What did you say to me? Communicating with others online

Communication is one of the most challenging adjustments of work from home. Online communication is narrow, energy-consuming, and difficult. People are drowning in notification exhaustion and extreme video-call fatigue. And it’s astonishingly difficult to get a sense of people’s emotional or mental state over the internet.

In the physical office, we survived with mediocre communication skills.
In the office, complex ideas could be communicated with the immediate feedback of body language. You could say “I need you to fix this” with your words while saying “I appreciate you” with your tone. Teams could graph ideas on whiteboards and quickly calibrate emotional alignment. A misunderstood message could be smoothed over with kind words in the break room.

The consequences of bad communication are enormous.
Poor communication directly leads to unnecessary meetings, tedious back-and-forths, and wasted work. Something as simple as “tone” can lead to expensive and exhausting conflict.

We need to do better now.
A lot of communication is lost over the internet, everyone needs to grow their communication skills and find new ways to work together. Investing in communication pays off in all other work.

15 tips on improving your communication

  1. Prioritize communication skills. Good communication doesn’t just happen. Communication is a complex and specialized skill set and it takes practice to develop.
  2. Check-in individually with people regularly. In larger teams, you can lose track of someone and not hear from them for a bit. Unless you have a system of scheduled check-ins people can fall off the radar.
  3. Be a generous listener: ask questions and draw information out of people. Spend as much time listening and observing as you do talking. Avoid assuming that you know what someone is doing or why they are doing it. Ask questions instead.
  4. The technical aspects of communication matter. Tiny lags in internet connections bring friction and can eventually lead to big misunderstandings. If your budget allows, invest in a good camera, good mic, and good internet.
  5. Ask individual people how they like to communicate. It’s always better to communicate with people in a forum and style that feels great for them. Some people like long video calls, some people prefer quick Slack conversations.
  6. Experiment and find a communication strategy that works for your team. Work together to find techniques and tools that work for you as a group.
  7. State the obvious. When communicating online you need to be more precise and specific. When working in person you can nudge someone and say “what did you mean?” or give them a puzzled look. Over the internet, you need to be crystal clear about everything.
  8. Inject generosity and kindness into your written communications. People tend to read neutral text as negative. Work to develop a tone of kindness in your writing.
  9. Be mindful of language barriers, time zone issues, and cultural barriers, especially when collaborating internationally. If you are communicating in a second or third language, it may be helpful for teams to work with an accent coach. Communication is a team responsibility, everyone should work together to ensure everyone is heard.
  10. Make space for “water cooler” style communication. Find ways to replace the invisible personal connection that buttresses professional connection.
  11. Actively solicit feedback. It’s easy for tiny misunderstandings to grow and fester online. Intentionally create environments where people feel comfortable giving feedback. If people can give you hard-to-hear feedback in person you’ll often avoid larger conflicts.
  12. Give difficult feedback. It’s not easy, but be real, honest, and sincere. If someone isn’t used to feedback, they might lash back at you, perceiving it as an attack. This is temporary. Give people time to process it while reassuring them that you are on their side.
  13. Use the right tool for the job. Video calls are often the most effective way to communicate, but they are the most invasive for some people. Use video or voice-only calls to communicate sensitive things or to share energy. Use email or messages to communicate things that people might need to reference.
  14. Keep it concise. If messages are long or come in droves, people won’t pay attention to any of them. Editing content down is worth it. Be mindful of the ratio of how much you are writing and how much people are replying.
  15. There isn’t a single right answer. This laser-focus on communication might seem like a nightmare for anyone who already spends anxious hours reworking a simple email. But there is no one correct communication style. If it feels good to you, and it feels good to the people you are communicating with, you are doing it right.

Created by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan from GAIN and funded by Ontario Creates and the CMF, Isolation Nation tackles the tough pandemic-related problems like motivation and communication, as well as continuing challenges like market discoverability and work-life balance.

Download the full free 32 page resource here, or read another excerpt “Isolation: Drinking alone at the water cooler“.