who really should have sent a two-line email. We’ve all screened numbers we didn’t want to answer and then — minutes later — gotten a redundant email or cell phone call. And we’ve all wondered if that automated, robotic voice saying ‘message. received. on. Thursday. June. 4th. at. 2. 53. pm’ could really be any slower.”
How Has Email Communication Evolved with Technology?
While conference calls might drag employees down, there’s a general consensus that important communication should be funnelled through phone calls if two parties can’t meet in person. Most experts believe that email is no place for sensitive discussions.
“Never confront via email — it suggests you’re afraid of confrontation, which suggests you aren’t committed to your message,” says Ross McCam mon, articles editor at GQ magazine. “Plan what you’re going to say, but don’t script it out … like you would if you weren’t addressing a difficult matter. Point out the way you may be contributing to the problem.”
Email should be the last place you turn when trying to communicate with an employee. Even company chat boxes provide more of a back-and-forth conversational feel than an email.
“Don’t send a confrontation email to someone unless you’ve tried to get in touch with him or her every other possible way with no success, or if the problem is so urgent that he or she needs to be told immediately and the only available option is email,” agrees Lily Herman, managing editor at WayUp.
However, if you’re on the fence about sending the email, Herman recommends use the six-sentence rule.
“If you feel like you can’t explain your case in six sentences or fewer, perhaps the subject is too big and hairy for email. After all, you don’t want to minimize a delicate situation.”
Outside of confrontational situations, email is getting ignored because workers think it’s slow. The response time and length required to draft it bog down the process more than chat or a phone call.
“Sending an email isn’t always the fastest way to say something,” says team members glassCanopy. “Sometimes, I spend more time drafting an email than I would in a phone call communicating the same information. That may be partly because I’m a wordsmith by trade; but also because emails that contain a lot of information deserve a higher level of curation.”
This is often because people use email when they want to document something that can be referenced later, or communicate specific instructions.
How Does the Modern Workforce Use Chat?
The frustrations behind long conference calls and tedious email chains have caused a new hero to arise in the world of office communication: chat boxes.
“Chat is far more efficient than long, drawn-out email chains (who likes those, anyway?),” says Hannah Wright at FormAssembly. “Plus, there’s one more bonus: It’s fun.
“One thing to keep in mind is that written text lacks the subtle cues of in-person conversation. With chat, you do need to be careful about how your words might be interpreted and possibly misunderstood. That’s why there’s an abundance of emoticons and gifs in our everyday chats — they’re useful in conveying the right nuances.”
Chat is one of the best ways for remote employees to ask quick questions from across the world and even get to know the people they work with better.
“When working remotely, team members don’t have a chance to make small talk with their neighbor in the next cubicle or discuss weekend plans by the coffeemaker,” says Samantha McDuffee for Teambonding. “It’s that kind of personal chit-chat, however, that helps employees relate to each other.”
The best part is that chat creates an even plane, as in-house employees are using chat even more. This means remote employees aren’t left out of conversations (and in-house teams get to use emojis in their professional instruction).
“Trendy open-plan offices are infamous for their cacophonous din — they were originally designed to get workers across the office to strike up conversations that hopefully lead to innovative collaborations,” says Amanda Hess, writer for The New York Times.
“While bosses are free to convene closed-door meetings, it’s hard for underlings to have a private word unless they physically leave the premises. But now, Slack has given every employee a virtual office door, and boy do we use them.”
If project management software has changed what we talk about, so that more teams are focusing on how things should get done, then it makes sense for chat to rise up as the leading communication tool. It’s the platform for quick questions and team collaboration, both of which are crucial for meeting deadlines and moving work forward.
©rawpixel/123RF Stock Photo, geralt, ©alexeyboldin/123RF Stock Photo