improve communication skills

Getting Off Your Virtual Island

noman_is_island

Creating the “Human Moment” in Virtual Teams

As the poet, John Donne wrote, “no man is an island… every man is a part of the main.”  If you are part of a virtual team, you likely know the feeling of being an island adrift within your organization.

Virtual teams are everywhere.  Technology makes it possible for us to work together from wherever we are located.  Corporations benefit from hiring specific talent, regardless of geography.

But some things get lost in this “virtual environment.”  Increasingly, we are becoming islands as we enter into the virtual work force; or become part of a virtual team.

One of the usual first casualties of a virtual team is the “human connection” with one another.  We see our teammates’ names in our inboxes, we may hear and see them at our audio and video meetings, but too often, they remain disconnected and somehow “not real” to us.  We don’t really know them, and they don’t really know us. This lack of human connection hinders creativity, innovation, satisfaction, and performance — all the things critical to achieving professional success.

Traditionally,  co-located teams fostered “water cooler moments” (informal communications) through careful design — communal break rooms; couches; hanging out after work; going for lunch; and in those early-meeting moments before things got down to business.

The challenge becomes — how do we transpose that same purposeful design into the virtual workplace? What, exactly, is needed from leadership, to encourage and foster the human connection in virtual teams?  Read on!

Thoughtful Virtual Design that Creates the “Human Moment”

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1.  Encourage Teammates to Communicate Spontaneously

This requires everyone being aware of each other’s availability.  The most successful type of spontaneous conversation are through some form of instant messaging.  Every platform has some kind of team chat function, even though you may have to dig to find it.  Set everyone up.  Encourage people to share their coffee cups, the view from their windows, the weather, their breakfast, etc.. Research indicates that as virtual teams develop patterns of communication, new communicative behavior emerges that often exceeds the value of face to face communications.

2.  It Must be Easy to Use

“Behavioral cost” must be low.  This is just a fancy way of saying “the amount of effort required to initiate and conduct” a conversation must be minimal in order for people to keep doing it.  Let’s just say it needs to be easy or people won’t use it.

3.  Leverage Technology’s Uniqueness

People on virtual teams will initiate conversation regardless of the receiver’s ability to respond.  Unlike face to face, where people use visual cues to know whether to initiate or not, technology makes starting a conversation easier.  Just now, I broadcast a “Happy Thursday” across my virtual team chat.. we will see who responds!

As unlikely as it sounds, document sharing has proven to be helpful in both initiating and maintaining virtual conversations. I think it just gives everyone “permission” to chat about something that is centered on a task, with acceptable digressions into chit chat.

4. Give Permission

The most important factor to creating and maintaining that human connection in our technology-laden world is the express “permission” by leadership for everyone to take the time to engage with one another in non-task related conversation.

Encourage your team, take the reins in initiating essential human moments between yourself and your team, and your team with one another. Watch as your virtual team gels together and establishes behaviors that lead to increased team performance and satisfaction. Be the bridge that connects your islands.

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Question for readers:  Do you feel comfortable engaging in informal conversation with your virtual teammates? Why or why not?

How to Manage in a 24 / 7 World

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Two weeks ago I was invited to join a panel of women speaking on how to manage in a 24 / 7 world.  This is so relevant in today’s frenetic environment. So many of us struggle with balancing under- and over-availability via technology, which overlays already maximized schedules that can include kids, parents, work, household, and trying to have some fun as well.

Because all of us could use some guidance on how to stay focused, to take care of ourselves with competing priorities, and to make technology work for us rather than working for the technology, our panel will offer tips you can use right away for “unplugging” when needed, managing stress related to caregiving in a family or work stress, and more.

The panel was part of The Boston Club’s ongoing knowledge exchange series. Founded in 1976, the Boston Club is one of the largest communities of women executives and professional leaders in the Northeast.  It’s members are women in senior leadership positions, women well on their way, and women at the height of their careers.  Being asked to speak to interested members of this illustrious group was most certainly an honor.

Joining me in the panel was Dawn Whelpley, CPA and Corporate Controller for Wintriss Controls Group, and Star Dargin, a leading professional coach and trainer, of Star Leadership.

Here are the tips that sparked the most interest and discussion among the group:

1.  Make a serious commitment to “your personal time”.

 

  • Too often, we leave those things that recharge us to chance.  We try to squeeze it in after everything else is scheduled.  Which means it rarely happens.
  • Put this time in your weekly calendar, make an appointment with yourself.  When someone asks you if you are available at that time, you can look in your calendar, and simply say that you have a previous commitment at that time.
  • Make this commitment to yourself as important as your commitments to others.

2.  Unapologetically take time for yourself.  You work hard.  You deserve to carve out a little time for yourself.

 

  • You are not obligated to share the details of this relatively small bit of time that you’ve carved out for yourself.
  • Whoever is asking for that time does not need to know what you are doing, only that you are not available for their request.  Just say no.

3.  Set expectations.  You hear this all the time in so many contexts it has almost lost its meaning.  But here’s a fresh perspective:

 

  • Consciously set Expectations: Yours and Theirs
  • There is no right or wrong when it comes to connecting with other people — there is only what works best for each individual.  With so many avenues of connection, you need to ask:

“What is the best way to connect with you?”
“Here’s the best way to connect with me.”
Repeat this conversation frequently.

  • This is a technique that works well within the context of any particular meeting, and afterward as the connection is maintained.  This is especially relevant to cell phone use within a face to face or video meeting.  Is cell phone use okay within that context?  It depends on who is running the meeting.  That individual sets the expectation for personal device usage.

What about you?  What are your best suggestions for maanging in our “always on” world?

5 Tips to Get Your Email Read

email symbol on row of colourful envelopes

“Did you see my email?”

“I have so much email, I haven’t had a chance,” Chris responds.  I groan on the inside.

Email remains the most popular form of business communication.  Research shows that the average business email account receives 81 messages per day, while sending 39.

There are only a handful of reasons people email each other at work, either within or without of their own organization.  As a result, the person getting your email is likely getting a lot of other, similar messages.  But your email is important, and you would prefer your answer sooner rather than later.  So, what can you do to get your message opened, read, and responded to?

1.  Start with a good subject line.

It makes a difference.  A good subject line significantly increases the chances that your message will be read.  Keep your subject line short, descriptive, and convey why your message is important to the recipient (as opposed to why it is important to you).

Consider the difference between:

“information relating to potential things in project”  and “Potential Project Delay”

or

something I’d like to talk to you about soon” and “Can I buy you breakfast tomorrow?

Stop sending emails with subjects lines containing only a form of greeting.  Please.  Unless you are Barack Obama, no one is going to read your message titled, “Hey!

2.  Begin message with the most important information first.

Get to the point and to the part that is most relevant to the recipient.  Every morning begins with scanning the inbox and pausing to read the preview pane of messages that might get opened before being deleted or ignored.

Ensuring that your critical component is in that preview pane will increase the likelihood of your message being communicated.  It will be refreshing for your recipient to not have to read a big long explanation while searching for your point.  Make your point first, and provide whatever background information or explanation you feel is necessary below.

3.  Be brief.  Use bullets.

When providing background information for your main point, strive to make your points in bullet form, rather than long sentences.  If you must use a lot of language, and email is your only true option, then write as briefly as possible and incorporate plenty of breaks so it looks like you are sending less.  White space (breaks between paragraphs) make it easier to read and less intimidating.  If your message is too long, it might get “saved” for that elusive “later”.

For example:

  • Use bullets.

  • Long sentences are too much work for reader.

  • Write brief sentences.

  • Break up text to create white space.

4.  Consider your recipient.

There are, (gasp!), other forms of communication available to you.  You may prefer email, but be aware that everyone doesn’t share your affinity.  Your goal is to get your message heard.  If the recipient is known for not reading and responding to email, then why send an email?  Find out what they prefer, and contact them that way.

5.  Develop your Reputation

Become known as someone who:

  • Is responsive to email messages that you receive.

  • Adds value to the conversation.

  • Is respectful of people’s time and doesn’t send unnecessary or hard-to-read messages.

People respond more quickly to others who respond to them. If you are known for never reading or responding to your email, why should someone take the time to read yours?

 

Dividing the Housework without Dividing the Household

Teleworking and Relationships

I sit on the couch reading an article about men doing more housework than ever before while my boyfriend handwashes dishes in our tiny NYC apartment. He has just served us an elaborate breakfast of omelettes and French pressed coffee, which we ate in silence as I checked email and created my daily to-do list. Part of me –the feminist, liberal-arts-degree part—feels deserving and almost expectant of this behavior. However, another part of me—the Texan, raised-to-be-a-southern-housewife part—feels unsettled by this strange turn of events.

To clarify the situation: I work from home. I am a remote intern for a consulting firm, which means that I sit on the couch in my pajamas translating research into more meaningful terms for my bosses, who then translate it into more meaningful terms to their clients. My partner has been off work for a month, awaiting the start of his new job this coming week. During his time off, we have exhausted our free time (and ourselves) by exploring our new home: the touristy sites, the dive bars, and the overwhelmingly diverse population of NYC.

In order for us to have the time to do these things, though, there has been a severely uneven distribution of labor. He cooks, he cleans, and he runs our errands. All the while, I type away at my laptop, lost in the world of data analysis and theoretical modeling. It’s the most efficient way to do things: we both work, we both play. We both have it all.

The problem I see approaching us, however, is the beginning of his job this week. He will be working long hours with a grueling commute, whereas I will be working long hours primarily from home and the café across the street. I want to reiterate: We will both be working. So my question is, will we both make breakfast? Will we both wash the dishes?

This is where telework is potentially dangerous for relationships. Historically, the distribution of labor in the household has been much clearer: there is housework to do, and bacon to bring home. Each partner chooses a task and both are accomplished. However, as more and more couples are choosing to have a dual-income household, the boundaries between tasks become fuzzier. Add in the complicated phenomenon of being a “telecommuter”, and you have yourself a pretty confusing situation.

As a telecommuter, your home is your office. As a 1950s-style housewife, your office is your home. Do you see how this could lead to confusion surrounding whose job it is to do the housework around here? Typically the housework is done by the partner who spends more time in the house, thus is more available to do these tasks. However, this rule can’t apply for telecommuters—the time we spend in the house is already spoken for.

I’m not sure I have a resolute answer for how work should be divided in a dual-income partnership, especially with the added complication of telecommuting. But I do know that gender roles are changing, and that these issues will come to the forefront as women slowly earn more than 77 cents to the male dollar, and telecommuting becomes more popular for both men and women alike.

In the meantime? My BA in Psychology (as well as a certain amount of trial-and-error experience) qualifies me to advise the following:

  • Discuss your expectations. Splitting things down the middle is probably impractical, but an open conversation should allow you to come to a more equal arrangement. Your partner might not realize how much weight you have been carrying while he/she is at work; simply listing all the chores that need to be done in a given week might give them insight into how they can contribute.

  • State the obvious. Although it seems obvious to you and me, your partner might not understand the terms of your work-from-home situation. Try to patiently spell it out by comparing it to their work experience: although working from home does free you from a long commute, being “on the clock” means the same as what it would in a traditional office. Just like he/she wouldn’t interrupt their busy workday to go grocery shopping, you can’t be expected to drop your work to fold a load of laundry.

  • Be patient. Any change in a relationship dynamic takes time. Although you might not be completely satisfied in the beginning, know that any progress is still progress. As you and your partner transition to a more equal distribution of work, be sure to tell him/her how much you appreciate their efforts.

Questions for readers: How do you divide the housework in your family? How does telecommuting affect the way you accomplish household tasks?

Telecommuters — Get Connected!

It’s not enough to get the job done.  When your workspace is not physically connected to your team, you must make the effort to connect in other ways.

You are already trusted to work on your own, at home, unsupervised.  You must’ve already done something right.

Now that you are working outside of the office, you need to continue to “do things right” in order to be viewed as a valued and trusted member of your team.

But here’s where most companies fail with regards to people working from home — they seldom provide explicit guidelines or expectations.  And then they run on feelings and random observations to form their opinion of your abilities.

This is dangerous to your career as your ability to communicate and to meet unspoken expectations becomes the basis for evaluation.  Read that carefully — this is not an evaluation of your actual abilities.

You can rock your skill set, yet become stagnant in your career if you aren’t great at “being part of the team” that you are physically separated from.

What can you do?  Specifically:

  • Keep a consistent work schedule and communicate that schedule to both the people on your team who need to reach you; and the people most likely to interrupt you while at home (your family, friends, etc.).

– Your team will develop the mindset that you are working, available, and                                 “there” for them.

– Your family and friends will be less likely to make demands on you during                             this time (dog will not likely understand, however, and still drop balls at                               your feet and scratch at the door).

  • When you know of an upcoming interruption to this schedule, let your team know. Working from home implies that your discretion is to be trusted, so if you need to work differently on any given day, a quick heads-up to your team will go a long way to head off any frustration at not being able to reach you.
  • Communicate frequently with your teammates.  Stay Connected.  There are so many ways to talk to each other, there is no excuse to be out of touch.  Participate in phone conferences, video-meetins, company newsgroups, etc..  If these aren’t created yet — Create them!

How do you create mindshare when separated from your team?

Do What You Say. Say What You Mean.

When you work with others primarily through email (or text or IM), instead of eye to eye, saying ‘no’ becomes easier.  Saying ‘yes’ becomes easier, too.  Tapping out excuses on your keyboard is exponentially easier than making the same excuse in person (right?!)

Most people aren’t even aware of the promises they are making and breaking countless times each day.

So, Stop!

Right now.

Make the decision to be more thoughtful in your electronic communications.

Pause before saying no.

Pause before saying yes — don’t commit to something unless you are certain you can follow through.

Do what you say you’re going to do.  Every single time.

Let others know as quickly as you can to renegotiate deadlines when you can’t.

Whether you notice how easily you make and break promises or not, it is guaranteed that others do.  Your reputation is being shaped and refined each time, and reputation is everything to continued success when working from home.

Keep your promises (even the ones you make to yourself).

Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.  The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. — Abraham Lincoln

Does more email mean you are MORE important?

“Were you copied on Steve’s email?”

“Did you see what she wrote?”

“I have over 100 emails just from this morning!”

These are the informal conversations that take place in the central locations — the true power hubs of any organization — where the corporate culture is defined and reinforced.

We’ve worked with many companies for the specific purpose of reducing email volume only to discover that their corporate culture, subliminally, uses email as an indicator of a person’s value.  The more email you have and generate, the more valuable you are viewed within the organization.

We worked with one leader and her team to reduce the overall email volume between her, her team, and external team contacts.  As her team learned exactly what her expectations were regarding email, she was copied on fewer messages.  Without so much email to wade through, she got more work done and responded quicker to her team’s needs.  She contacted her boss and other external contacts to establish similar expectations.  Most people responded positively, and thanked her for her consideration.

Come performance review time, her boss criticized her for not communicating enough with her team and with external contacts, despite the fact that she and her team reached, and often, exceeded, goals.  Somehow, the conversation regarding email expectations had been forgotten and she received a poor performance review.

Ultimately, her review was redone after she shared the positive feedback from her team and from external contacts regarding her communication process.

It takes one team at a time to change a corporate culture.  Given the tools and opportunity, people will choose to create an environment they can thrive in by giving one another permission to change their email habits.

As you go through your work week, consider how you view email.  Is a lot of email a badge of honor, of importance?  Do you view others as more or less important, based partially, on how many times their name pops up in your inbox?  What conversations about email “load” do you hear around the proverbial water cooler and what do these conversations mean to your corporate culture?  Do you really want less email?

The Curse of Knowledge

Here is a great little experiment for you to try on your next lunch break:

Think of a popular song like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday” or your national anthem.  Without revealing the name of your song, try to tap out the rhythm of the song while someone else listens and guesses it.

It’s harder than it would seem because of ….(cue dramatic music and thunder clap)… The Curse of Knowledge.  You cannot tap the rhythm of the song without hearing the song in your mind, and it’s extraordinary difficult to believe that your listener doesn’t inherently share this “insider knowledge”.  Once you have that knowledge you can’t “un-know” it any easier than you can un-ring a bell.

Go ahead.   Give it a try.  See if you can tap “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without hearing it in your mind.  While you’re sitting there, enjoying the full ensemble, tapping merrily away, you’re likely wondering why it’s taking your dimwitted listener so long to figure it out.

But your listener isn’t dimwitted.  He simply doesn’t have the same “insider information” that you do.  From his vantage point, he’s listening to random tapping that might as well have come from pecking chickens.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned her PhD. from Stanford University with this very experiment.  She took it to the next level by requiring the “Tappers” to estimate how often they believed they could get their message across.  They estimated that the Listeners would accurately guess their songs 50% of the time (1 in 2).  The actual success rate was 2.5% (1 in 40).

How does this apply to you?

Are you ever frustrated when your employees, teammates, or managers don’t “get” your ideas (or message)?  Perhaps, you — like the Tappers (like all of us, really)– inherently assume that some parts of your idea are obvious.  Once you “know” something, it is difficult to imagine what it was like to not know it.  You cannot imagine what it is like for the tappers to hear the tapping in isolation, without the benefit of hearing the song in their head.  You are “cursed”.

Practical Steps to Thwart the Curse

  1. Keep it Simple.  Begin with the basics, and add detail as the idea takes hold.
  2. Step out of your head.  Knowing that you hear the full score and your listener doesn’t can help you to create a more concrete message that is more fully understood.
  3. Be patient.  Ask your listener what additional information they need.  By working together, you can both eventually “sing the same song”.

Did you try it?  How did it go?

What is your "Electronic Body Language" saying about You?

For years, office combat was waged in the open: man-to-man, woman-to-woman, woman-to-man. A boss’s crossed arms, raised hand, head nod, or arched back spoke to us in an unwritten language. Body mechanics that immediately relayed whether we were going to praised or buried.

But the rules of engagement are changing. More often, our main contact with peers and colleagues occurs through virtual communication channels — by email, telephone, chat, or text messages. The cause-and-effect of these changes has been a gradual realization among senior management that the footprints left behind in “electronic body language” are significantly deeper and more impressive than originally realized.

At its core, an office that relies on virtual communications poses an overall but false assumption — that we all share the same email standards of etiquette. But still waters run deep, and the currents that flow below today’s email-based communication have an undertow that can test important management assumptions and skills.

Routine “email body language” decisions we make every day — response time, length of e-mail, spelling and grammar, tone (whether perceived or intended), initial greeting, fonts, send time, participation on teleconference meetings — have significant (and often conflicting) effects in the office, especially on productivity.

Traditionally, work relationships developed in a meeting environment. Visual cues helped fill gaps between words and intended meaning. But in the virtual arena, communications often take on added importance, and subliminal messages and inferences about competence as well as clues about style preferences, gender, even nationality, convey differently from person to person. In they end, they often fall prey to significant cross-interpretation.

Understanding and appreciating the office’s attitudes around the use of technology is an important first step to deflect misunderstandings. For some managers, staff members who receive a significant number of emails or are frequently interrupted in meetings are unconsciously seen as important “go-to” colleagues.

In other situations, employees who are constantly available and quick to respond to emails are viewed as highly productive. In these office settings, high performance is inadvertently based on communication habits, not necessarily standard metrics. Yet few companies are explicitly aligning these habits with desired outcomes. A supervisor, for example, who asks to be “cc’d” on all emails potentially conveys conflicting messages to his staff relative to work flow and trust.

When used properly, electronic body language can motivate people to work effectively, instill creativity, and to inspire confidence. The key is adopting policies that are universally understood and which genuinely reflect the company culture. Often this means developing explicit rules of engagement for interactions and communications, understanding the unintended consequences of email or a meeting invite, and making sure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

By identifying what we find acceptable, rude, professional, and effective, good managers can improve team interaction and can manage the diverse standards applied inconsistently across individuals, functions, organizations, geographies, and cultures. Electronic body language will expose the unintended consequences of information overload and pose a visible and real deterrent to organizational fatigue.

Bridging the Political Divide in Your Workplace

There’s a lot of buzz these days about how politically polarized we are in the United States.  What does that mean, exactly?  Author Bob Korn explains:

“Polarization is an effect that drives people so far apart on an issue it is as if they are at opposite poles. The people become emotionally attached to one side of an issue and become almost incapable of seeing any virtues in the opposing position or any faults in their own. It makes responsible thinking about the issue difficult or impossible. It may lead to personal animosity towards people who take the opposing viewpoint. Most of us have issues about which we are at least partially polarized.”

It’s a time-worn adage that there are two things you don’t discuss in polite (American) culture — politics and religion.  Why is that?  Are we all so polarized that we cannot exchange our views in a civilized, respectful manner?  This would appear – by and large – to be true, especially in the workplace.

Political disagreements easily turn into heated arguments, resulting in bruised feelings.  Hard feelings between co-workers is the foundation for awkward, uncomfortable, or even hostile work environments.

Now that the dust from the recent election is settling, look around your workplace and gauge the atmosphere.  Ask yourself:

  • Has the recent election cycle impacted my working relationships?
  • Am I more aware of teammates’ political affiliations and, more importantly, how does that change my perception of them?
  • Finally, and here’s the big one:  how can I move past these prejudices to create a positive working relationship and a positive work environment?

One perspective comes from Republican Mary Matalin, married to Democrat James Carville:

“It has to do with the tone of the conversation and knowing why you’re having it,” she said. “It’s not about what the differences are. It’s how you choose to bridge them that will create a problem or make things work smoothly, knowing how to have a dialogue and which boundaries not to push or cross.”

“Instead of seeing it as conflicting you view it from the mental framework of acceptance, accepting that we have a difference in opinions,” she continues. “In a healthy relationship, a difference in opinion does not define the relationship or erode it. It’s another puzzle piece to fit into the relationship as a whole.”

Creating a positive workplace in which respectful conversation can flourish takes patience and time.  If things are somewhat strained from an overload of political banter within your workplace, take extra care to foster an attitude of acceptance towards co-workers with opinions that differ from your own.  Understand that stronger relationships are the result of working through differences, and through practicing civility and respect.

What do you see as the upside and downside of talking politics at work?  Please share your experiences with us.