Sometimes, interacting with others is a challenge. However, when you are a leader, interacting with others can intensify the amount of time and the emotional challenges. When you are leading from a distance, perhaps the energy you have to spend communicating with others increases because you are not collocates with your employees and peers.

At the risk of preaching to the choir, let me say this: Don’t hide behind your emails.

I’ve had bosses and supervisors who were terribly fond of sending everything via email, and assuming that the team members “got it.” For some teams, this may be a great approach… but my experience is that email-only communications quickly lead to miscommunications and, in my case, some pretty horrible misinterpretations of the concepts being shared. Or, even worse, you may have received an email halfway through a group conversation with almost no context… but it’s up to you to make the next action step.

It’s the assumption that an email chain replaces actual communication that becomes the problem for me. In fact, I’ve been copied on an email that was sent to me with the barest of introductions for a project that provided a whole world of confusion for me and my team. It seemed easy enough for my boss to say, “Adding Christopher to develop a document for this project.”

It could just be me, but I think I missed the mind reading portion of my college career. Sure, you can add me all you like, but not setting the project in context (and then not being available via phone or videoconferencing) and expecting me to somehow interpret all of the cryptic between-meeting emails was bound to lead me to down the path of mistakes.

Being able to place a project in context is often one of my most important leadership tasks. By establishing context for tasks and deliverables, I save time editing and reworking my team members’ work, especially on new tasks. What I typically do is send an email with as much information as possible, then follow that up with a text or instant message. Usually, it’s something like this, “Hey, I just wanted you to know that I sent you an email for a project that is due next Thursday. I think I included everything you need, call me if you want to discuss.” Heck, sometimes I’ll even call or start a web meeting so I can make sure I am communicating effectively.

Would I do this in a collocated environment? Probably not. But for a distance working environment, it makes more sense to communicate on several different channels, especially if the worker is remote. Here’s another challenge: some of my employees are part-time contractors. This means that I have to provide more context and ensure that my team member has time on their schedule to work on this project. Hiding behind emails would only make communication more difficult if my employees never felt like they were getting the full context of new project.

A strategic approach to come out from behind email:

  • When forwarding an email, include as much context as possible around the project, task, or opportunity
  • Respond to emails or voicemails promptly when asked for more information
  • Use high-touch (voice, video, in-person) to share context; use low-touch (email, shared documents, and links) to distribute bulk information
  • Follow up with confirmation, whether that is a quick “Got it!” reply or text message
  • Check for understanding at status points