Has communicating over distance, especially since so many of us work remotely now, really changed over the past few years? My previous post about the use of emojis at work raised some hackles among readers. Some fell into the camp of “They’re cute and help create an informal, friendly relationship, stop being such a fuddy-duddy.” The other group (and I’m paraphrasing) believes that “emojis are part of the dumbing down of business communication and spells the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.” How we communicate has definitely changed.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s both… and neither.
I was reminded of this as I was speaking to a very bright young woman, who happens to be about half my age, about what work was like a long time ago. It was 1996, the first year I had a big-boy office job. Here are some of the things that have changed on a daily basis in the way we work in the last 23 years:
- Email has become the dominant form of business communication. In fact, between email, Instant Messaging and texting, over 70% of business communication now takes place in writing. That’s never happened in the history of human communication. In the year 1900, nearly half the working population in the “developed world” was functionally illiterate.
- Over 50% of “knowledge workers” work from home at least occasionally, and 90% of project teams have a least one member who works the majority of the time away from the rest of the team. Do the rules of “the office” matter when you’re not there?
- Dress codes have gone from “casual Friday” to business casual most days. How many places do you know still require a necktie/ panty hose/ skirts on women/ sports jackets?
- Sales people and managers seldom wrote their own communication to outside customers. We had “admins” or even “secretaries” (like my mother) whose job was to make sure that the chicken scratch and insane ideas the others wanted to put in writing looked professional. Spelling and grammar mattered. Tone was checked for professionalism.
- The fear of the dangling participle has disappeared. Many editors and writers couldn’t even tell you what I’m referring to. (and if you noticed nothing wrong with that sentence, you graduated high school after 1979.)
So, are these changes in style, tone, and language a natural evolution in human development or a sign that the barbarians are at the gate?
I am a big believer in proper grammar, word usage, and that there’s a “work style” and a “personal style.” To some that makes me an old crank, to others it means I believe that words and manners maketh man. Yes, I judge you by your communication—especially in writing.
Let’s look at an example. When I wrote my first “how to use email,” class, the biggest problem was the length of emails—they were too long and formal. Really, stop laughing. We were still in the age of the formal, written, letter: “To whom it may concern, it has come to our attention that the issue of May 7th has yet to be resolved…”
Now if we asked about the length of emails, we would say that they are often too short, come across as terse, or rude, and don’t contain enough relevant information because they rely on long threads to contain the necessary information.
Many believe that the formal rules of business were snobbish at best, classist, ageist and racist at worst, and there’s some validity there. But isn’t there also room for formality and what some of us still call “professionalism”?
The answer is that some of these questions are dictated by society as a whole. You might not like the fact that you can’t tell the employees from the customers when you walk into a business, but that’s how the business world is changing. Not adjusting runs the risk of appearing out of date and stodgy.
On the other hand, your organization can make decisions about the way you communicate both internally and to the outside world. If you don’t make these decisions intentionally, they will be made for you.
We have a wider age and experience gap in our workplaces than at any time before. Are you and your team talking about the rules of engagement, or just letting everyone do their own thing? Are you helping people adjust to your culture or just expecting them to magically understand how you do things there?
As always, let’s hear what you have to say on the matter.
This course on Writing and Managing Email is a part of our Remote Leadership Certificate Series. You can sign up to earn your certificate (Don’t wait. The limited spaces are filling up fast), or you can register for course individually.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.