When you first begin working on a remote team, you’ll no longer be speaking with teammates and clients face-to-face – at least not regularly. Depending on your preferred method of communication, this change might take some getting used to.
Nonverbal cues and body language play a huge role in workplace relationships and business negotiations. You might have heard these numbers before, which are attributed to researcher Albert Mehrabian: 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.
As Psychology Today points out, it’s “inaccurate to claim that a formula is absolute and applies to every situation,” however there’s no denying the power of body language – and tone of voice – in our communications. They provide valuable context for the words being said. Presidential debates have been won or lost depending on a candidate’s nonverbal behavior, and scientists at some of the world’s leading universities continue to study the impact even small and meaningless gestures can have on our perception of a person.
How does this information affect communications on a virtual team?
When you are unable to use, or observe, body language in your day-to-day communications, you are relying 100% on tone of voice and the words being used. In text-based communications like instant messages, email, and text messaging, grammar makes a difference in whether you end up coming across as too casual or too stern. With phone conversations, you are relying primarily on tone. It’s easy to sound rushed, distracted, or unsure over a phone call, and it doesn’t help that you can’t see your recipient’s reactions to help guide you.
Even video chat isn’t a perfect substitute for in-person conversations. For one thing, on video it’s easier to miss subtle facial expressions that would be easy to pick up in the room. For another, in video conferences you are typically only seeing the other participants from the chest up – while you may see some of their hand gestures, you still won’t be getting the full nonverbal picture.
So, what are some ways you can improve your tone of voice in virtual communications, to get your point across effectively, accurately, and without causing confusion or mishaps?
This is our #1 tip for a reason – it’s obvious when you aren’t giving the person on the end of the line your full attention. And in today’s world, it’s easier than ever to multitask. Just think about how many tabs you can have open on your computer browser at one time. Or how you can check Twitter, skim the news, and reply to a text message while you’re talking to someone over the phone – all on the same device. There are a lot of ways multitasking can negatively affect your productivity at work (as productivity expert Julie Morgenstein explains to Forbes contributor Jessica Kleiman, it’s been “scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch between tasks, so you lose time”) – but it can also impact the way your message is received in your virtual communications.
If you are rushing, mindlessly browsing, or busy responding to other messages, your words will not come across as intended and certainly won’t leave a positive impression on the person on the other end. Put simply: A meeting is a meeting. Give it your complete attention or don’t schedule it at all. When you are on a phone call, writing an email message, or participating in a video conference, close all unnecessary tabs or step away from your computer if it’s preventing you from focusing on the conversation at hand. At minimum, if you do get interrupted, say so, excuse yourself and then return when you can give someone your full attention!
Smile when you talk.
Just by smiling you appear more likeable, courteous, and competent, according to a study from Penn State University (FastCompany). Naturally this applies to the way you sound, as well. There’s a reason why salespeople and customer service reps are told to smile while on the phone. With your remote team, you want to create a sense of trust and camaraderie even though you aren’t all in the same location. Smiling during phone conversations can help you develop that trust and create an open and comfortable virtual environment.
Act like the person is in the room.
Many people have a “go-to” phone style – maybe it’s leaning back in their chair when they take calls, pacing the room, doodling, browsing online. You might think these habits help you focus – and it’s possible they do – but what they aren’t doing is helping your tone of voice. To make the best impression and truly connect with the person on the end of the line, try holding the conversation exactly as you would as if he or she was in the room with you. Close your browsers, set your instant messenger to “away,” and give meeting attendees your undivided attention. Think about it as treating the person on the phone with the same respect as you would if they were in the room. You might also want to look the part. Career experts are quick to suggest dressing up for phone interviews as a way to build and convey confidence. Try doing the same for important phone calls or virtual meetings. Creating this new habit will help you build stronger virtual relationships and win over clients and customers.
When in doubt, provide more information and be as direct as possible.
Consider this from Keith Ferazzi for HBR: “We often communicate less information than we think we are, a syndrome psychologists call signal amplification bias. Virtual teams, lacking contextual cues that the other person hasn’t understood what we’re trying to say, often hear only too late that ‘I thought it was obvious that…’ or, ‘I didn’t think I needed to spell that out.’” In virtual communications even more than in the office place, it’s important that you are dotting your t’s and crossing your i’s every single time. If you are worried your message may be misunderstood, ask for confirmation that everyone understands, or, as Ferazzi suggests, send it out again using a different medium.
Also, strive for every communication to be as direct and clear as possible. Our advice: State your intent upfront. Saying “My intent is…” is especially helpful in difficult conversations. For example, if you make it clear your intention is to establish trust, be transparent, and help the partnership be successful, this will set the tone that your intentions are positive and should not be misconstrued as demonstrative. Never assume that a teammate or client knows where you’re coming from or has more information than you.
Keep it professional.
Communication in the workplace has become tricky in general. In our personal lives, we send text messages full of emojis and without punctuation. At work many companies offer an instant messaging platform designed to facilitate quick conversations, which also happen to be a great place to bond with coworkers and share funny gifs. In many cases, millennials are the driving force in changing workplace communications, thanks to their growing up surrounded by digital technology. While certain mediums may lend themselves better to informal communications, as a rule it’s best to maintain a sense of professionalism in all work conversations – especially over email and on the phone. It’s ok to be friendly and relaxed, but you want to avoid accidentally offending or disrespecting the person on the other end of the “line” (literal or figurative).
Don’t be afraid to be positive and express gratitude in written communications.
This goes for those in leadership positions, too. Rather than worry about sounding too formal or official – which can come across as harsh or unpleasant over the phone and in written communications – try to convey a sense of positivity and cheerfulness (see #2 above). You want the person on the receiving end of your communications to feel that you value their time and care about their experience, not that you are in a hurry and have better or more important things to do.
Communication is the key to a successful remote work environment, so it’s worth your while to spend some time thinking about how your messages are being received. Remember: In virtual communications, your challenge is making a connection using your words and words alone. Simply having an awareness that there is indeed a person on the other line should help your tone tremendously.