Communication in the Virtual Workplace

Date: June 6, 2016 Posted by: Emma Santa In: Communication

The other day I was pondering a virtual communication variation of the classic tree falling in the woods scenario:

If a virtual leader shares information that no one ever sees or hears, have they really communicated?

The answer from many folks is a quite emphatic “No!” Why then do so many of us throw out information and say that we have communicated, when we haven’t been mindful about the medium of our message or the context of our receivers?

I think that understanding the recipient and the environment is key for developing mindful communication skills so that you can increase your productivity at work and happiness at home. Understanding the obstacles that can prevent someone from receiving your communication, and the context in which that communication might be received can help you tailor your communications so that you receive the response you need. Here are two cases in point from my experience.

The Wrong Medium for the Message

I belong to a wonderful community public speaking club (Toastmasters) where frequently we have to communicate with our members to advise them of their roles for the next weeks meeting. When I started with this club, we used the standard telephone tree – and it worked great! We were engaged, we had great attendance, people felt connected – even if they couldn’t attend that week. Then, slowly and insidiously, email took the place of the personal phone call. It was quick, convenient, and a valid method of communication.

But we lost something when we switched to email – notably, members. I live in a fairly rural part of California where we have lush trees and majestic mountains, and some of our members only have access to dial-up internet services (*shudder*) because of geographic challenges. Soon, we weren’t connecting with these members and they left to pursue other avenues. We also had older members, who have a preference for high-touch communication and not high-tech. Soon, the lack of phone calls to these members led to lack of connection, and we lost those members.

Lesson Learned: If you want to make meaningful connections or need to inspire action – communicate in the medium of the recipient.

The Wrong Context for the Medium

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 I was working as a 911 Dispatcher and I became very interested in the wake of the disaster, how communication failed. Communication was a challenge for many reasons (and if you’re interested in finding out more, I suggest reading KATRINA: THE SOUNDS OF COMMUNICATIONS SILENCE by John Wohlstetter) but what stood out for me was how drastically context can change the recipients ability to receive and process communication. Obviously if the communication medium is no longer available, there is no communication. But equally important, if the recipients attention is diverted to a specific overwhelming need, all other communications will be filtered out.

We get tunnel vision in emergencies. We tune out all of the extraneous information and try to hone in on what we desperately need. If I need to find my family and they are not answering their phones, I won’t be watching TV (where you might be telling us the number to call to find displaced family members.) I might be looking to Twitter to get information, but if the frequent messages don’t cover my need in a timely manner I might miss it if there are too many other tweets that dilute the message.

In marketing we hear the saying “Don’t talk features – talk benefits” and first responders needed to do the same. You could send out a communication that says a shelter is available – but if you don’t identify what is available at that shelter (and how it meets the needs of citizens) citizen perception could be (1) I don’t need the shelter and (2) the government is not addressing my needs. When reality is the shelter is exactly the place where they can get their needs addressed.

Lessons Learned: Communicate in different mediums, you may not know when a recipient is out of contact with that medium. When crafting a message: need first, resource or action second.

Have you ever had a communications experience where medium or context has blocked the communication from occurring? Has the medium or context, changed the intent of your message? What lesson did you learn?

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