Tuning Into Remote Team Members

Do you have members of your team who work in remote locations?  I do. It can be a challenge to tune into remote team members because email exchanges don’t provide the nonverbal cues that guide us in face-to-face interactions. We can’t see body language, can’t hear a tone of voice, can’t gauge eye contact.

The person on the other end of an email exchange also can’t see or hear important nonverbal cues from you. 

I was recently reminded of this when one of my research projects had some negative results. It was a new kind of project for the team, which was exciting for me since I always love trying new things. When the initial results came in, I shared them out immediately and initiated an email exchange that attempted to analyze the data and put it in perspective. During the exchange, it occurred to me that one particular team member might be getting the wrong message from our email interaction. 

Sometimes a matter-of-fact email tone can be read and “heard” as anger, frustration, or disappointment. In the absence of nonverbal cues, team members can recast the relaying of facts into a story of blame. “Since I was the one who suggested the project,” someone might tell himself, “I am the one to blame for its failure.”

I like to be clear about the messages I send my team members. I don’t like to leave room for second-guessing, which may get in the way of how well we work together. So I picked up the phone.

“I needed you to hear my voice,” I explained. “I am not upset by these results.” 

Personal interactions can often accomplish in 3 seconds what a flurry of emails cannot. We sometimes forget that our brains are constantly taking in all kinds of information that helps us assign meaning to what someone is actually saying. 

I knew that my tone of voice would immediately convey what I wanted to communicate: that I did not feel disappointment; that I was not sorry we went ahead with the project. In fact the phone conversation allowed me to stress what I value most: learning, growing and moving forward.

Whether your team members are close by or far away, it’s important to be mindful that the message they might be “hearing” is not the one you intended. As you tune into what team members might be thinking and feeling, recognize that it’s also important to provide personal interactions that give them opportunities to tune into you.