April 15, 2020

Written communication gone wrong: The pitfalls of email and instant messaging in the workplace, and how to avoid them

Email and instant message have always been fraught — the risk of overthinking, misinterpretation, and false assumptions is high.

The current climate created by the COVID-19 pandemic — high stress, intense uncertainty, and widespread fear — is a perfect storm for all of those pitfalls of written communication, which we’re using more than ever now that face-to-face conversations are temporarily impossible.

Even the most experienced email wordsmiths and Teams / Slack super-users are likely to find themselves in an unexpected conflict or misunderstanding right now. We’ve identified the top pitfalls, and how to avoid them.

  1. “Hey, what did I do?”

It can feel silly or even childish, but we’ve all experienced it: the creeping sense that a co-worker is angry with us, based on nothing but a single message.

The culprits:

  • A terse message. We’re all busy, and we’re all trying to communicate as clearly and quickly as possible. What gets lost are the “niceties” that soften our messages when we’re conveying them in face-to-face conversation. Under normal circumstances, straight-to-the-point emails and Slacks are the way to go, but these aren’t normal circumstances. Give yourself permission to go a little overboard on “cushioning” your messages.
  • Straightforward feedback. Wait, but isn’t feedback supposed to be straightforward? Otherwise, how is it actionable? While that’s all true, direct constructive feedback over Slack can feel blunt. Save yourself the grief and move more in-depth or critical feedback discussions to a more human medium, like video.
  • An ominous message. The scariest words in any relationship are, “Can we talk?” The same is true of our working relationships — a vague request for a meeting is scary, and never feels like good news. It’s a best practice to reserve more in-depth discussions for video chat vs. written conversation, but do the person you’re messaging a favor and preview the subject when you’re making the ask. Or, at the very least, assure them that it’s not bad news on the way.
  1. “Who’s on first?”

Every now and then, we get our wires crossed, and end up talking past each other. When attempts to clarify a confusing message go off the rails, it can feel like you’re in the middle of an Abbott and Costello routine with no ending.

The culprits:

  • A meaningless “What?” When you get a message you don’t quite understand, “What do you mean?”, or even just “?”, is the easiest response, but it’s not the most useful. Rather than get you the answer you’re looking for, it might trigger a frustrating back-and-forth, where the wrong part is being re-clarified and you still don’t know what the message means. Instead, paraphrase the parts of their message you did understand back at them, and ask for clarity on the single part that was confusing.
  • Mismatched terminology. When you’re working from different vocabularies, getting on the same page can be impossible. Don’t take for granted that a word or phrase means the same thing to all parties involved: set definitions at the start of a conversation when there’s any risk of confusion, and ask others to do the same.
  • Autocorrect. More and more communication channels are using autocorrect and predictive text to anticipate what you’re about to type, or even what you meant to type. Sometimes, artificial intelligence gets it wrong and bungles our message. There’s only one thing to be done: proofread before hitting send. 
  1. “Is this a bad time?”

Written communication is asynchronous, meaning the parties communicating aren’t necessarily engaging at the same time. Because of this, there may be uncertainty and anxiety about response times. During the current period of company-wide telecommuting, there’s even more variability in where people are and what they’re doing at any given time. This all escalates the risk factors for miscommunication.

The culprits:

  • Artificial urgency. We all approach our inboxes differently — some reply as soon as they get a message, and others set time aside to focus on their messages. We tend to assume other people take the same approach we do, but this isn’t the case. It can be stressful for an “inbox zero” person to get a message during off-hours, even if the sender doesn’t expect an immediate response. This can be avoided with shared expectations around response time. There’s no perfect solution, a conversation between managers and direct reports about expectations like, “When is an off-hours message urgent, and when is it not?” and “Is a Slack more urgent than an email?” is a start.
  • Assumption of availability. Similarly, you and your colleagues may have different expectations about what “off hours” even are. In a work-from-home world, the pressure to be “always on” is high if it isn’t checked. One person’s lunch break is another person’s heads-down time, and one person’s start-of-day is another’s time with their children. Use your calendar, the “status” feature on your direct message platform, and email auto-replies to alert your team to when you are and aren’t available.

One final word of advice: cut your teammates some slack when it comes to written communication. We’re all navigating the same uncharted terrain, and assuming good intent goes a long way toward understanding each other.

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