Harvard Business Review, Mar. 2020

As COVID-19 spreads across the world, more and more of us are starting to work from home. In light of this global shift (and all of our heightened stress levels), it’s crucial to take steps to avoid miscommunication when working as part of a virtual team.

Add emojis (but proceed with caution): Emojis can help us express tone, meaning, and emotional cues. An outpouring of emojis, especially when you don’t know the other person well, can undermine your professionalism. As a rule of thumb, one emoji per email or slack message is appropriate, unless it’s the very first time you’re communicating with this person, in which case, it’s better to leave them out.

Realize typos: Typos reveal that we were in a rush or heightened emotional state when we hit send (or that we’re the boss, and don’t need to care about typos). It’s best to spend two extra minutes proofreading your work, or better yet, read it out loud to catch any typos your eyes quickly skip over when reading it in your head.

Emotionally proofread your messages: Always re-read what you’ve written before hitting send to make sure your message is clear and conveys the intended tone. It’s easy for one-line emails or slack messages to be perceived as passive aggressive in tone.

Punctuation marks matter even more for one-word or very short sentences: Adding a period adds a finality to your statement and heightens the negative emotion. As you get to know someone, pay attention to their punctuation style. You may find there are people you work with who always add periods after the word okay, and so you can stop overanalyzing their punctuation.

Use richer communication channels when you’re first getting to know each other: We’re most likely to interpret ambiguity as negative when we’re texting or emailing with people we don’t know well or with more senior colleagues.

Default to video in general, when you can: Studies show that around 65% of communication is non-verbal. When you’re not on video, you’re missing emotional cues that come from facial expression and body language. We acknowledge that video won’t always be possible, but it’s best to make it a habit when you are able.
Don’t panic: If an email makes you enraged, anxious, or euphoric, wait until the next day to write back. When you do reply, re-read your draft through the other person’s eyes. Additional tip: always leave the “To:” field blank until you’re ready to hit send.

Avoid email when you need a “yes.”: An in-person request is thirty times more successful than an emailed one. Research shows people see email asks as untrustworthy and non-urgent. If you do enter into an email negotiation, it helps to first schmooze in person, over video chat, or on the phone.

Don’t send emails or messages during off hours if it’s not urgent: Even if you write “don’t read/respond to this until tomorrow/Monday,” chances are the reader will still think about your email all weekend (and might even feel pressure to respond immediately). Try saving the email to your draft folder or schedule it to send later.

Most digital miscommunication happens because we don’t have access to the non-verbal cues, including tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions, that give us valuable emotional context when we’re discussing in person. So these tips can help, but the fail-safe solution is to pick up the phone or get on a video call.

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