“We use email a lot. It’s easy and gets the job done.”
“We use IM and chat through tools like Slack and Skype for Business. We rarely talk to each other.”
“We know we should use webcams, but a lot of our people don’t like them. We just email instead.”
Do these sound familiar? That’s because these are some of the most common responses when we ask our clients about how well they use technology to keep their teams in touch with each other. (You can take our free Team Tech Assessment to see how your own team is doing.) What we’ve learned after several years is that most people use the fastest, lowest-tech solution to communicate a message and get on to the next task.
The quickest response isn’t always the best response.
The messages we send are most often a mixture of data (raw information) and context. For example, say I send you an email asking “have you closed the Jackson deal yet?” That’s a closed question, with a binary answer: either yes or no. You can send me an email or a Slack message that says you have or haven’t. I might have the data I require (it can go under closed business or not) but it leaves out a lot of other information:
- If not yet, will it close soon?
- Is it dead in the water?
- Are you still positive it will happen?
- Are you in the depths of despair?
- Do you need help or encouragement to push the deal over the line?
We know this is true from our own past experience. If we are face-to-face and you ask me how a certain project or sale is going, you’ll not only get the basic data (how soon it will close, how much we’ll make) but additional context. The look in my eyes will tell me you are excited about the possibility and proud of the work you’ve done. Or the tone of my voice says there’s more going on than the data would tell us. Maybe the customer is being difficult, or I’m getting frustrated, or I have the sense this will be the last order we get from that customer.
What does that mean?
The challenge is to understand not just what the data says (which is a single piece of information) but what it means going forward. When we are talking in real time and in proximity to each other, we get a lot of additional information that context and places the data point in the bigger picture. In The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership we call that “richness.”
Lower-tech, primarily text-based tools are great for providing data across time and distance. We call that “scope.” But they lack some of the non-verbal and contextual clues that help us identify barriers to success, tell us that we should encourage the other person, check for deeper meaning and connect with the other person on a human, emotional basis. Is that data point good news or bad news? Is it an encouraging sign or an omen of worse news ahead?
Keep in mind that it’s not impossible to convey that information in an email. It’s just that when we are in the same room as the other person, we get all that additional information and clues to deeper meaning involuntarily. We hear their voice, we see their face, we can read their body language, and it compels us to dig deeper. When we get a one-line email saying everything is fine, we tend to read it, accept it at face value, and move on to the next fire demanding our attention. We got the data we asked for, but may not get all the information we need.
Are you getting all the information you need?
As a Long-Distance Leader, are you taking the time to choose the right communication method for the information you require? Is your team aware of the need for both richness and scope, and are they comfortable using the full range of tools that allow them to opt for the right tool for the job, not just the fastest or most convenient?
Good data is important. Good information is often more helpful and harder to come by.
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.</em