While parts of the U.S. economy are reopening after months of shutdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic, many office workers are entering their fourth month of working from home. Major companies, including Twitter and Facebook, have made game-changing announcements to allow employees to work from home permanently. And recent surveys indicate as many as 68% of those currently working from home would like to continue doing so to some extent in the future.
That said, the stress that comes with working remotely during a global pandemic — along with the added trauma of seeing acts of racism and police violence covered in the news in recent weeks — can make communicating across a team difficult. Previous research has shown how stress and anxiety can make you less self-aware of your own demeanor, which can show up as ineffective communication and potentially rude behavior. Add in the limitations of staying in touch via emails, Slack messages and glitchy video calls rather than being face to face, and effective communication in the virtual workplace can become a serious issue.
Whether you're still smoothing out your new work dynamic or are preparing to work remotely for the long haul, here are some communication etiquette reminders to make the transition as smooth and productive as possible.
Steele Flippin says the first step to better communication is being self-aware of how you're dealing with stress personally and professionally. Recognize, "I may not be showing up as my best self. And because I'm not showing up as my best self, I need to take extra care with my communications and how I'm connecting with people," she explains.
Extend that empathy to others you work with. If you learn someone you work with regularly has experienced a personal loss or tragedy, Steele Flippin says it's a nice gesture to reach out to express your condolences, but keep it separate from an email that contains a business request.
"Even before Covid-19 that was good practice," she says. "Just be courteous, empathetic and understanding that someone who's just had a tragedy may need time to process it."
Heidi Brooks, an organizational behavior professor at the Yale School of Management, says not to overstep or demand care-taking from the person experiencing loss. For example, sending them an email and saying, "I'm so worried about you and your family; please let me know how things are" places the burden on them to respond and make you feel better.
Instead, you can offer yourself up as a resource if they need to talk.
If you must reach out to them separately about an urgent business request, Steele Flippin recommends you acknowledge up front that it's not a great time and apologize for the intrusion. Give them the option to contribute ("you don't want to assume they don't want to know [what's happening at work], because everyone handles grief and pain differently," she says), but also give them a reasonable time when you hope to hear back from them. You can let them know if they aren't able to get in touch, you'll complete the task another way.
Communicating via Slack and other instant messaging platforms can be a blessing and a curse. For one, you and your teammates can share information more quickly. On the other hand, it can also encourage an "always on" culture where you're expected to be available at all times.
To make it so dragged-out messages don't keep you from your work, Daniel Post Senning, etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute, suggests you follow a beginning, middle and end formula, similar to the way you'd compose an email, even if you're messaging more informally.
That means including a casual salutation followed by a specific request or message. Sending a lone "hey" without any context could send the recipient's anxiety soaring, and it also doesn't allow them to gauge what kind of conversation they're entering when they respond.
Similarly, to close the communication loop and not leave anyone hanging, a quick "thanks" or "I'll get back to you by X" can move the conversation along and give it a natural close.
If you get an instant message or email that will take you longer to type out, know when it's time to move to a phone or video call to hash things out more thoroughly.
Zoom fatigue in the virtual office is real, and while the novelty of constant virtual happy hours and trivia sessions has likely worn off, regular check-ins with a core group of people can be a good place to maintain casual conversations.
Beyond social niceties and showing you care, these interactions can improve the psychological safety you feel with your teammates, Brooks says. A solid coworker rapport means you're more likely to trust each other and be honest about how to work together effectively. You'll have a better understanding of each other's communication and work styles, and you'll also create a more comfortable space where you can talk about what's not working well, too.
When you care about and respect your coworkers at a deeper level, "it's easier to talk about errors so you don't have to tolerate inconveniences for the sake of social etiquette," Brooks says.
Of course, communication mishaps are going to happen. For repeat issues, resist the urge to bring up the problem right as it's happening, Post Senning says. Doing so in the heat of the moment could lead to an argument rather than a compromise.
Instead, reflect on the core issue and how it impacts your or the team's ability to work effectively, rather than making it sound as though it's a personal grievance. If you're worried about starting an uncomfortable conversation, Post Senning suggests you think about the worst-case scenario (such as if the other person gets defensive) and think about how you'll respond. If the situation calls for it, are you ready to elevate the issue to a manager or HR? Also think about the best-case scenario if the other person agrees to hear you out, and what a resolution will look like.
Let the other person know in advance you'd like to talk about something that could be a little awkward and ask when they'll be available to talk about it in private. They'll be more likely to hear you out if you allow them to come to the discussion prepared, rather than blindsiding them with something they didn't even know was a problem.
Remember that they'll bring their own point of view to the conversation, and they could have their own reasoning for communicating with you in a certain way. Approach the discussion with the goal of finding a joint resolution.
"The cost of admission to raising a problem is being part of the solution or talking about what that solution could look like," Post Senning says. He adds that you can only control what you contribute to the dialogue, so think about how you'll engage professionally if the other person gets argumentative.
A common argument against remote work is that it's harder for managers to keep track of what workers are doing. In the virtual working world, some managers may overcompensate with excessive emails, messages and meetings.
If the micromanaging becomes problematic, Brooks says to let your manager know ahead of time that you'd like to talk specifically about communication frequency and style, framed in a way that suggests you need a different set-up in order to be productive.
Be direct but brief so your boss can come to the table prepared, Brooks says. A simple message saying "Hey, the next time we check in, can we talk about meeting efficiency?" will do.
Again, be prepared with a few different solutions you're comfortable with that you can present to your boss, and frame your pitch as how the change will benefit the both of you.
For example, Brooks says, if a daily stand-up is proving to be too much, you can tell your boss: "I want to make sure I have enough updates to give you when we meet, because I don't want to waste your time. In order for me to do that, I think it's best we touch base weekly rather than every day."
As easy as it is to see the flaws of others, Post Senning says etiquette tips are really most useful in guiding your own behavior.
For example, if you're feeling others are sending emails that come across as coarse or rude, use it as a reminder to be more empathetic to others when you're the one behind the keyboard.
"It's hard to address someone else's behavior," Post Senning says. "Etiquette is more of a useful tool for self-reflection and improvement rather than fixing other people."