Putting an end to distant illiteracy in the workplace

There is a lot of talk about digital illiteracy when talking about people who, because they do not know how to use digital tools, are increasingly handicapped in a society where the acts of daily life are becoming more and more digital. But with the exception measures linked to the COVID and the resulting more lasting changes in the way of working, businesses have found themselves confronted with another problem: distant illiteracy.

What is distant illiteracy?

What I call distance illiteracy is not the incapacity to use a tool but the incapacity to use it in the right way.

When it comes to communication and collaboration tools, this mainly covers two subjects: the choice of channel in relation to the type of message and the format and tone of the message according to the channel in question.

The COVID is a good excuse

I said in the preamble that the working methods adopted in a more or less sustainable way following the COVID had put the businesses in front of a new challenge but this is not true. The reality is that the problem is as old as online communication and collaboration tools, but the recent context has made them grow so much that it is no longer possible to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Once again the opportunity to realize that COVID and remote work have not created new problems but highlighted pre-existing ones.

One issue, one channel

Today, no business can say that it is not well equipped in terms of collaboration and communication solutions, which was not the case a decade ago. At that time, email was king on the desktop and it was necessary to fight not only to convince businesses to adopt solutions adapted to the diversity of online collaboration use cases.

Today, who doesn’t have either Microsoft 365 or Google Suite? Even though the two suites differ on some points and Microsoft’s product is much more advanced for advanced uses, both offer something to cover the most basic and simple cases that cover 95% of daily needs.

So it’s not a question of tool but of use

The evidence? You won’t believe how many users have discovered the use of Teams during the lockdown. It had been on their computer for years but sometimes not used or often underused.

Why was this? There are many reasons:

  • No awareness or training for a tool that was “thrown” on the workstation thinking that it would find its place naturally.
  • No need: we are in the same office, why do video conferences?
  • No desire to make an effort: some people only know email, which they have been using since the dawn of time, and will never use it because it has been part of their lives for 25 years. Even if it’s counterproductive, even if it’s only adapted to certain use cases…
  • No awareness and training not in tools but in “advanced collaboration” use cases. Because it is the case that leads to the tool and not the tool that generates cases, contrary to what the editors have liked to believe for ages.
  • Lack of managerial exemplarity. When an employee knows which tool to use in which case but his manager remains ” single-channel ” and continues to live in his email client, it is unfortunately logical that he gives up and loses his good habits.

I’m talking about email because it’s the most obvious case, but I could cite a dozen other topics including the misuse of online editing tools (sending an attachment rather than sharing the document …) or the fact that for 90% of users Teams is only a tool used to make remote meetings, which makes them miss the essential value.

I won’t go into more detail on the subject as it will be the subject of a more in-depth post in the coming weeks. It’s a bit sad to have to dig up subjects I was talking about almost 20 years ago but we have to admit that if the tools have progressed, the uses remain dramatically basic. My point here is not to push the use of technology, you know that’s not my cup of tea, but because in the end it makes people unproductive and adds unnecessarily to their mental load in a world where the amount of information in circulation and the need for collaboration is constantly increasing.

On the other hand, the negative impacts are easily noticeable.

Channel error = increased mental load

If the collaborative environment has become more granular over time, it is for good reason.

First, because a single tool that does everything, as was once a trend, does everything wrong.

Secondly, because dumping all the information into a single receptacle ends up drowning the employee.

Once again, this is a subject I’ll go into later, but depending on its content, urgency and recipients, the same message should be conveyed by a specific tool (chat, email, videoconference, document sharing).

In theory, email should be reserved for long, structured messages that concern only one or a few people. As far as document exchange is concerned, in theory it should not contain any attachments but the original shared document, with or without editing rights.

Anything else has nothing to do in your inbox. To take just the example of Microsoft 360 between Teams, Yammer, Viva Engage, Sharepoint… there is a place for everything.

Some will say that this scatters the information but that’s a false problem. When things are in the right place, they are easier to find when you need them (e.g.: going to find a shared document in Sharepoint instead of finding the email with an attachment, an email that you may have since deleted) and the user doesn’t have to spend his life sorting through a cluttered email inbox, which wastes time and may even cause him to miss important information. In addition, there are powerful search engines capable of finding what you are looking for no matter where it is located.

In any case, sending all the information in an inappropriate channel only penalizes the receiver.

The content counts, the form too

In a message there are two things: the content and the form. While everyone understands that the first is vital, the importance of the second is often overlooked.

Or rather, everyone understands that you have to write clearly and without spelling mistakes, but few understand that there is no single style to adopt systematically, but that you have to adapt to two things: the recipient and the tool used.

I won’t dwell on the fact that you don’t talk to your CEO like your office neighbor, so let’s move on to the part about the tools.

I’ll quickly go over the rules of etiquette: of course we are less formal in chat than in email, but starting and ending with a polite formula adapted to the channel used is the least we can do.

“Hello, blah, blah, thank you in advance/cordially” doesn’t hurt anyone.

Then I’ll take three examples that I’ve seen time and time again.

  • The overly formal email

Except on a very sensitive subject that requires walking on eggshells, an email, even a serious one, can be human. Too many people (often executives and managers) confuse email with official communication on the intranet or even communication to shareholders! At the risk of generating a feeling of fear or seriousness that does not need to be there.

  • The chat in the email

When a message is two lines long, whether it’s information to be passed on or a task assigned to a person, it doesn’t belong in an email but in a chat. The reason? The message looks by definition dry or even violent in an email whereas it goes very well in chat.

  • The email in the chat.

I recently saw a message in a chat room with several paragraphs starting with “Ladies and Gentlemen” and ending with “Please accept ….”. This is the opposite, it is pompous, unsuitable for the channel used and the impact on the recipient is bad. Either he perceives a useless seriousness or it is the image of the sender which takes a blow.

  • The deviation of uses

In all online collaboration suites, there are task managers, tasks that can be delegated to someone. When a person reads that a task has been delegated to them, they understand. If they receive an email like “Hello, thank you for doing this ….”, not only is the tone perceived as harsh or even violent, but it also contributes to a bad practice that makes the “email is the todo list of others” (ie: a way to pass the monkey).

  • Online meetings

You don’t run an online meeting the same way as a face-to-face meeting, and you don’t behave the same way. This is one of the many details that make a meeting go well or poorly, and is more or less well perceived by its participants.

  • Lack of knowledge of codes

It is more difficult to convey a nuance in writing than in person. Hence the immoderate use of emojis and other animated gifs. But here again, the way they are used depends on the way both the message and the author will be perceived.

Using animated gifs and emojis is “normal” in a chat, even very useful to avoid misunderstandings. But I know that it still shocks some old fogies who think that it has no place in business.

But in an email… no.

Generally speaking, chat is a synchronous communication tool and email is asynchronous and therefore closer to the codes of spoken language than written.

Once again, each tool has its own codes…

The tools DNA: a question of perception, efficiency and leadership

As you can imagine, the problem here is not only a question of style or propriety but is much deeper.

The fact is that many people have difficulty transcribing into writing the way they express themselves orally, whether it be the form of the message or the way in which the “non-verbal” exists.

This poses a problem of perception. Perception of the message which can seem serious, aggressive or, on the contrary, too light and familiar when it is not. Perception of the author who will seem, depending on the case, “outdated”, lost, old-fashioned, impertinent, impolite.

It is then a matter of efficiency: when the form is bad, the content is often misunderstood. Either because the message will seem too serious or not important enough, or because the receiver will think so much about analyzing the form that he will forget to pay attention to the content.

Finally, it is of course a problem of communication and collaboration on a large scale, but also a problem of digital leadership for managers when they are not able to diffuse non-verbal, nuances, feelings in remote communication channels.

The result: messages that are not understood and misunderstandings that arise between individuals both about the message and about each other’s perceptions.

It is all the more regrettable that in the private sphere everyone is doing quite well. It is as if communicating in a professional context makes people forget the basic principles.

Bottom line

Not the right channel, not the right tone, collaboration and remote communication remain complicated for many employees.

The side effects are anything but negligible: increased mental workload, loss of productivity, misunderstandings and even enmity.

Everyone knows how to use the tools and masters the codes in the private sphere, but everything is forgotten once you are in a professional context.

Image: distance illiteracy by Monster Ztudio via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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