The Top 5 Sins of Remote Work Messaging

 Human communication is hard. It’s a highly social skill that needs years and years of practice to become good at. Communicating face-to-face is slightly easier, especially if there is a language barrier because we can use common or universal body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to convey meaning and emotions.

However, all that is thrown out of the window once you have to interact with people online via messages. It gets significantly harder to deliver the meaning behind your words without the help of your body language and it becomes more likely that others will misinterpret your messages.

That is not to say that the medium itself is not suitable for communication. Online messaging just needs a different set of skills and has its own etiquette that sadly I see many people not following.

Here are the most common online communication sins I see people doing.

1. “Hi, [insert name]” (then silence)

A simple hi might get my attention for a second, but a prolonged silence with no follow-ups will just annoy me and make me more likely to ignore you, at least until I get my own work done.

A better alternative is to use the following blueprints for initiating a conversation:

“Hi [insert name]. I ran into some issues today while doing X. Have you run into the same issues before?”

“Hey, are you free for a quick 5–10 minute call? I need help figuring out X”

“Hello [insert name]. Do you have any updates on X task?”

The common theme between those examples is that following the greeting right away you state the purpose of your interaction. You not only greeted me (which is nice), but you respected my time by stating exactly what information you need from me and gave me a chance to think of an appropriate response. Instead of forcing me to reply with a shallow “Hi” and stare at the screen to wait until you type your next message (which better not be “How are you?”!!!).

2. “…”

In written English, the ellipsis is commonly used to convey a tonal pause for dramatic effect, sarcasm, or a display of disbelief or speechlessness (which makes the other party think you are judging them harshly), or flat-out the unwillingness to elaborate more without you becoming annoyed. Remember, we lose the tonality of speech when we communicate online, but that doesn’t mean our minds don’t try to look for it in text. And when you come across as passive-aggressive while messaging, it makes me less likely to talk to you or be responsive to your messages.

Your use of ellipses should be kept to a minimum, which is preferably zero.

3. “!!!”

However, I have dealt with online texters who abuse this syntax, to their detriment. The excessive or frequent use of an exclamation can make it less effective, and more annoying, and sometimes comes across as a rude and angry verbal attack to those you are messaging.

The only valid use of exclamation marks in a professional online working environment is the one that comes with greeting or congratulating a person, or announcing good news. That’s it. Anything else is inappropriate even at a managerial level.

4. One-Worded Responses

For example, if I get asked:

“Can you please take a look at this document and proofread it for me? I would really appreciate it.”

If I just say “yes” or “ok”, a person who’s never dealt with me online or in-person might think I’m a little annoyed at their request even if I do mean it sincerely. Instead, I would rather opt for just a few more words to reassure them:

“Sure thing. I’m just finishing up X task and will take a look at it after. I can give you feedback by X time. Does that work for you?”

See the difference here? I just let the other person know that I am willing to help them, gave them an insight about my availability, and set an expectation about my planned schedule to get their requested task done. On top of that, I asked them if they were ok with that timeline.

If I had just said “yes” and proceeded to do what I described regardless and assumed they’d be OK with it I risk disappointing them or making them feel ignored, or worse, delaying other work in the team that is relying on my feedback.

Never assume. Try to avoid single-worded responses and use yes-or-no questions as an opportunity to share or request more details regarding the topic being discussed.

5. Ghosting

Not responding to colleagues who messaged you within a reasonable amount of time is akin to someone coming up to you in the work office, talking to you face-to-face and you simply ignoring them completely. It’s not only rude, but it can be counterproductive and cause any group effort or output to be damaged beyond repair.

On the other hand, you must be patient with the people you message, especially in a remote-first work environment. Demanding quick instant answers and throwing a tantrum if someone doesn’t respond within a short timeframe is bad and toxic behavior. Do not assume someone is ghosting you even if they are visibly online, because they could be doing many other things that require their full attention, like messaging another colleague, being on a work call, and sharing their screen. They could be in a bathroom or on lunch break. They might be dealing with any kind of situation that’s preventing them from responding to your message.

So if you need an urgent response for something that can’t wait, remote-first companies usually have their employees share their work phone numbers that should be used in these cases. Sometimes even a call from the messaging app you use at work is sufficient to get their attention. It’s a good idea to have your remote team aligned on what the acceptable response times are in your team and have everyone aligned to it without forcing your own standard.

In the end, any company that has a remote-working policy should consider having policies in place or at least encourage teams’ alignment on online communication best practices, because if left to the remote workforce it can lead to work inefficiencies and toxic work environments that could result in the increase in the sense of bitterness and disconnect.

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