This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
Remember how it felt when someone looked you in the eye, gave you a firm handshake and said with feeling, “Thank you so much”?
In today’s digital workplace, we can do the same thing — what I like to call “value visibly” — by being attentive and aware of other people and clearly communicating “I hear you” and “I understand you” using digital cues and signals.
It’s never been more critical to show the people we work with that we respect and appreciate them.
Considering a perhaps permanent transition to digital communications, an increased amount of remote work, smaller, flatter teams and an accelerated pace of change, it’s never been more critical to show the people we work with that we respect and appreciate them.
In this context, valuing visibly means being more sensitive to people’s time and needs, reading their digital communications with care and attention, and respecting them — all without being in a rush.
Here are four easy ways to show others that you value them, their contributions and their schedules:
1. Read carefully
Instead of listening as others share their ideas, now we often read them in an email or other digital medium.
The problem, according to research done by linguist Naomi Baron, is that we comprehend less when reading on a screen than we do when reading on paper. We devote less time to reading an onscreen passage, multitask more and tend to skim and search instead of reading slowly and carefully.
For example, here’s a recent email exchange I had with a client.
Me: Do you want to speak Wednesday or Thursday?
It left me speechless. And I’m still speechless!
Our need for speed leads to the digital equivalent of talking over each other.
One big reason we read so poorly online is that typically we’re moving at lightning speed. Instead of taking the time to go carefully through messages, we race through them toward an indeterminate finish line.
Our need for speed leads to exchanges like the one above — the digital equivalent of talking over each other.
But are we really as busy as we think we are? According to Baron, we’re just … not.
A lot of our speed is artificial, which ends up costing us in accuracy, clarity and respect. But even if you are too busy to get back to people immediately, there are ways to show you aren’t blowing them off. You can send them a quick note (e.g., Got it!) to let them know you got their text or email and you’re on it; you could also give a ballpark estimate as to when you’ll be able to respond at greater length.
Ultimately, the goal is to show that you’ve really read other people’s messages by addressing their relevant points and answering their questions.
2. Write clearly
Writing well is a critical mark of respect.
If you’re the boss, be mindful of writing down any half-baked ideas, and when you do, be sure to separate them from your true marching orders.
If you’re not the boss, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions up front. A clarifying question is less embarrassing and time-consuming than a poor work product down the line.
Make it a point of pride to send clean, unambiguous communications that will help people take what you write seriously.
A lot of the time, a misinterpreted email is the result of a dropped word or misleading punctuation mark. The solution is simple: Proofread your emails. Make it a point of pride to send clean, unambiguous communications that will help people take what you write seriously.
If you just received a vague or confusing text or email, don’t be afraid to request a phone conversation or, if possible, a video or in-person meeting. If it’s sensitive, requesting a quick call shows you’re being thoughtful.
With so many written platforms at our disposal, we can also get caught up in asking too many questions in email or group chat. Phone, video or live meetings can safeguard us from filling our inboxes with one tiny question after the next and require us to formulate the right questions.
At the beginning of any project, it’s more helpful to ask open-ended questions than nuanced ones. “It helps me see whether the other person understood what I said,” a leader told me once. Requests like, “Tell me what success looks like for you,” or “Help me understand what the best next steps are” shuts down a slew of frenzied email chains, ensuring that everyone on the team is clear about the project goals and their individual roles.
3. Recognize everyone who’s at a meeting — not just the people right in front of you
Whenever I host digital meetings, I usually ask remote attendees to lead parts of the agenda. They feel valued, and everyone can get to know one another’s names, faces and presentation styles. Typically I schedule a discussion based on material that I send one or two days before the meeting.
When holding a meeting or workshop where some members are with you and others are online, remind the people in the room that they are not the only ones participating.
During my live webcasted workshops (where some attendees are in the room with me and others are watching online), I start my Q&A by asking virtual participants to share their questions first, making it a point to remind the people in the room that they are not the only ones participating in the workshop.
4. Make space for introverts
One of my clients, Lisa, a technology executive, once shared with me the challenges she has in meeting the needs of the introverts and extroverts on team calls. “It’s hard enough to manage the differences between introverts and extroverts with regular face time with my team,” she told me. “Now I find my introverts won’t jump in on phone calls or rapid email exchanges because the louder voices still monopolize the conversation.”
She also found that her whole team was less likely to share difficult news with her on team calls because they feared it would sound disrespectful, as though they were throwing others “under the bus.”
She asks every team member to email her directly and answer two questions: “What’s the bad news I don’t want to hear?” and, “What might we have missed in our last discussion?”
To address this, Lisa has created a process following every monthly team call. She asks every team member to email her directly by the end of the week after the call and answer two questions: “What’s the bad news I don’t want to hear?” and, “What might we have missed in our last discussion?”
She does this for a couple of reasons.
First, asking for bad news creates a regular space to speak up about challenges in the business. Second, the introverts on Lisa’s team more time to process ideas, and they are more likely to speak up in an email. By giving them the space to think through the questions, Lisa gets excellent insights she wouldn’t have gotten in the meeting while reducing overall cultural groupthink. Bottom line: Everyone feels more respected.
In the end, the goal of valuing visibly is simple: It’s all about making people feel seen and appreciated. And in our increasingly competitive workplaces — where the pace and the technology make it easy to lose touch with the human connection — this kind of recognition makes a big difference.
Excerpted with permission from the new book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance by Erica Dhawan. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2021 Erica Dhawan. (Go here to watch her TEDxBeaconStreet Talk.)
To learn other ways that you can increase people’s job satisfaction, watch this TED Original video: