With remote work becoming more the norm, in the IT/computing sector as well as elsewhere, onsite communication between employees has now been replaced with relaying information through emails, Slack messages, chats, comment threads, and other forms of digital communication. For remote and hybrid teams, writing has become the principal method of communication, thus making it essential to have the skills necessary to produce clear, concise instructions and messages.
The global pandemic has prompted a significant evolution in our daily lives and brought many remote work practices to the spotlight. Two of the most important ones are “intentional person-to-person interactions” and “trusting remote employees.” There are many excellent resources already available on these two topics, but an often-ignored pillar of remote work needs to be highlighted: written communication skills.
Below are best practices and recommendations for current and aspiring remote tech teams as they shift from speaking to scribing.
1. Enriching your writing
"Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident."
William Zinsser, author of ‘On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction’
(First published 1976, sold over 1.5 million copies)
Generally, the quality of writing could be improved among many in the workforce. Our new cyberculture has proven detrimental to our writing skills as a society. For computing professionals, the gap is often wider as they are primarily hired and evaluated for their technical skills. Their “soft” skills, which includes polished communication, often take a back seat. Unfortunately, most of the current writing among tech-savvy individuals happens online as informal, unedited streams of consciousness riddled with cyberslang, shorthand, and emojis.
Poor writing can cause confusion and major setbacks for any enterprise or organization. Innovative ideas may get lost in unclear chat messages. Employees’ morale may take a dip with emails that are not thoughtful. Unclear or misunderstood direction may lead to a drastic reduction in productivity. An unthoughtful grammatically incorrect exchange of messages may result in crumbling trust between you and your colleagues. The pitfalls are endless, and a “vicious circle” can easily form that becomes hard to correct.
As members of remote tech teams, it's essential to develop writing proficiency for clear, concise, and engaging written communication. This takes time and conscious effort. There are no substitutes shortcuts!
2. Weaving ‘quiet time’ into communications practices
“The ability to concentrate and to use time well is everything.”
Lee Iacocca, the visionary automaker who led both Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation.
IT and computing professionals are known to have a natural impulse to read every incoming Slack message and email and feel the need to respond to them within minutes. This often leads to hurried responses that are not very thoughtful. For teams, including both employees and managers, it is important to foster an environment for quiet time. Research suggests that designated quiet time for employees can be beneficial for productivity.
Scattershot communications practices, as well as unclear expectations, can be the enemy of focused quiet time in the workplace. Managers must therefore take the lead in creating a reliable internal communications framework among employees.
To achieve this, use clear writing to communicate team protocols such as:
- Define a fixed set of tools for communication and establish which tool or medium is best suited for which communication purpose (chat messages, emails, blog posts, proposals, etc.)
- Establish expectations on response time for each form of communication. For example, what is the expected turnaround time for an email? How quickly should chat messages receive responses? What is the deadline for responding to a proposal?
- Set up quick protocols to start meetings and group discussions
3. Endorsing Empathy
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Plato, Ancient Greek philosopher, student of Socrates.
Most people know how to deal with rude or indifferent co-workers in face-to-face settings. And perhaps colleagues are more polite, knowing they can be easily confronted. Working remotely, on the other hand, may empower some to be a little sharper with their words. Don’t be that person and fall into this trap! Remember that words are fleeting; emails and G-chats can last forever. And if you’re on the receiving end of one of these missives, don’t respond in kind.
As a member of the remote workforce, give the other person the benefit of the doubt and encourage your teammates to do the same. One option is to choose to let the interaction go instead of writing a hasty response and needlessly escalating things. A second option is to provide calm and objective feedback on the communication to the colleague, or their manager, at an appropriate time.
Another effective tactic is writing out clarifying questions and giving the other party time to reflect and respond (rather than being put on the spot), such as the following: “When you have a few minutes, could you add some more details?” Or, “I am trying to understand where you are coming from, could you tell me more?” or “Let me think through that and get back with some questions.”
As team members build in empathy within their written communication, they will inspire others within the same group to do the same.
It is essential to recognize and internalize the importance of writing skills in the changing world of remote and hybrid work environments. It is also important to realize that writing skills cannot be developed overnight or in a couple of weeks. It takes months of conscious effort and practice to build the “writing muscle” that produces clear, succinct, and constructive writing. The recommendations and strategies we have outlined here are first steps to embracing communications practices that will make employees and companies more productive.