“None of us is as smart as all of us.”
As a project manager, I’ve found collaboration and communication to be some of the more complex and delicate aspects of the professional world. Replace critical communication components such as body language and tone with text on a screen, and things get a lot more confusing.
“Am I expected to respond to this email at 11:30 PM?”
“Is this person helpfully over-clarifying or being patronizing?”
“I’ve read this ten times and still don’t understand what’s being asked of me.”
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way. The COVID-19 pandemic forced almost all of us to reevaluate nearly every aspect of how we interact with others, and for some, introduced the idea of living and working entirely remote. Some were lured into a false sense of security by this change early on and believed it would bring a new level of ease into our lives, but instead of relief, many of us found discomfort.
But, discomfort is okay. Discomfort forces us to grow and adapt, improve the way we approach challenges, and change practices we’ve “always done this way.” Disruption of our normal behaviors introduces new processes, habits, and workflows into our lives and reshapes how we collaborate with others. Here are some of the practices I’ve found that streamline virtual collaboration with teams and are also helpful with in-person work.
Define Boundaries & Consider the “Grey Space”
Working remotely grants us the ability to thoughtfully type instead of talk but takes away our ability to process body language and tone and clarify our intentions through speech. You can offset this by defining boundaries at work in task assignments, time, emotions, and processes.
A couple of examples include:
- Blocking off calendar times when you know you won’t be available avoids needlessly shuffling meetings and reduces meeting-scheduler stress
- Taking 10 seconds to define task boundaries for a team member can mean saving them 10 minutes of uncertainty and potentially hours of focusing on an unnecessary aspect of the task (Neither party is usually to blame for this miscommunication. One side may believe their intentions were made as clear as possible, and the other may feel that they wholly understood the request.)
Isolating blame and miscommunication is one of the most impactful ways to avoid friction when collaborating and ensures that the final deliverable results from explicit boundaries and clear intent.
Always Communicate Clearly & Sometimes Communicate Briefly
Humans often have a funny way of associating two things and then never again reevaluating the relationship that exists between them. I believe the words “clear” and “brief” have fallen victim to this practice, and this pair of words is not alone (Notice the title of this post says “simple” and not “easy,” which are entirely different concepts).
Clear communication can be brief, but brief communication is rarely clear.
If you’re lucky enough to have retained employment throughout 2020 and have the option to work remotely, you’ve also been gifted the ability to read and re-read (and if you’re me, re-re-read) the messages you send. Use this gift wisely and with the intention of not leaving your conversations open to interpretation.
Take the extra few seconds to clarify by:
- Writing a few more words
- Spending 30 more seconds on that call
- Putting yourself in the position of the recipient of your message
It could save everyone more time than you might initially think.
One of the practices we have at Go Fish Digital is creating agendas for client calls that are sent before every meeting. I typically share an agenda with the internal team the day before to allow for their input. Once the team has had an opportunity to provide their feedback and feels good about all notable discussion points, I send the agenda to the client the morning of our meeting to allow them time to reach out with anything else they’d like to discuss during the call.
This practice has opened the door for further collaboration with clients, which otherwise wouldn’t have existed. I’ve had many clients express their appreciation for this practice, citing experiences with other meetings which take up far too much time and get little accomplished due to the lack of structure. Spending time on these agendas brings a new level of intention to my work and allows space to focus on what discussion topics are essential. Giving meeting attendees a copy of the agenda beforehand shows them that you value their time enough to consider the time impact of the meeting.
Try it just once, seriously. Even if it’s just a brief outline of what you’d like to cover, you and your teams will end up loving it. Heck, I’ve even started to agenda-ify my days, so I know exactly which projects need my attention and when, which makes preparing for client calls even easier and keeps the most essential items top of mind throughout my days and weeks.
Know Your Limits and Find Empathy
Empathy and emotional intelligence play increasingly more significant parts in what many consider good management, and rightfully so. Being an empathic leader means you understand how your team feels about a project or process and how those feelings affect their behavior and productivity, but doing something with that information is where many get stuck.
Understand that with remote work exists the pressure to be on-call and respond immediately, and no matter your title, everyone has responsibilities outside of work. Becoming a more emotionally aware, empathic manager and caring about how your team feels are all important catalysts for change and should ideally shape the way tasks are handled and projects develop. If your work doesn’t rely on regularly scheduled video calls, I would highly recommend introducing them into your team’s workflow. Not only will it allow you to reintroduce to meetings some of the body language and tone lost through digital communication, but it will also allow you to speak candidly with your team about projects and read between the lines more easily.
Emotional intelligence doesn’t stop with your team, however. As I mentioned, remote work brings the pressure to be on-call and respond immediately. You need to know your limits and create time for your own priorities and responsibilities outside of work or else your work will suffer. Introducing more empathy into your life and management style will in turn allow your team to read between the lines better, collaborate with less friction, and produce more meaningful work for your clients.