Learning to Communicate when Communicating Has Never Been Easier — or Harder

learning to communicate

A typical day for Cathie Vick can involve a dizzying array of communications across many different channels.

“I might have a Microsoft Teams call, and then the next one is on Zoom, and then the next one is in person,” said Vick, the chief development and public affairs officer for the Virginia Port Authority, which manages the Port of Virginia. “Meanwhile, people are emailing me, texting me, sending me messages on Teams, sending me messages on LinkedIn — sometimes I don’t know where to look. But that’s the way things are now. You have to learn to manage the chaos.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought on many changes to the way that organizations of all kinds operate, and communication is among the most profound and comprehensive of those transformations. Tech-based communication tools, which were already becoming more prevalent before the pandemic, took on a new ubiquity as workers and teams were forced to work apart from each other. Even as pandemic-related cautions have eased, the new tools and the practices that they brought have remained.

“Communication technology has definitely changed the way we do business,” said Derek Chow, Pacific Islands business development manager, Burns & McDonnell Engineering Company.

For organizations and leaders, it has never been more important to manage how people communicate to ensure that they are communicating effectively. After all, more communication does not necessarily mean better communication.

“With both team members internally and customers externally, we really have to listen and understand how they best communicate in order to have efficient and effective communications with them,” Vick said.

It’s a challenge that extends well beyond the workplace. Bill Hanson, senior vice president, market development, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co., said the conversation about communicating in today’s world is “not just a business discussion, but also a personal discussion.”

“Looking at how we communicate with our families and friends as well as in business has really changed as a result of communication technology,” Hanson said. “The idea that parents have to shut off [the internet]at the dinner table to get families to talk is not much different than a boss telling employees to avoid having extended email threads, when they can pick up the phone or walk down the hall to speak in person and resolve the issues.”

Reconciling the Convenience of Tech with the Power of In Person

Vick noted that tech tools have been invaluable in allowing people to participate in meetings and other conversations that they might have been left out of before, because they could not be present for the meeting in person. Technology also enables discussions that previously would have been a challenge to organize. For instance, the Port of Virginia has six different terminals and three other office spaces — getting everyone to attend a meeting in person at one location can prove to be a tall task while also sapping work hours for travel. A video meeting is a simple solution.

“There are a lot of benefits,” Vick said. “You just have to manage everything well.”

Overall, Vick said people have adapted successfully to tech tools, learning to use them creatively and effectively.

“For the most part, I think people utilize the platforms in a way to try to connect people and bring them together,” Vick said.

Still, blips and challenges are inevitable, such as struggling to share your screen on a video call or starting to talk without unmuting. In addition, people can tend to multitask and pay less attention during video meetings than they would if they were in person. There also is a tendency for side conversations to develop via text during a video meeting. Crucially, video calls also make it much more challenging to read body language, tone and other nuanced parts of communication, Vick said.

Meanwhile, Vick said the structure and atmosphere of video meetings can make it difficult and awkward to “switch gears” with colleagues and think about something other than the focus of the meeting. That means spontaneous conversations, which can have rich benefits for collaboration, are less likely.

Chow said electronic communication tools have made developing strong personal relationships more challenging.

“In business, relationships mean everything,” Chow said. “Relationships can overcome issues, disagreements, and difficulties. So finding a way to foster relationships in this electronic technology era is very important not only to doing business but also to solving problems collaboratively. If you are not effectively communicating with your team or clients, you are working in isolation.”

Hanson said miscommunication is a larger risk with all manner of tech-based communication, than with a phone call or in-person conversation. He also noted that people can take on a different personality via electronic communication — often not for the best.

“The etiquette of electronic communication lends itself to words that can be read out of context and side-rail a thread when a face-to-face conversation minimizes those conflicts,” Hanson said.

Hanson believes good communication largely is a learned skill, “which is why face-to-face engagements are required.”

“Even introverts can become good communicators if they can learn the skills and timing to engage appropriately,” Hanson said. “Learning the value of one’s opinions and input and the responsibility to offer that input in a collaborative framework is something that is best modeled and learned from experience.”

Hanson is among those who believe it is essential to maintain face-to-face meetings for “collaborating, engaging, mentoring, being mentored, sharing ideas, successes, failures and sharing the urgency to get things done.”

“Virtual discussions are okay for touching base, but it is impossible to replicate the face-to-face discussions that drive most project completions,” Hanson said. “While some folks claim they are ‘doing their jobs’ virtually, construction and engineering is not about doing an individual’s ‘job’ — it is about getting projects done and that requires collaborations that are best done face to face.”

Vick said the abundance of platforms and their inherent detachment can make team members complacent.

“We can’t lose sight of the importance of the value of getting an immediate response to a question and the way that can trigger spontaneous thought and conversation,” Vick said.


Staying Engaged with External Partners

For the port industry, clear, effective communication with those who provide public funding has never been more critical.

“The port community has made its case that it is important and vital,” said Bill Hanson, senior vice president, market development, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. “One of the reasons for the generational investment in infrastructure at ports is that Congress and state legislatures understand better the important supply chain, economic development and job creation centers that ports are. So as we have made the case that ports are an important place to invest, we are going to need to ratchet up and prove the investment was in fact necessary. Sharing success stories about successful projects will be key to win future funding and support.”

Cathie Vick, chief development and public affairs officer for the Virginia Port Authority, said her team uses the SharePoint web-based tool to track its communications with various external contacts, including the platforms that they use, the documents that have been shared and any talking points that are used with them. That way, team members can carry a consistency not only in messaging but in the way that they communicate with external contacts. In addition, the team routinely surveys external stakeholders to ensure they are receiving the information that they need in the way that they need it.

Be prepared to work with external partners’ preferences, Vick said. She noted the Port of Virginia began to send its quarterly legislative updates in a video format. However, the port reached out to stakeholders for feedback and learned that the videos were more difficult for their partners to share than written content was, limiting the messages’ ultimate reach. So, the port began to include a text portion of commentary with any video content.

“If we hadn’t asked the question, we wouldn’t have known and we wouldn’t have had the right expectations for how to best serve our stakeholders,” Vick said.

Consistency of messaging to external stakeholders also is crucial, Vick said.

“We’re in an industry that changes a lot, especially over the last 18 months,” Vick said. “Making sure operations metrics are held somewhere and updated on a regular basis is important, so that if you have someone from sales or someone in government relations or someone in operations answering a customer or stakeholder inquiry, we’re giving the same information, and it’s the most up-to-date information. I think having some sort of methodology internally and a shared place where you can pull that data and information is really important. You don’t want to put something out on social media and then the same day a sales team member meets with a customer and says something different.”

Setting Expectations and Matching Message to Medium

Organizations, leaders and teams can develop protocols to prevent the ease of tech-based communication from undermining relationships inside and outside an organization. For instance, Hanson suggests following the etiquette of a three-text or three-email rule, meaning a phone call or face-to-face meeting becomes clearly necessary when multiple electronic communications do not resolve an issue. Vick recommends setting aside 10 unstructured minutes at the end of some video meetings to allow for free discussion.

Vick said she believes it is helpful to have shared rules of engagement for video calls, hybrid meetings and other similar tech-heavy discussions. These are not strict rules that could lead to reprimand for team members but rather protocols and guidance to help ensure best practices are used in those situations and there is a consistency of approach, such as keeping your camera on during video meetings.

“We have to be mindful in the way that we communicate when using these platforms,” Vick said. “Listening and understanding the expectations of who we’re communicating with is a key element of success.”

Vick said the Port of Virginia assigned a summer intern to help establish best practices and a strategy for how to keep in regular touch with stakeholders.

“There have been a lot of challenges,” Vick said. “We have had to really learn how to be flexible and work to understand how it was best for others to be communicated with.”

Chow said tech tools may have increased efficiencies and production, but they also have “created a different level of expectation of each other.”

“For example, an inappropriate way to use email is to avoid personal contacts and to send out directives or expectations unilaterally,” Chow said. “In complex situations, a directive without the background and rationale for the directive creates anxiety and can cause animosity. So, using electronic communication technology must be done carefully and conscientiously. For example, the AAPA uses email to notify members of events, but utilizes the more personal video calls to effectively engage members across the nation.”

Chow noted there can be a generation gap in communication preferences with older workers preferring face-to-face meetings and younger ones more comfortable with electronic methods.

“Legacy businesses and organizations tend to have an older generation of leaders and executives, while the workforce itself is getting younger,” Chow said. “Within the business organization, both the older generation and the younger workforce need to bridge the generation gap so effective communications are key. Often this means that they meet each other somewhere in the middle on the use of technology to communicate.”

Chow said clarity to expectations for tech-based communication can make a meaningful impact.

“Communication technology can be very effective as long as the rules of engagement are clearly established and understood,” Chow said.

Despite the demands and growing pains, tech tools have forced teams and organizations to more closely study the way they communicate and to consider it with a fresh perspective.

“I think being forced to communicate in different ways has taught us a lot of lessons,” Vick said. “It’s been challenging, but it’s also made us more effective communicators.”