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Worst Virtual Communication Mistakes (and How to Prevent Them)

May 15, 2020 | By | Reply More

Boy communicating by screaming loudly into a microphone to represent bad communication methods.

Photo courtesy of Jason Rosewell

 

Even before the onset of COVID-19, 70% of the global workforce was working from home at least one day a week. Today, and going forward, it’s safe to say that much of our communication will become virtual–both personally and professionally. So, more than ever, preventing virtual communications mistakes should be at the top of your list.

 

Even the most courteous of us will make virtual communication mistakes from time to time. But with simple preventative measures we can prevent many snafus that affect our relationships with colleagues or clients.

 

 

 

“We need to learn a new set of rules—like learning to communicate in a new language.  The virtual pushes us to invest in multiple different worlds, often simultaneously. These new worlds come with new, vague codes of conduct and create new needs…The digital world forces us to re-wire our unconscious communication habits for conscious success.” -Nick Morgan, Public Words

 

 

 

Top virtual communication mistakes

Below are some of the most common communication blunders made in virtual communication. As more of the workforce becomes–and remains– remote, be aware of these errors and how to prevent them. (And you’ll see, when it comes to such mistakes, I’m not immune!)

 

  1. Talking on the phone in public places or while in transit
  2. Trying to multitask
  3. Conversing on speakerphone
  4. Not being aware of team members’ time zones
  5. Being unaware of, or indifferent to, cultural or religious differences
  6. Not considering others’ communication comfort zones
  7. Being unprepared for phone meetings
  8. Failing to prevent disruptions
  9. Writing chain letters
  10. Impulsively sending texts or emails
  11. Ignoring common sense
  12. Assuming readers know how you feel

 

 

Communication Mistake: Talking in public places or while in transit

Ever tried to have a phone conversation with someone while their voice is drowned out by a passing train, airplane, or siren on their end? How painful on your ears! Or, they’re traveling and their connection fades in and out, giving you only half of each sentence? How annoying.

 

talking on phone in loud area

Courtesy: Daniel Nieto
If you’re in a public place or in transit, avoid making calls until you’ve reached a quiet place.

 

If you’re in a public place or in transit, avoid making calls until you’ve reached a still, quiet place. The person on the other end will appreciate a clear conversation, and you’ll be less distracted.

 

 

Communication Mistake: Trying to multitask

If you’re on the phone with someone and begin to hear clicking from their mouse or keyboard, what does that tell you? It could mean they aren’t interested in talking to you, or you’ve interrupted their work. At best, it suggests you aren’t a priority.

 

And, because they’re multi-tasking, they can’t fully concentrate on either what you’re saying or their task. They ask things like, “I’m sorry, what did you say?” Or you hear them sigh or curse under their breath because they messed up their work because you distracted them.

 

 

If you’re busy when a call comes in, it’s best to stop what you are doing. Or simply ask them to give you five minutes (or half an hour) to finish up. Then you can give them (and your task) your full attention. Problem solved.

 

 

“[People] may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” – Carl W. Buehner

 

 

 

Communication Mistake: Talking on speakerphone

Talking on a speaker phone has the tendency to make people sound like they’re in a tunnel. It may also make the other person feel uncomfortable because the call is less private.

 

Also, similar to Multitasking, using the speaker during a call implies they’re in the middle of something and you don’t want to stop. (I.e. “I’m busy and you’re bugging me!”)

 

Unless you’re driving, use your phone in regular mode. If you do have to use the speaker, be sure to immediately inform the other person. (It took one of my children a while to “get” this. Meanwhile, any time either of us called I’d first have to ask if I was on speaker. Very impolite!)

 

 

Communication Mistake: Being unaware of team members’ time zones

True story: I was fundraising for a non-profit company and needed to confirm the attendees for an event. One particular sponsor was in Greece for the week, yet without thinking I called to confirm his attendance. Upon hearing my reason for calling, he sighed and went briefly silent.  He then brusquely asked me why I was calling at 11:00pm, and hung up.

 

“The fastest way to alienate [people] is to treat one-time zone as being correct for everyone,” writes Ellie Coverdale for Zangi.com. There is no “correct” time zone. So, whether your team are spread across the globe or just across the country, we must consider time differences before picking up the phone.

 

 

Two handy websites for checking the time in another area are TMZNs.com and WorldTimeBuddy. I wish these were available before I called Greece! (Then again, the internet wasn’t around, either.)

 

 

Communication Mistake: Being unaware of, or insensitive to, cultural and/or religious differences

One benefit of virtual communication is that it allows companies to source talent from around the world. This also helps companies answer the pressing need for cultural diversification.

 

However, we must not only be aware of others’ time zones, but we have to remember that everyone does not think, believe, or live the way we do, either.

 

For example, if a coworker is Jewish, we can’t expect them to do anything work related after sundown their time on Friday through sundown their time on Saturday. That entire 24-hour period is the Sabbath, and is may be sacred to them.

 

 

Globes representing global workforce and diversification

Courtesy: João Silas
As a global workforce we must be aware of others’ cultural and religious beliefs.

 

This applies to holidays of other cultures within our own countries. We need to educate ourselves–not expect others to educate us–about various cultures to ensure we are respecting our colleagues’ cultures and beliefs. We would expect the same from them.

 

Communication Mistake: Not considering others’ communication comfort zones

The mere suggestion of doing a video meeting makes me cringe. I hate video chatting. I don’t like Zoom-ing, or anything that uses cameras. In fact, many Gen-Xs and Boomers, particularly female, feel this way.

 

We shouldn’t presume that what’s a comfortable communication method for us works well for someone else.

 

While I prefer using email, I know people who don’t. Maybe they think email takes too long to get things resolved. Or, they fear it showcases a lack of writing skills. Whatever their reason, they prefer communicating on the telephone or through video.

 

Of course, we don’t always have a choice. So when working remotely, prepare to use any virtual communication method necessary. Each has its pros and cons. When working with a client or a colleague, we need to try to accommodate them. (I’m am working hard on my video communication issues.) If you’re a manager, try to consider staff members’ comfort zones, as well as efficiency, when selecting a mode of communication.

 

 

Communication Mistake: Being unprepared for a meeting

Whether your phone or video meeting is one-on-one or a conference call with several people, being unprepared for that meeting can bring things to a dead halt. The could-you-hold-on-a-minute-while-I-grab-this-or-that will send eyes rolling, at best. At worst, it throws off the entire agenda.

 

Prior to every meeting, gather anything necessary in advance and get organized. Check and recheck everything, ensuring your tech is working, that relevant websites and files loaded, and even an extra (working!) pen is in reach.

 

Going into a meeting prepared will help you feel relaxed and able to attend to what others are saying and what needs to be accomplished. It will help others feel focused as well, making the meeting more productive.

 

 

Communication Mistake: Failing to prevent disruptions

Who can ever forget the interview of Professor Robert Kelly with BBC News about North Korea? The video of that interview went viral not just because it was a hilarious TV blooper, but because millions of work from home parents could relate so well. (I certainly felt his pain, which is why it was my own grown kids who gleefully shared it with me!)

 

 

Most of us who empathize with Dr. Kelly won’t ever be on live television. Still, how many of us have tried to complete a business call with children playing in the next room? As parents, we know that even a closed door with a spouse watching the kids is no guarantee of success.

 

If you work from home and have young children, leave nothing to chance. If at all possible, schedule calls for times they are out of the house or are sound asleep. As the video proved: even a spouse watching them in another room is no guarantee you will talk undisturbed!

 

Likewise, your pooch blissfully napping in your office under the warm rays of sun by the window is a risk you can’t ignore. The instant another dog passes by, your quiet conversation is over. Plan ahead by confining pets some distance from where you need to make a call. (Just remember to give them a treat when you’ve finished.)

 

 

Communication Mistake: Sending chain letters

No, no, I don’t mean those old fashioned chain letters that were once so popular. I’m talking about an email that starts with one subject, but gets reused repeatedly even as topics change. Somehow, it just seems easier to hit REPLY, instead of starting a new email with a new subject. Please, don’t do that!

 

For example, you send a customer an email about their account. In that same email, you politely ask about their vacation, or you try to upsell something. Thirty REPLYs later you’re talking about hockey, but the subject line still reads, “Please contact me regarding your account.”

 

This not only becomes confusing, but creates more work for the reader who may want to refer back to something in your email later. They’ll have to scroll through ump-teen irrelevant messages to find that one comment they need.

 

 

Mixed stack of mail representing numerous email topics

Courtesy: Roman Koval
To avoid confusion, every new subject needs its own email.

 

Every new subject needs its own email. If you want to chat about your client’s kids, use another email with a new subject. Yes, this creates more email; but, because they have different subjects your reader can decide when to read them. And you don’t lose your original purpose of contacting him or her, which was to ask about their account.

 

 

Communication Mistake: Responding too quickly to texts or email

I confess: sometimes I think I’m clever when I whip up an email to someone who has made me angry. Unfortunately, that glee I felt after clicking SEND is always very short lived. What does live on, however, is glaring evidence of my poor impulse control, which lasts as long as the reader wants to keep my message.

 

However, you don’t have to be angry to send a message you’ll regret. That’s why waiting until you’re in a clear frame of mind to reply to anyone is the best policy. Do you feel irritated? Wait. Are your feelings hurt? Wait. Are you over tired? Wait. You will thank yourself.

 

 

Communication Mistake: Failing to use good ol’ common sense

Some friends of mine went out one evening, and I couldn’t join them. They group messaged later on to say they missed me, although I didn’t see their message until I woke up the next morning, around 4 am. Touched, I immediately sent off a  group response thanking them.

 

Midway through a sip of my coffee, I froze. Did I just ping their phones at 4am? Yep, I sure did. Being half asleep, I had failed to use common sense. I might have inadvertently awakened three blissfully sleeping ladies. But what about a supervisor of a distributed team, perhaps in several time zones, who receives questions or responses late at night or at the crack of dawn?

 

 


via GIPHY
 

One way to avoid this communication mistake is to use schedulers with your messages and email. If you have a thought at 3am you don’t want to forget, you can write the message and then schedule it to send later.

 

To schedule text messages from an iPhone, this article offers instructions on setting up scheduled texts. For email, there are reminder apps that let you write your messages, save it, and give you a push notification at the time you want to hit send.

 

For Android, check out this article. Or, use a push option, like an iPhone.

 

Higher up the programming evolutionary ladder, Google has a great feature for scheduling email. (I’m sure other email platforms do, too.)  CNet.com wrote clear Gmail scheduling instructions in an article titled, Don’t be a jackass. Schedule Gmail messages to send later—Don’t be that guy who sends emails on a Saturday night.

 

 

Communication Mistake: Assuming readers know how you feel

Are you aware of how others interpret your tone in a text or email?

 

I’m told that I sometimes “sound” curt or abrupt in my correspondences. I have to agree. I tend to say what I have to say, without fluff or niceties.  Regardless of my positive feelings toward the recipient, or even positive intention for the email, I just like to get my point across quickly and clearly. Unfortunately, this means that I fail to consider that people can’t read my mood or feelings that aren’t expressed in the wording in my email.

 

 

“People on the receiving end of written communication tend to interpret it more negatively than intended by the sender. Emotions are expressed and received mostly through nonverbal cues, which are largely missing from text-based communication,” write Professors N. Sharon Hill and Kathryn M. Bartol for MITSloan Management Review. [Emphasis mine]

 

That’s why it’s important to purposefully express goodwill and warmth in virtual communication, especially when it’s written.

 

An exercise I’ve used to help me exude more warmth in my written communication is to imagine I’m calling the person instead of writing them. No matter how important I feel my information is, I would never just jump to the point of my call the second they answer the phone. At the very least, I would ask the person how they were doing. Wouldn’t you?

 

When it comes to business correspondence, too often we connect abruptness with professionalism (particularly for women, who don’t want to come off as “wishy-washy” or “emotional”), and this actually hurts communication. Why? Because communication really all boils down to one thing: people. Soft skills are more than just niceties. They help open hearts and minds, making your reader more receptive to your message because you’re making a personal connection with them.

 

 

Wrapping it up

Virtual communication has come a long way in the past three decades. We no longer can think it of as an optional form of communication; many times it’s our only feasible method of communication.

 

Whether we’re asking a quick question or having a team meeting, keep in mind these tips if you want your virtual communication to be effective and well-received:

 

  • Wait until you are in a quiet place to talk on the phone.
  • Stop other activities when you’re on the phone.
  • Avoid using a speakerphone whenever possible.
  • Know everyone’s time zones before scheduling or making calls.
  • Be aware of team members’ religions or cultures.
  • Be sensitive to others’ comfort zones with different methods of communication.
  • Come prepared for telephone or online meetings.
  • Take measures to prevent interruptions during phone or video calls.
  • Start a new email with each new topic.
  • Double check messages before sending them. And wait until you are in a clear frame of mind.
  • Use schedulers after hours for texts and email to preserve your thoughts without disrupting the recipient.
  • Implement your soft skills even in written communication

 

You don’t have to be a prolific writer or charismatic speaker to be an effective virtual communicator. Being aware of your surroundings, having restraint, being sensitive to others, and using available communication tools will make you a pleasure to talk to on any platform.

 

 

Your turn: What virtual communication lessons have you learned?

 

Let’s talk  more about it. Join me on Facebook or LinkedIn.

 

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Category: Communication, Featured, Productivity, Work Trends

About the Author ()

Pamela La Gioia has been researching and writing about remote work since the early 1990's. She is CEO/Founder of RemoteWork Source, the leading provider of technical and professional remote career opportunities.

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