Digital Communication in A Distributed World

dom and tom - digital communication
dom and tom - digital communication

Did you know the average company spends $300 per person per month on office space (and if you’re in a major city, you know you’re above average)? Why is it that organizations spend so much on office spaces, conference rooms, and arranging travel for in-person meetings when they could easily be conserving their bottom line? 

The answer is surprisingly simple: communication. Valuable, essential communication. When people are physically together in groups, it’s so much better for them to communicate. Think of the last time you grabbed coffee or lunch with a group of colleagues – didn’t conversation just flow naturally?

Why is in-person communication so important?

Communicating in person is the ideal setting because your senses get the full picture: you hear each other’s voices, you see each other’s facial expressions, and you sense each other’s body language (not counting what’s communicated via smells…)

Both consciously and subconsciously, you get a full sense of the other person and how you will best work together… or that you won’t be working well together at all! What you’ll know is all thanks to activating the full spectrum of communication. 

There’s always a “but…”

But, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Those meeting rooms are now empty… Without being together in person, we are still expected to be collaborative and productive.

For now, we have to go for the “next best thing” in communication, which is virtual meetings and viewing each other’s faces. Hence why so many organizations are asking employees to keep their cameras on during their Zoom and Teams calls. 

We’re presenting the layers of communication as starting with the body and facial expressions, then voice (tone), then, at its furthest, textual. Smell we can leave for another day.

According to Psychology Today, 55% of communication is non-verbal (AKA body language) and another 38% is your tone of voice. So while you may not be able to totally tune into someone’s body language on a video call, you get enough of an idea for the communication to still be pretty effective. What are the implications of being in a meeting without video?

Hearing someone’s voice over the phone is another layer removed from full communication. Yes, you get that 38% of tone, but you’re missing the 55% of body language. So at best, your communication can only be 45% effective over voice. You’re going to have to make assumptions to fill in the blanks. And you know what happens when you assume…

Rolling one more layer of communication back and you get only textual conversations, like emails, Slack/Team messages and meme GIFS! When you communicate this way, there’s barely context at all. So if someone says “Good morning” over iMessage or G-chat, you don’t know whether it’s a “Hiiii good morning, it’s a beautiful day!!!” or “Good morning. I have not had my coffee yet. Let the wrath begin.” 

Text-based communication relies heavily on assumptions, often based on the last interaction you had with that other person. So if they were angry the last time you spoke to them, you’re likely to interpret their text as angry even if that’s not the intention.

When communicating solely via text or email, you have to work so much harder to make sure your communication is perceived in the way you intend. Is your colleague having a bad day? Is your sister feeling under the weather? Is your significant other particularly flirty? It’s up to your best guess.

So what’s the advice here?

The more signals you have, the better your communication is. Every layer of communication adds context, which makes your job easier when trying to get your message across and work with other people. If you can’t be in person, and really don’t want to turn on video, then let’s talk tips.

1. Get to know yourself

In today’s distributed workforce, you’re going to have to make an effort to communicate effectively. That effort starts with getting to know the people you communicate with, and getting to know yourself.

Learning how you like to be talked to is an important first step because you can help facilitate a more fruitful relationship with someone trying to communicate with you.

For example, if you realize you’re not the type of person who likes to deal with a lot of separate emails from your team throughout the week, you can schedule a weekly video call so everyone has the opportunity to catch up and get your undivided attention.

That’s one of the reasons we love the DiSC model of personality types. Once you understand which personality type you are, you can guide others in the best way to work with you.

Likewise, understanding someone else’s personality type helps you find the right tool to communicate with them. Know who you are, know your team, and know what works.

2. Add sense layers when you can

Regardless of what tools you use to execute your communication, one thing should remain the same: each sense layer and magnitude of communication makes your message more clear and direct. Every layer you remove, whether it be body language or facial expression, try to give one back.

Texting someone? Ask if you can call. On a call? Ask if you can turn your camera on. On video? Ask if there’s a way to safely meet in person while maintaining social distance.

3. Make few assumptions when those sense layers are gone

Suddenly, you’ll find yourself more relaxed. The more data that is packed into the interaction, the fewer assumptions you’ll have to make. The fewer assumptions you have to make, the more solid your communication will be and that leads to more productive outcomes.

Digital design and development have been living in this contextual quagmire – it could be an overreliance on text-based programming that’s led to over-articulation of communication.

It could also be that the domain of abstract thinking (concepting new user flows or systems design) leads to low assumptions and high-degree of contextual adaptation.

Or it could be that most work being done is with machines… so communication isn’t as important a deal so long as things work and are done on time.

4. Discuss your right for privacy with your need to communicate clearly

Your living space isn’t necessarily designed for business meetings, right? Mine sure isn’t… Not everyone has a “home office”. While it may be important for your business to have clear communication and ask for “video on” all the time, they don’t necessarily need to see what your bedroom looks like.

A video sense layer at home is like a window into your private life. However, even if you can customize it to block some levels of communication (like not showing the funky shower curtain you bought last year), you should start with a chat with your manager and co-workers – what they expect and need from you to communicate effectively?

If having additional sense layers helps, then see what you can do to balance that edge of privacy with your team’s needs. 

Plan video calls to X times a week, but impromptu meeting requests could have an expectation that they may not have video on … because you’re occupied with a “bio-break”.

It all comes back to communication

Luckily, the digital space has been doing this for years. Your digital neighbors (read: us) can provide guidance for improving communication and staying productive even without in-person meetings. Reach out today in the best way that fits your personality type, but remember, the more elements of communication the better.

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