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

My boss had told another leader in the organization that I would be helping with a project… but never told me. Has that ever happened to you?

I found out when I received an email chain, no context or warning, and the latest incomplete communication string with simply “+Christopher” at the top. The most worrisome part was that there were immediate deliverables that required my attention for this project. However, I was pretty full with other projects, too.

In this particular situation, I could not go to my boss and tell her that I could not complete the task. The people who had forwarded the email to me could not answer their phones when I called them to uncover more project context. The remainder of the week was a nightmare of trying to reach the people who had the essential information, identify the right deliverables, and juggle the existing projects on my list with equally urgent deadlines.

When I finally delivered what they said they wanted, I found out that the urgency was artificial, since the person who needed my handiwork had not even made an appointment to go over it with the client. By the time the meeting was scheduled, the project was completely different, and all of the work and stress that went into the project was a waste of time and effort.

Interactions count
In the world of distance working and leadership, having clear, authentic connections with people means that you communicate through a variety of different tools. Phone calls, emails, videoconferences, instant messaging, and face-to-face conversations are all part of typical business communications. Both the frequency and the content of your interactions with others helps build rapport and collegial trust.

Email is only part of the story
Unless you are an email writing ninja, your emails are probably only partially read and understood. The email chain that you forward to someone is only a portion of the real discussion and conversation, components that are essential to understanding how to accomplish assignments and collaborate with others on work products. In my work, I get emails from sales team members who need a service I provide. I routinely call the person who sent me the requesting email to ensure I understood their request and gather any additional information I might need.

It’s not that email is bad, or a poor communication tool. However, if we are really being honest, dear Distance Worker, then we have to admit that email falls short of the full communication spectrum.

There are THOSE people…
Yep. Those people who hide behind emails. Using any single communication tool to avoid direct communication is not a smart way to run a business. And there’s the crux of the problem: avoiding direct communication.I’ve had bosses and supervisors who were terribly fond of sending everything via email, and assuming that the team members “got it.” 

I can’t be the only one
For some teams, communication through email most of the time may be a great approach, especially if the team is working across time and space, 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.

Patty Azzarello, in her book Rise, says, “the more you communicate, the more comfortable people will be with what you are saying. Consistent communication builds trust. Lack of communication or inconsistent communication destroys trust. Do it on purpose. Communicate more than you could ever imagine is necessary.” She suggests that truly effective communications are relevant, concise and useful. In other words, share enough, but make sure you are sharing enough to help the recipient understand their role with the information. 

I missed the mind reading course
Some friends of mine and I used to joke that we wish we had taken the mind reading course available at our universities. Sure, you can add me to an email chain 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.

Working at a distance requires effective communication, and seasoned virtual team members know how quickly miscommunications occur on virtual teams. Assuming that an email chain replaces actual communication is the real challenge, and I encourage you to avoid being a leader or team member who works in this way. Yes, sometimes it is an effort to communicate and interact with others can be a challenge. The advantages are there, as you build rapport and trust, and sometimes context for future projects, by taking a few minutes to connect to your team members.

The Process

  • Being able to place a project in context is often one of my most important communication tasks. By establishing context for tasks and deliverables, I save time editing and reworking my team members’ work. What are some steps you can take to eliminate confusion as a distance team member?
  • Provide a “warm” transfer for new projects. 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, so 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.
  • Press the “Record” button. I have a habit of always recording conference calls. Aside from being a good record for more complex projects, I have two immediate benefits from a recorded conference call: I can take minimal notes during the meeting because I can review the content later, and I can send the conversation to people who were not at the meeting.
  • Think of project-related emails as a meal kit. This seems a little odd, but think about the meal kit services with all the ingredients for meals along with the recipes. Without the recipes and directions inside the box, your meals will definitely be different than planned. Your project-related emails should be the same, including both ingredients (context) and the recipes (task expectations).
  • Actually speak with your team members. I have said it before and I will say it again, communication with my team is what makes me successful. Set your team expectations around confirmations when a new task is assigned, such as sending a quick “Got it!” reply or text message. Respond quickly to emails or voicemails with questions.
  • Consider the audience. For a distance working environment, it makes good sense to communicate on several different channels, especially if your workers are 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 members have time on their schedules to work on my 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.

The results and effective communication as a virtual worker

Have you been in a situation like mine? Do you have specific strategies or tools that help you communicate more effectively with your team?


Check out Patty Azzarello’s ideas in Chapter 9, “Trust and Consequences” of her book Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life. She shares some great advice for avoiding the “email-only” trap. The following link will allow you to get a copy from