Working remotely with co-workers and clients all around the world — it’s a dream! All I need is my laptop and my iPhone and my — wait, is the internet out again? And why am I still waiting for everyone else to dial into this conference call? Let me check my email ... and Slack, and Basecamp, and actually maybe it’s in their Asana ... to see if we rescheduled. Oh, never mind, they sent me a text.
Like I was saying, working asynchronously with a distributed team is an absolute dream! But as amazing as it is to work with a team all over the world, sometimes it seems like it should be much easier than it actually is. This week on Margins, we’re exploring why digital communication can be so frustrating. I think it will be helpful for you, whether your team sits in the same room (I see you, sending your co-worker a Slack message when you can literally see her face ten feet away) or around the world.
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Unleash Your Inner Production Designer
Nick Morgan’s recent book is “Can You Hear Me?: How To Connect With People In A Virtual World.”
As you can imagine, Nick has spent quite a bit of time thinking about how we communicate in the digital space — and he says there’s actually a reason it feels like communication takes so much effort, even in a videoconference. It turns out we can blame it on evolution. “There’s really a sixth sense called proprioception, which is our unconscious mind's keeping track of where everybody is in space around us,” Morgan says. “We want to know where the other people are in case they’re safety threats.”
In a videoconference, however, our brain struggles with the fact that it’s processing a three-dimensional space that has been rendered into two dimensions. To help others communicate with you better, Nick recommends creating spatial cues in your space. “Put a poster on the wall behind you,” he says. “Or put a plant on the desk.” It may sound strange, but there’s a certain profession that plays these tricks on us all of the time:
“Movie directors and stage set designers have been doing this for years.”
Be Ready to Act to Prevent Miscommunication
Felix Wetzel is chief marketing officer of the automated recruiting platform Pocket Recruiter. Although he works in England, he’s a native German, so oftentimes he’s navigating international boundaries and language differences.
When working with multiple languages, Felix advises doing your homework. No matter your profession, industry terminology can be very specific, and those cognates you loved in high school Spanish might not exist for very technical terminology.
But despite your best efforts, you may find that there is still some cross-language confusion. In that case don’t assume the best outcome will automatically occur. Felix says you must make sure that you take action as quickly as you can:
“Just pick up the phone. Talk to them.”
Dima Ghawi is a leadership speaker and coach who moved to the U.S. in 1996. She’s a true citizen of the world — she was born in Turkey, raised in Jordan and has lived and worked around the world.
At the beginning of her time working in Japan for IBM, Dima says she ran into some very strange issues. “After a few weeks my team started resisting me. They stopped responding to my emails and sometimes didn’t even attend my meetings,” she says.
After some time consulting with team members and interpreters, Dima realized that her American style of doing business was not going over well. In Japan, business interactions carry more humility and calm. So Dima changed her style. It wasn’t easy. “It was not my personality,” she says. But it was a valuable lesson that she has carried throughout her career as she works with global teams:
“My communication style has to adapt depending on the different cultures that I'm working with. Because at the end of the day, it's not about me. It’s about them — and ensuring that they feel safe, engaged and at their best as they are working with me.”
Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Nick Morgan, communications expert and author: LinkedIn, Twitter and personal website.
- Felix Wetzel, CMO of Pocket Recruiter: LinkedIn and Twitter.
- Dima Ghawi, leadership speaker and executive coach: LinkedIn, Twitter and personal website.
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