Hello from week three of self-isolation! It’s clear that it’s going to take a while before this new reality feels natural, but last week, there were at least flashes of normalcy. One of those bright spot moments was a session we facilitated with a senior leadership team. Sure, it was virtual, but it was a great conversation, full of the trials and tribulations of leadership. The discussion provided fodder for many posts, but this is the one that seems most pressing….

The question came from a leader who mentioned that communication was feeling overwhelming. She is getting a much higher volume of emails than normal, but in addition to her bloated inbox, she’s also getting work messages by text, and WhatsApp. She asked if I had any thoughts on what might help.

I relate to this struggle. I think of email as my primary communication tool for business. I have a (albeit crappy) filing system and a way of using my inbox as a to-do list. That works, at least sorta’. But increasingly, I’m finding that some work contacts use other platforms. Some clients are now texting me versus emailing. Some important networking or business development messages are coming in through LinkedIn. I have colleagues from the speaking world who write to me through Facebook Messenger. The result is that I feel a constant low-level stress that I have missed something important. And what I don’t need any more of at the moment is constant low-level stress; I’ve got plenty of that from going grocery shopping.

So, here are a few things that you might do with your team to reduce that stress.

Channel the Torrent

  1. Choose one primary medium for communication with your team. If you’re Slack users, stick to Slack. If you’re emailers, email away! Keep the focus on one spot to reduce the sense of having to monitor multiple channels at once.
  2. Set the guidelines for when and why other forms of communication should be used. The leaders I was speaking with last week were from a global NGO; that’s why WhatsApp was in the picture for them. One option for them was to leave WhatsApp for communicating with their global counterparts and channel all domestic communication into email.
  3. Choose which notifications you’re going to turn on and which you’re going to turn off. I encourage you to turn off as many as possible. I have notifications off for email, but on for text. That way, I tell people that if there’s something urgent, send an email with the request and then text me to check it.
  4. The reason I ask people to email the request and then text is that email lends itself to searching and storing, whereas text doesn’t. My attention span is terrible at the moment and so is my memory. I’m just not encoding things as well as normal. Several times I’ve been trying to remember “who said that,” or “where did I read that?” I need to be able to search on a few key words from the message and that just isn’t happening on text or in Messenger.

Agree on Standards

  1. Commit to one another about how often you’re going to check your primary communication platform. For example, you could agree that everyone will do a quick morning check, one before the lunch hour, and once with an hour left in the day. If you need someone to get a message in between those times, give them a call.
  2. Set the expectation that your team should be disconnecting from email for chunks of an hour or two to create enough mental space to focus and get work done. You can also start healthy habits, like saying 12-1 is for having lunch with your family and you’re going to lay off any work at that time.
  3. To reduce the volume of emails (and the feeling that they’re coming at you at an overwhelming rate), try sending digest emails. When you draft an email to a colleague, take a moment to think about whether they need it right away. If not, save the draft and leave room to add more to it before sending the message. Getting one well-organized message with several items can feel less distracting and overwhelming than getting four messages each with a single task.

Improve the Content

(these tips are from my post on improving your email. Read the full post here.)

  1. Focus on the receiver when you’re drafting your message. As you type the name of the recipient into the To: line, start thinking about what they need from this email so they can give you what you need. It’s the classic help me help you situation.
  2. Make your subject lines more informative. Use a standard set of headers (e.g., action required, response required, or FYI), include timing (e.g., COB for close of business, EOD for end of day, or a specific date), and provide searchable detail about the subject of the message. Here are some examples:
  • Response Required COB: Choose Presentation Title
  • Action Required Friday 14th: Validate ERP project committee membership
  • Primer for Friday Bid Meeting: Read Context for Bid go no-go decision
  • FYI: New Fourth Floor Layout Plans

Set up a Daily Update Template

  1. One of the interesting questions I was asked was about how to deal with micromanagement during the crisis. Micromanagement is a natural response for a manager who feels out of the loop or out of control. One answer is to agree on a template for updates. In that template, you could include categories such as: Completed yesterday; Priority activities for today; Additional activities for today; Priority support I need from you.
    That last category, “priority support I need” should be at the very top of the message. That’s a key characteristic of good communication, you focus on what’s most important to the receiver first, then provide context second. Then decide how frequently your boss would like to get that kind of an update.

Things are changing so quickly that your team likely needs to be communicating at a faster rate than normal. That’s all the more reason to agree to a few principles about how you’ll make that communication efficient and effective. A little time invested upfront in some guidelines will help you get to the most important tasks while lowering that generalized anxiety many of us are feeling.

Do you have any tips for communicating during corona? Add them to the comments!