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Empower Employees To Share Their Communication Preferences

When lockdowns began in March 2020, millions of Americans started working from home almost overnight. Organizations leaned on technology and digital tools to maintain productivity and social connection and to address the mental health needs of employees.

Today, many have been working from home for nearly a year, and our personal lives have largely gone ‘remote’ as well. Zoom meetings are ubiquitous, even for friend and family gatherings; telemedicine is increasingly popular, and many have stayed physically fit thanks to new availability of virtual classes and training programs.

Digital tools have delivered significant value to the working population. This trend shows no signs of stopping. Studies estimate that 36.2 million Americans (1 in 4) will be working remotely by 2025, an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels. However, as a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine put it, this also means that “we will never untether from our devices, using them for labor, connecting, community interactions, outsourcing errands. Now we reach for them to comfort us when we are anxious – even though they are often the primary source of that anxiety.” As useful as digital communication tools are, their pervasiveness in every aspect of life has created the need for an antidote to the sense of alienation and fatigue they can also create – especially at work.

It is obvious that employers need to be especially cognizant of individual preferences and needs when it comes to the work environment and communication habits in an increasingly virtual world.

Interrogate the love-hate relationship with remote work

As explained by a BBC Worklife columnist in May, “for some, working from home is a gift – a remarkable opportunity to focus and be hyper-productive.” For others, working remotely means a minefield of distractions, opportunities for procrastination, or deprivation of social interaction. There is an important dimension of personality that lies at the heart of this “love or hate” relationship that employees may have with remote work: the degree to which they are introverts or extroverts. For example, introverts might thrive working on projects in the quiet space of their home but find virtual group chats and video calls extremely draining. Meanwhile, extroverts might see their performance suffer if there is not enough social interaction (even if virtual). To be sensitive to these personality traits, employers – and managers especially – can ensure balance and understanding by taking the time to assess where their team members lie on the spectrum of introversion and extroversion, and how they feel about their work environment. This will be especially important as the Covid-19 situation improves over time and organizations are able to bring employees back into the office.

Ask about communication preferences

An employee could have varying communication preferences for many reasons, and this is true regardless of the virtual work environment. Differences could be due to, as discussed above, personality traits, or to the years-long preference for one form of communication (email or text) over instant messaging or Zoom. Preferences could also have to do with unconventional working hours; for instance, a working parent may prefer to receive and respond to emails after a child has been put to bed. A cognitively atypical employee might benefit from certain techniques such as avoiding sarcasm or keeping questions short and specific. Picking up on these preferences might be easier in an in-person setting, where one is able to gauge body language and other cues. Therefore, it is important to not assume, for example, that an employee prefers a videocall as a replacement to casual watercooler conversations that used to happen in the office. In a virtual environment, asking employees directly about their communication preferences becomes more necessary. And “Zoom fatigue” is a real phenomenon affecting all parts of the personality spectrum: many workplaces are restoring the old-fashioned conference call in the mix.

Get a little personal

Now more than ever, personal life and emotional reactions to the events of the world are nearly impossible to keep out of work. In a prescient 2011 op-ed, author Anne Kreamer suggests that “if men and women were to express more emotion routinely and easily at work – jokes, warmth, sadness, anger, tears, joy, all of it – then as a people we might not feel so chronically exhausted and overwhelmed.” Of course, not all workplaces are conducive to deeply personal conversations, but creating a habit of sharing small anecdotes with a trusted co-worker or two can strengthen personal bonds – and help close the distance created by our virtual world.

Looking ahead, to maintain a fully productive, mentally healthy and resilient workforce, employers should be thoughtful in how they empower their employees to choose the way they communicate – even if forced to do so digitally.

By Garen Staglin, first published at https://www.forbes.com/sites/onemind/2021/02/23/balance-constant-digital-connectivity-with-understanding-of-individual-communication-preferences/?sh=1c3d38ca64dd February 23, 2021