Social Health//

The Channel is The Message

One of Germany’s most senior corporate executives gives her practical guide to healthy digital communications

In more than 20 years in the communications sector and tech industry I have had a long learning curve regarding digital communications. Thanks to working for employers such as Microsoft and Vodafone who invents and markets them, I have been exposed early to some of the latest and greatest communication tools.

Pressure and pace

Having professional peers who are naturally are first movers is quite a privilege, but at the same time it put pressure on me to keep pace and to cope with an increasing level of digital noise in my personal and professional life.

The explosion of different communication channels that has raised the pressure on all of us working in office life (be that surrounded by colleagues or working from home or laptop on the move).

The last ten years in particular have seen a steep upward curve in options. All have promised better management of personal and professional life, but the truth is often the opposite: Professionals like me, no matter how senior, feel increasingly more stressed, not less stressed, by the diversification of digital communications.

Instant and ‘always on’

A big culprit is expectation. Different groups of stakeholder, from customers to colleagues, want everyone to be both ‘always on’ and ‘instantly responsive’. In addition, everyone has their own preferred communication channel, so we all spend time flipping between different mediums.

Communication preferences might be very different based on age, personality, geography, corporate culture, job experience and several other factors. It’s important to show sensitivity and respect for what others want, even if the way they communicate is unhelpful and even irritating.

Variety and personal choice dictate. In practice you might find yourself permanently checking your email inboxes, Yammer messages, Slack or WhatsApp notifications not to forget Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to make sure you catch up with all the ongoing conversations. Clearly, reducing the number of communications channels and finding the right mix for business purposes is crucial to reduce complexity and stress.

My top five business communication channels

So here are my top five communication channels for business purposes, which allow me to address a broad variety of communication styles and preferences and most importantly the ones which have proven to be manageable for me.

1. Smartphones: Use them to actually talk!

Even though smartphones have become our primary computing device, most people seem to have forgotten that you can talk with people over the phone. Instead of sending 20 WhatsApp messages or five emails to clarify an urgent issue, I’d rather give people a call and solve the issue in a few minutes if not less. Let’s not forget: It is far easier to avoid misunderstandings voice-to-voice because you can sense people’s feelings and address irritations immediately.

2. Email: the top 5 tips

The death of email is regularly declared, but it still is one of the main communications channels for business – like it or not. Over 100 emails a day are not uncommon for me. If you don’t want to end up spending three hours a day checking your inbox and responding to emails, you need to define some rules to protect yourself and others from wasting your lifetime. Here are my recommendations:

• Don’t even think about trying to read, answer or delete all emails you’ll receive. Allocate dedicated time per day, e.g. in the morning and late afternoon, to respond to the most important emails based on the criteria you have defined.

• Don’t stress yourself trying to clean up your inbox. It might be empty for one minute and then your triumph is history. Search functions in most email clients have improved that much that you’ll find relevant mails quite easy if you need them.

• Indicate if and when you need a response to your email in the subject heading and ask others to do the same.

• Just address people in the “to-line” who really need to know about an issue or have a concrete action.

• Last but not least: Move as many conversations to more effective ways of communications – be it phone calls, physical meet-ups, chats via messengers or integrated collaboration tools.

Unified communication

Tools that offer a variety of communication options one-stop are excellent remedies against stress. My favourite tool for quick and personal communications is still Skype for Business. The color-coded status button indicates if a person is currently online, free to talk or if she or he does not want to be disturbed. You can chat with the messenger function, do calls or video-conferences and share content with a group of colleagues. I can also seek permission and ask a colleague if he or she has a few minutes to discuss a topic before I call him or her. I found this quite a respectful and personal form of digital communications.

Collaboration tools:

The best way to aggregate diverse communication channels and collaborations applications at the same time is to use integrated tools such as Slack. Conversations are organized around teams or communities with mutual interests or joint projects. In Microsoft Teams you can share documents you are currently working on with colleagues or vendors and literally co-create in real time. These tools are crucial for agile working. Moreover, they increase the level of transparency within teams, companies and communities and thus help to create an inclusive and inspiring work atmosphere.

Social Business networks:

A great way to keep in touch with peers outside of your own company are social business networks themselves, like LinkedIn or XING. The likeliness to get a timely response when you send a message to a contact in your social business network is much higher than via email. Furthermore, you see what your peers are talking about and which topics are most relevant to them at the moment.

The future: Your personal digital assistants

I know not everyone is convinced by personal digital assistants, but when they become powered by better Machine Learning, I’m confident they will help us to cut through the complexities of digital communications. They will scan all our communications channels real-time, identify the most relevant conversations, make suggestions about what to prioritize and potentially even how to engage. In theory Siri, Cortana and Alexa are supposed to do exactly that. But in reality we are not there yet.

What will the next twenty years of working with digital bring? I am confident that algorithms will help me to cut through the daily digital noise and focus even more on the relevant conversations but of course, my relationships with colleagues, customers and stakeholders will remain – for the forseeable future – very human. 

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