One of the biggest complaints about working remotely is that communication has simply become a series of transactions. But why is that a problem?
Letís look at the definition of the word transaction. According to several dictionaries itís, ďthe exchange of products and services or the transfer of money, or the commitment to exchange goods and services in the future.Ē
At first glance, this isnít a problem. You want something, I have it, I give it to you. On a team, this might be as simple as, ďCan you please send me the Jackson file?Ē I ask for the file, you email it to me, weíre done. That transaction is complete. So far, so good.
For a single transaction, itís not a big deal. Each transaction is its own piece of communication, true. But teamwork, collaboration, and innovation are composed of dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of interactions over time. Because we arenít robots that treat each request or binary bit as a discreet transaction, our humanity comes into play.
The Human Element
Human beings may process a single communication as a simple transaction. But once weíve interacted with someone, we have a history with them. That history may (and probably does) have an impact on future interactions.
- Was the transaction successful?
- Did I enjoy working with that person?
- Do they make me laugh?
- Were they polite?
- Were they respectful?
- Were they competent?
At first blush, none of these things are relevant. I work with you, and the workflow says we must transfer information between us and communicate effectively. Whether itís ďfun,Ē I enjoy working with you, or I enjoy interacting with someone else more shouldnít matter.
But it does.
Every day, we make hundreds of decisions. We prioritize work. We take the time to communicate thoroughly (or donít.) On our best days, we put effort into being polite to people. Thatís a whole lot easier to do when the person is standing in front of us, and we have to look them in the eye.
When we arenít in physical proximity, we communicate differently. We often act like weíre talking (or writing) to words on a screen rather than a live human. Itís easy to forget you are talking to a person with their own personality, stresses, and hierarchy of needs. In short, remote work can lead to increasingly transactional communication.
Over time, we layer social and emotional needs on top of the very neutral transaction. You may respond to Bob, because heís your buddy, before you get to Aliceís equally important request. You might take the time to ask how Rajís kids are. That has the benefit of building social cues that may pay off in the long run. The reward may be in making you a priority over someone else, or just making you more pleasant to work with than some of his other teammates.
These interactions are not necessarily part of each transaction. But over time, we humans take all those experiences and build a figurative database of social information. That database then informs our decisions going forward. Matters such as trust, proactivity, and prioritization are not purely logical decisions. They are colored by our experiences with the other members of our team.
Proximity Isn't the Only Key
Working with someone in close quarters doesnít necessarily mean youíll get along with them, or trust them, or even like their company. But when weíre face-to-face with people, we try harder, often without realizing it. When weíre hundreds of miles apart and connected only by the text on a Teams app, we might not make that effort. Allowing communication to become more transactional impacts how we get along, do our work, and stay engaged with our teammates.
This doesnít mean we have to spend inordinate amounts of effort. Remember to say ďplease and thank you.Ē Take a moment to personalize your responses. Opt for a voice or webcam call, rather than a simple text exchange. This is especially powerful if you havenít spoken or seen that person for a while. Crack a joke, or participate in non-work conversations if you have a channel for that in your work app. And if you donít have a channel for that kind of casual ďwater coolerĒ interaction, create one.
Good communication includes context, setting priorities, and a willingness to be proactive and take action. Thatís easier to do if you are emotionally, socially, or psychologically invested in the work and your colleagues.