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Connecting With Remote Colleagues: In Writing

Connecting With Remote Colleagues: In Writing

/ Strategy, Remote Work, Operations
Connecting With Remote Colleagues: In Writing

Email has its flaws, so here’s how to make the best of it.

Remote work isn’t new anymore, but we can still get better at it. We can have more productive virtual meetings. We can build personal connections with colleagues we rarely (or never) see in person. We can be more respectful of each other’s time, so work tasks don’t spill over into personal life. And we can write emails that don’t confuse or waste the reader’s time.

The hard fact is that email is a clunker of a communication channel. It’s terrible at conveying the writer’s tone properly. People receive more email than they can ever read. The youngest employees in the workforce aren’t email natives.

And remote or hybrid work magnifies all of email’s bad traits. Email is poor at helping us build relationships or improve efficiency, both of which are difficult enough when we work remotely.

Badly written email does more harm when we work remotely because we don’t have the opportunity to build the same kinds of relationships we do when we’re onsite together. We don’t know each other’s temperaments as well, so we mistake a dry sense of humor in an email for sarcasm or malice. We can’t read each other’s body language.

And remote work doesn’t allow for as many spur-of-the-moment “Can you talk?” conversations. Which puts more pressure on email, especially when we’re proposing a new approach to a project, for example, or trying to overcome our reader’s objections. These tasks are just easier when you’re face-to-face.

How To Make Email Work

Like many workplaces, contact centers rely heavily on email to communicate internally. But contact center employees - from managers to directors to line supervisors to agents - may rely even more heavily on email than employees in other parts of the company. Agents often work in round-the-clock shifts, so someone’s sending email at every hour of the day.

We need to make email work in contact centers because we send and receive so much of it there!

When you receive a request, give a timeframe for your response.

So, what can we remote and hybrid workers do to combat email’s frailties?

We can follow these tips and write better email.

1. When you make a request, give a due date. Don’t just write, “Can you send me an updated budget for this project?” Instead, let your reader know when you need it.

If you need the budget by Friday, write that. If you’d like to have the budget by the end of the day, say so. It’s not demanding to let people know when you need a thing. Just be polite and upbeat: “Can you send me an updated budget for this project? I’d like to receive it by the end of the day, so I can include your requests when I meet with Caroline tomorrow.”

2. When you receive a request, give a timeframe for your response. Even if the sender didn’t give a due date, you should let them know when you can complete the task. Write, “Working on it, should be done by Tuesday,” or “I’ll submit the draft agenda by the end of the day on June 6.”

3. Mention the attachment and give a few details. Instead of simply writing “The PPT is attached,” describe the attachment a bit. You could mention who created the file, why it’ll be useful to the person you’re emailing, or which sections of the file to focus on.

Remote colleagues need context, so, in this example, you could write, “I’ve attached the PPT Linda created for our quarterly meeting. Take a look at slides 13 and 14, which have the graphics we were discussing yesterday.”

4. Schedule your outgoing emails to avoid triggering unintended evening or weekend work. Respect the hours of the conventional workday. It may suit your schedule and metabolism to write an email at 11 pm but schedule it to be sent at 9 am the next day.

One of the challenges of remote work is the blurring of professional and personal lines. Don’t make things harder for remote colleagues. Just email them during work hours. Related: respect your colleagues’ out-of-office responses. Don’t expect them to reply to your “Just a quick question…” email when they’ve made it clear they’re not available.

5. Always mention when you’re available to talk or meet. Write, “If you want to talk through our options, Wednesday or Friday before noon work best for me.” Yes, your colleagues can look at your calendar to see when you’re available, but they can’t tell from your calendar when you’d prefer to talk. In your emails, let them know what’s convenient for you.

6. Write in a friendly tone that won’t be misinterpreted. Do the extra work. It won’t kill you to write a pleasantry like “How was your weekend?.” To prevent misunderstandings, use words that identify how you’re feeling and how you imagine your reader feels.

...it’s more reliable to use a word that indicates what the email is, so your reader can reasonably predict what they’ll need to do.

Instead of writing, “How are we going to select speakers for the December webinar?” write this instead: “I’m concerned that we won’t have enough time to select speakers for the December webinar.”

To identify your reader’s feelings, write, “You may be confused about why we changed the deadline for this application…” or “I hope you’re encouraged by the number of people who applied for this job…” Never assume the feelings you intended come through. Email is lousy at offering emotional cues; 35 years of academic research has proven this.

7. Write a subject line that makes it clear whether you’re asking the reader to do something. If you’re asking your reader for something, start the subject line with the word “request.” If you’re asking your reader about something, start with “question.” If you’re telling your reader something for the second time, start with “reminder.” If you want your reader to attend something, start with “invitation.”

Yes, screaming subject lines like “ACTION NEEDED” or “RESPONSE NEEDED” can work, but it’s more reliable to use a word that indicates what the email is, so your reader can reasonably predict what they’ll need to do.

When it comes to communicating with colleagues, Slack has picked up…the slack, and email is carrying less of our communication volume. But ask any remote worker whether their inbox is loaded with clear, concise, practical emails. The answer will be “no.”

We can do better, and we must. When we work remotely, we must do on purpose what often happened by accident when we worked onsite. We must get to know each other, include each other, and help each other work efficiently and happily. We can’t write sloppy or oblique emails anymore because they make remote work harder.

Leslie O’Flahavan

Leslie O’Flahavan

E-WRITE's Leslie O'Flahavan helps people write well to customers. She delivers customized training for frontline agents, social media managers, and contact center leaders. She is a problem-solver for all written channels: email, chat, text and social. Leslie is a LinkedIn Learning author of five customer service writing courses. Connect with Leslie on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.

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