Can We Please Stop Talking About Being “More Relational” in a Virtual Workplace?

Image result for conversationI have a small pet peeve as a remote employee, and specifically as a remote employee with auditory processing issues who communicates most effectively through writing. At work, we often use the term “relational” as a kind of shorthand or code word for being in person or on the phone. Folks complain frequently about how we need to be more relational, and the solution often suggested is having more in-person meetings, or in some cases, “just hopping on the phone.”

Now, I don’t want to minimize that perspective as one valid perspective. For some, text-based communication simply isn’t relational, and I get that. I don’t think it should be our only mode of communication. But I also wish we could split out the concept of relationality from specific modes of communication. The fact is, spending more time in person or on calls isn’t the best way to build relationships for everyone. And it can hurt to be told that you’re not “being relational” when you’re using the mode of communication that works best for you.

The fact is, some people communicate and relate best through text. As an introvert and a hard-of-hearing person, reading or typing is much less stressful for me than talking on the phone or spending time in person. These modes of communications raise my anxiety and quickly drain my batteries. I have to emotionally prepare for a call or a meeting in a way I don’t for a Slack conversation. I also have found that on my technology team, I’ve really built strong relationships with teammates through a Slack channel. The asynchronous conversation style is comfortable for many of us, and allows us to communicate when we don’t have any particular reason to (unlike scheduled calls or meetings). As an internal processor, it gives me time to read and reflect before I respond. Text-based communication can also be great for neurodivergent folks such as employees with autism.

Now, I’m not saying that we should do a complete 360. I respect that everyone has different learning, working, and communication styles, and I’m happy to adapt. I can divide up my communication among different modes, and am more than happy, for example, to turn a wordy document into a process map for a visual learner, or to talk through what I’ve written for an auditory learner. As someone passionate about training, and as someone who consults with multiple teams as a leader, I believe strongly in adapting my communications to individual people, not making assumptions based on an organizational norm. My hope, though, is that others can extend the same courtesy to me, and talk about relationality in a way that’s a little more nuanced. I don’t want to feel like I’m being punished for the way I communicate when I specifically chose a remote work environment because virtual communication and working alone in a quiet space works better for me.

Have others who work remotely encountered this? How has your organization dealt with such challenges? How have you personally?

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