In today’s business world, we often have no choice but to communicate through email — especially if you are working in a virtual team.
But, while we may think we’re being more efficient, relying on just email can have the opposite effect.
Take the example of one of my clients, a large, multi-national bank. While the company had offices all over the world, two teams in particular were experiencing a breakdown in communication that was affecting the bottom line. And these teams were not virtual teams. They were teams that worked in the same building, on two floors, one above the other.
The teams — compliance and sales — communicated exclusively over email. Because they were very busy, people often replied to emails with short, terse answers, intending to save time.
Those replies, however, were often interpreted by the receivers as curt and rude. And so, the receiver, offended, would often wait longer to respond. Sometimes days. This quickly became part of the both teams’ culture. Resentments grew, as did negative perceptions of each team about the other. And the process of business slowed, affecting the client experience and, eventually, the bottom line.
After working with the teams to discover the root of the problem, I encouraged them to make a simple adjustment: Before sending an email, walk upstairs or downstairs and talk to one another. If an in-person conversation isn’t possible, pick up the phone. Make email a last resort.
The results were stunning. After just a month, the teams reported better working relationships with one another. Problems were solved quickly — not after weeks of escalating misunderstandings. The client experience was vastly improved and the bottom line went back to normal.
If these teams, who worked in the same building, suffered the effects of overuse of email, imagine the damage it could do to your virtual team, or, worse, your international virtual team, where differences in language and culture can come into play.
If you’re working in an international, virtual team, these tips can help you avoid the pitfalls of email miscommunication.
It may not be possible to be in the same room with your international, virtual team, but it is likely possible to video conference. Hold these types of meetings as often as possible — especially when your team is first established. Seeing one another “in person” like this helps build the rapport that’s crucial for a team to work smoothly.
Think about the preferred mode of communication of the receiver and not just you, the sender. Are you working with millennials? They tend to prefer the immediacy texting over email.
When you have to email, keep your messages brief, clear and concise. People are more likely to read an entire email if it’s short. Avoid jargon, sarcasm, or unclear language. Clear, unambiguous language leaves less room for misunderstanding. If you’re presenting a lot of information, think about how it’s best received and processed. A bulleted or numbered list is easier to digest than a block of text.
A question like, “You don’t seem to like this idea, do you?” can confuse an Asian reader, because this type of sentence structure does not exist in many Asian languages. Instead, opt for direct and clear: “Do you like this idea?”
“Give me a ballpark figure.” “He’s tied up right now.” “It’s a piece of cake.” These idioms are well-known to Americans, but may not make sense to the international members on your virtual team (how would you know what a “ballpark” is if there’s no baseball in your country?) Business-speak is filled with idioms like these, so while it may be challenging, make it a habit to weed them out of your emails. A similar rule applies to number abbreviations like “10k” or “1M,” which simply don’t translate to other languages. Keep it clear and spell out these abbreviations instead.
If your colleague or client’s home country embraces a relationship-based culture, a direct and to-the-point email may come off as abrasive or rude. Instead, spend a few sentences building rapport before launching into business. A simple greeting followed by one to two sentences that establish your relationship — “It was great to see you last week” or “Congratulations on completing your project” — help make the connection.
Re-read your emails with your audience in mind. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask, is my message clear and simple? Is there anything that can be misinterpreted, misconstrued, or confuse my reader? Have I presented or proposed any times in both my time zone and theirs, clearly labeling each? If the reader is part of a relationship-based culture, have I taken a moment to establish rapport?
Virtual teams are a fact of business life today, and email is here to stay. But if you keep your messages simple and keep your reader in mind, your virtual, email-based team can not only survive, it can thrive.