A recent white paper commissioned by Cisco about effective communication within virtual teams concludes:
‘Silence’ – or non-response to communication (email, voice mail, etc.) can be very damaging to virtual team effectiveness as it leads individuals to misattribute explanations for this silence.
Unfortunately, in many organizations the correct interpretation of silence is almost always along these lines:
“I’m too overloaded and haven’t even read your message.”
“I read your message, and intended to reply, but I did not get to it, and I don’t know if I ever will.”
“I’m not going to read your message — it does not look important enough. If it were really important, you would have phoned me.”
The major cause of silence is email overload — people just don’t get to all the messages that require their attention, or don’t manage to follow through with a timely response. So if you’re managing a virtual team, don’t rely on email as the main method of communication.
One of the best technical writers I’ve worked with took a rather cynical approach to non-responsiveness, under the guise of interpreting the silence optimistically. When sending a document draft out for review, she would write the following:
Please respond with corrections by (date). If I don’t receive any corrections from you, I’m going to assume that the attached draft meets your approval.
Obviously, this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach can backfire, but if used judiciously, it can produce very good results. I know, because it worked wonders on me!
Apart from this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach, what else can we do to improve our chances of getting a reply?
- Craft your subject line well. It should summarize the message, not describe it. For example instead of “Annual Report, Draft 3”, write: “Need your comments on Annual Report by Wednesday.”
- Use a rifle, not a shotgun: address a specific individual and not a group. The fewer people you address, the higher your chances of receiving a reply. (Here’s why.)
- Include a clear call to action — tell the recipient exactly what you want or expect them to do, and make sure you do this near the top of the message, if not in the subject line itself.
- If you’re writing to someone you don’t know, here’s a recent example of how to ensure they will not respond.
Email silences will still be inevitable. How can we minimize the resulting misunderstandings? How can we reduce the silences to a minimum?
- Give our colleagues realistic expectations of how long it will take to receive a reply. One way to do this, is to describe your email habits in your signature.
- Learn to be responsive, and consistently reply to all messages within 24 hours.
And lastly, keep track of messages for which the replies you expect are overdue, and send out reminders if necessary.