Making the transition from working in an office to working from home isn’t easy, especially if you’re a collaborative person who spends a good part of their days away from their desk talking things out with colleagues and clients. All of a sudden, the only being you’re likely to chat with in person is a kid, significant other, or pet and chances are none of them are all that interested in discussing your latest media planning brainstorm.
But you’re working, right? And working means interacting with your colleagues. Why should it be any different now? You’re just using other channels, right?
It can sure seem so. Between email, office messaging systems (e.g. Slack), video conferencing apps (e.g. Zoom), collaboration software (e.g. Google Docs), and the phone, how can’t we be communicating? In fact, sometimes when they’re all demanding your attention at the same time it can feel like we’re communicating too much.
But are we? If we take a brief look at what “communication” really means — I promise, you’re not going to get my dissertation– it becomes clear pretty quickly that the answer is a firm…maybe.
“Communication” is generally defined as the exchange of information. People do it when we talk : “Hey, when is that report going to be done?” “In about an hour.” “Cool. Thanks. I feel a lot better.” We also do it through other channels, most likely digital channels of some sort like when we text with each other: Hey grl! U up? I am now Kewl, can I come over? No. And sometimes we communicate with longer exchanges that may take place over several days and may even involve the exchange of documents like through email.
Even in the short exchanges above, there’s a lot going on. Someone is requesting information about someone’s status. Someone is responding with the requested information. The originating party is responding to that information by communicating how the status information they received made them feel\or using the information they have received to request additional information about whether or not they could come over for a late night visit, a query for additional information to which the second party in the second conversation provides a response: no, you may not come over for a late night visit.
But is that description of the exchanges all of the information being communicated? What if the tone of the first vocal conversation was different? While you may have assumed it was a fairly routine, collegial conversation, what if the person initiating the conversation was yelling their request to the second person and invading their personal space when they made the request?
Alternately, what if the first person asked nicely and the second person communicated where they were with the report by yelling back their response? It’d be a much different conversation, one between people in conflict rather than people who are collaborating.
The same goes for the second example. What if the person initiating the conversation was speaking the same words but were saying them while banging on the second person’s front door? Considering the tone of the conversation that comes through just in the words in the text messages, I’d bet that the example would have to add a third person – probably a police officer.
In many ways these two examples illustrate the difference between information and data. Very loosely speaking, data is the raw elements of the communication, such as the sounds made by the people in the first example or the letters making up the words in the second example.
Data, without any additional context, structure, organization, or other means of the parties making sense of it, is meaningless. What would be “communicated” if, for example, both parties in the examples spoke different languages? What if in the first example the two people were strangers sitting next to each other on a train rather than colleagues?
Context and a means of decoding the data are essential for turning data into information. Put the people in the examples into different contexts, change the volume and/or body language, or remove their ability to organize and make sense of the data by having them speak different languages and all of a sudden these short, more or less informative exchanges become completely different things. The communications, in short, communicate very different information.
And that’s where the issue lies when it comes to understanding the differences between communicating in person and communicating online.
So what’s different about online communication? A lot:
- It removes or blunts non-verbal communication. While psychologists haven’t exactly agreed on the exact amount of information that is conveyed by non-verbal communication, they do seem to agree that the answer is somewhere close to “a lot.” Vocal tone and volume, facial expressions, body movements, and even proximity of the speaker can have a huge impact on how we receive what they’re saying. Even communication channels that let us hear and sometimes see the person we’re talking to can’t possibly transmit the same amount of data we’d get if we were standing in front of that person.
- Online communication is, in many cases, asynchronous. In other words, other than voice and video channels, communication online takes place over time with varying degrees of expectation when it comes to receiving a response. This is a problem because when communicating in person we expect to receive a “response” (even non-verbally) right away. When this immediacy is removed, communication and its social effects can suffer, as research on adolescent social media users has shown.
- Mediation can remove (or delay) consequences. Why do people act like such jerks to each other on social media? Because they know that nobody’s going to immediately break their nose for saying something offensive.. This isn’t to say that online communication can’t have consequences but that those consequences aren’t as immediate as they might be in “real life.”
- Shades of meaning that rely on non-verbal communication or a specific context are often lost. This is why we have emojis: even if you’re a great writer it can be hard to convey sarcasm or irony through words alone, especially in the typically quick exchanges we have on messaging systems or social media.
- People are often distracted by competing channels. When someone’s across town or on the other side of the world and you’re Skyping with them it’s tough to tell what kinds of alerts they’re getting. It’s even worse if you’re using a non-audio or non-visual communications medium. Who the heck knows what someone you’re Slacking is doing when you’re in the middle of a conversation? Considering that 75% of people check their smartphones while in the bathroom, it’s probably best not to ask.
- Technology often gets in the way. It’s pretty much a given that the more senses a communications medium employs, the more bandwidth it’ll suck up and the more chances t something will go wrong. While text messages will probably eventually get through no matter what the current state of the apocalypse may be, video conferences — even one on one — are often plagued with glitches that make it hard to hear or see who you’re talking to. And the less you see and hear, the less data (and potentially information) you’ll receive.
So what can you do while you’re stuck at home trying to keep keeping on during the coronavirus crisis and want to make sure your online communications with your colleagues are received the way you intended them to be?
First is understand the differences between in-person and online communication, second is to use that knowledge to change how you communicate based on the channel you decide to pay attention to when communicating in time of the coronavirus (and beyond):
- Use the lowest-bandwidth medium for what you’re trying to accomplish. Less bandwidth means less chances things can go wrong.
- Be aware of the limitations of the media you’re using and adjust your communications and expectations accordingly. If you just need to tell people you’re going to lunch, a quick message on Slack will do.
- Try to avoid using sarcasm or irony (or any other type of communication that works best in person) if you’re communicating with others online. If you find yourself subconsciously winking or smirking when you write something, you should probably re-word it so the person receiving it knows that you really are just joking.
- Ask follow-up questions. If you’re unsure if someone “gets” what you’re saying, ask them…and make sure that they know when you start that stopping to ask for clarification is OK.
- Be as clear as possible and don’t be afraid to “overcommunicate.” Reserve the flowery prose or subtle shades of language for your creative work. When in doubt, say (or write) more.
- Use formatting to break up your message into more readable chunks. “Walls of text” aren’t as readable online. Try to break up your writing into easily-digestible “chunks” for better readability.
- Always provide context. It’s one thing if you’re talking to people you’ve worked with for years. It’s quite another thing if you just met someone. If you’re unsure if the person you’re trying to communicate with knows the context of the conversation or not, make sure you provide the necessary context, even if it has to be in a “Here’s where we got to where we are now” sidebar or separate section.
- Match your required response time to the medium, People respond faster to texts or instant messages than they do to emails. If you need or expect people to ruminate for a while on what you’re sending them, email might be more appropriate.
- Finally, educate yourself about the platform you’re using to communicate with. As many universities make the transition to online learning to deal with the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus epidemic, some faculty are running into big problems with the means they’ve chosen to communicate with their students because they don’t understand the capabilities of the software they’re using. Make sure that you know how the software you’re using works before you find yourself caught flat-footed and unable to communicate anything due to technical glitches.
Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.