Virtual Communication Best Practices

In this previous blog post, I wrote about the value of streamlining communication in the workplace. That is, in fact, the purpose Pyrus was initially created to serve. However, centralizing and streamlining communication pathways isn’t enough. Regardless of the tool you use, effective communication in the workplace depends on the skills and habits of the individuals writing messages.

For the past year, many teams have switched to remote work and collaboration. As I noted in this blog post, collaborating has gotten trickier in this setting. That’s why it’s increasingly important for all professionals to tune up their written communication skills. As this article notes, virtual messages are often the way we make a first impression. They’re our chance to represent our professional brand and start building a good reputation. Naturally, you won’t want to mess up an important email introduction. Here are some of the most common mistakes to avoid, the right elements to include in any message, and the best strategies to communicate well consistently.

The Challenges of Virtual Communication

This pre-pandemic article describes the need to steer clear of email when emotionally intelligent communication is required. Unfortunately, in our times, that’s not always possible. That’s why we need to understand exactly what we’re making up for when face-to-face conversations convert into messaging. Most importantly, virtual messages lack the tone and gestures that typically accompany our speech. That means misunderstandings crop up more frequently online. Moreover, it’s easy to identify and resolve a misunderstanding in person. Through a screen, it may not be so clear when you’ve made a misstep.

Compounding the problem is the online disinhibition effect. That’s an academic term for a phenomenon psychologist John Suler first documented this effect in his research. He noted that it’s easier to write and send an emotionally intense message online than to share it out loud. We’ve probably all experienced that at one point or another. When the recipient of the message is invisible, and the effects of our words aren’t immediate, we lose sensitivity. As this educational video from KQED puts it, it’s easier to be “meaner” online.

Finally, research shows that we’re not as good at achieving our goals via virtual communication. In this study, management students tried to negotiate agreements in in-person or email communications. The finding was that students who could build rapport in person were much more frequently successful. Similarly, this study observed that people are less likely to agree to requests sent by email than shared in person. That means, when we’re communicating virtually, the odds are stacked against us.

The Pitfalls We All Fall Into

Don’t be discouraged, though! Virtual communication can go very well if you craft effective messages. The problem? We often don’t. In fact, we tend to repeat the same kinds of mistakes over and over. These missteps hold us back, especially in times when virtual communication is all we’re using to converse with colleagues. The first step to changing our ways is to recognize the pitfalls that trip us up.

This Forbes article identifies two categories of poorly written messages. The first involves messages that are crafted so poorly, they get overlooked. That happens when the subject line isn’t clear, when your greeting isn’t personal, or when you get too wordy. This article from HBR agrees that long messages, or ones sent to too many people at once, often get ignored. However, getting your message read is only half the battle.

Once the recipient of your message starts reading, there’s another type of common mistake that holds communication back: unprofessional writing. This category includes a whole bunch of different slip-ups. What ties them all together is that they create a poor impression of the message sender. If you send a message with poor grammar or a passive aggressive tone, you may be limiting the opportunities others will trust you with in the future. You wouldn’t want that! So take some steps to write professional messages. As this article advises, don’t send nasty or sarcastic messages. Although this article acknowledges that stress has been running high during the pandemic, you can’t let that affect your professional communication. Checking your tone will go a long way towards helping your messages land with the right impact.

What Every Virtual Message Needs

Now that you know what to cut, you’re probably wondering what still belongs in virtual communication. As it turns out, there are several key ingredients in an effective message. This guide provides advice on both formulation and content. Let’s look at these separately.

In terms of message structure, take advantage of the subject line right away. That’s your only opportunity to get the recipient’s attention in their inbox. Then, in the body of the message, write a personalized greeting. Stay solution-oriented, mentioning specific action items and timelines. Also, be sure to draw attention in your text to any attachments you’re including. Finally, close out with a professional signature. This should include your name, title, and contact information.

Now, how do you write your message within that structure? Most importantly, be clear. Make your point as soon as possible. Additionally, you should aim for brevity. A few paragraphs is the absolute maximum for any online message, whether it’s in Pyrus or email. Throughout, aim for a neutral tone. That means writing in ALL CAPS or a sarcastic tone is off the table. Attempts at humor, as well as intense emotions, can be easily misinterpreted online. Lastly, make sure you proofread! A great virtual message should be free from grammatical and spelling errors. If you can check all these boxes off when you’re writing your message, you know you’re well on the way to building your professional reputation.

Best Practices for Virtual Communication

Of course, making sure that every message has all those ingredients is easier said than done. That’s why you need some good strategies to follow when you’re communicating online. Some members of the Forbes Coaches Council assembled a good list to get you started here. Their suggestions include thanking your message recipients for their time and encouraging them to ask any clarifying questions they have. These practices will help your messages land well every time. In addition, these professionals suggest practicing your writing skills by making posts on LinkedIn or a company blog frequently. That way, you can get better at communicating clearly and succinctly, which will help you write important virtual messages.

This article also encourages you to avoid sending messages in the heat of strong emotions. Always review your messages before you send them, but if you’re feeling particularly strongly about something, it may be wise to even step back altogether without sending. You can revisit any message at a later time, revise the wording to ensure it’s appropriate, and then send. In a similar vein, this editor suggests having someone else read over any important message before you send it. If you’re working from home and have family around, they’re a great resource for this!

Finally, as this article suggests, know when virtual communication needs to move into real time. If you see that the messages in a certain thread are leading to miscommunication and inefficiency, schedule a phone call or meeting. After all, virtual messages won’t be the answer to every problem. When you do have to rely on them, though, know that all the advice in this post will help you write your best. Then you’ll be doing what Pyrus does: moving work forward.