I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Robert Richardson and Steve Hunt, Chief Expert, Technology & Work at SAP to record an episode of their “Work Matters” podcast. We had an excellent conversation about how managers can improve the engagement and well-being of their teams by changing how they think about digital communications. Here are five takeaways from our conversation that may help managers improve their communications with remote teams.
- Think about digital communications in terms of employee engagement instead of personal productivity. We often approach our inboxes as a “To Do” list and manage them in whatever way is more efficient for us. But as managers, this way of thinking can cause us to put pressure on our teams without realizing it. Choosing to answer emails late at night or over the weekend might make us more productive, but it also sets an example that our reports should respond to those messages outside of work hours. This can make them more stressed and contribute to burnout (see this WSJ article: Sunday Night is the new Monday Morning and Workers are Miserable).Shifting our thinking to “how can I manage my inbox to improve the employee experience of my team?” rather than “how can I get through my inbox as quickly as possible?” can help us avoid this practice, and others that may inadvertently affect our team’s well-being.
- How we use digital communications is shifting. With widespread remote work, more dense, information-heavy conversations and opinion-sharing is happening via text. For example, an in-person team might have sent a chat message to “grab a room” to further discuss a project, but now, in a remote world, they might have that entire conversation via Slack, Microsoft Teams or email. Cultivate data has shown a solid increase in giving recognition, asking for feedback and sharing opinions on digital channels since widespread work from home began. Managers should be aware of this shift and think about the best way to have conversations to keep their team engaged.
- Managers need to share their opinions more often over digital channels. This behavior increases employee engagement, but can run against norms of digital communications and often requires special effort. Our research has shown that when employees share ideas with their manager, if the manager shares their own ideas and opinions in response, the employee will feel valued and want to share more in the future.This is easier to do in person than over digital channels. It feels rude to respond to a lengthy presentation from a team member in person with a curt “Thanks,” but a “thumbs up” emoji feels like an acceptable response to a long Slack message. Part of this also stems from thinking about communication inputs as productivity markers – that “thumbs up” might be an attempt to acknowledge that message as quickly as possible while clearing out unread messages at the end of the day. To combat this, we suggest that managers set a reminder at the end of the day to review messages they received from their team and make sure they responded to them all thoughtfully.
- Don’t be afraid to use emojis! In digital channels, emojis are how we attach emotions to messages, especially as our digital communications include more thoughts and opinions. They serve an important function – we actually include emojis in our analysis at Cultivate to help analyze the sentiment of messages. I urge people to use them, even in a work environment.
- Know that norms around chat messages are different from email. It’s acceptable to not respond to emails right away, but synchronous chat messages like Slack and Microsoft Team put more pressure on the recipient to respond quickly. Chat is also becoming more dense (conversations are sharing more information and opinions) and email is getting less dense. As more important conversations move to chat, this pressure to respond quickly will increase. This can lead to message overload and burnout for recipients. Managers should keep this in mind and think twice before they send chat messages. Have you sent several to this person already today? If it’s late, can this issue wait until tomorrow? Is there a way to communicate this request that puts less pressure on the recipient?
You can listen to the full podcast here and we encourage managers to take a moment to reflect on how their communication style affects their teams. If we start thinking more about engaging our direct reports and less about productivity in our digital communications, we might be able to build new habits that make everyone more productive and happier.
Joseph Freed is the CEO and co-founder. In addition to leading Cultivate, Joe enjoys writing about the future of work, teaching about startups and product management at UC Berkeley Extension, and occasionally running a marathon.