Most of us spend a significant part of our days composing messages in text or email, or reading messages others have sent us. But during pandemics — like the COVID-19 pandemic — in which congregating in groups risks spreading disease, we're forced to work from home, or we work on staggered schedules. We can't meet in person, and meeting virtually imposes such burdensome limitations on communication that messaging in text or email becomes even more important than it normally is.
Of the time we spend composing or reading messages, a surprisingly large fraction is wasted, because the messages we send or receive are ambiguous, misinterpreted, or too muddled to fathom. Messages that deliver the meaning we intend must be clear, focused, unambiguous, and easily understood. Composing such messages with regularity requires a level of mastery beyond what most of us have attained.
Mishaps can be costly. As message receivers, when we misinterpret messages we've received, we make mistakes. We take steps in the wrong direction and then we must later undo what we've done. As message composers, when we receive requests for clarification, we must rephrase and re-send our messages, hoping not to add fuel to the already-burning fire of confusion. If we do manage eventually to clarify our communications, the delays can be expensive, sometimes unacceptably so.
Fortunately, Messages that deliver the
meaning we intend must be
clear, focused, unambiguous,
and easily understoodthe steps required to reduce the frequency of these mishaps are few, and they're relatively easily applied. The hard part is remembering to take those steps. I've compiled a few of the more important practices in this post and the next. Let's begin with dates and times.
- Use a standard time zone to cite times
- Citing times has long been problematic for teams dispersed across multiple time zones. But because of the pandemic, some teams that were co-located before the pandemic are now geographically dispersed. The reasons for this vary.
- For example, before the pandemic some team members achieved co-located status all week by traveling great distances to home and back on weekends. But since work-from-home became the norm, they no longer make the trip. And many of them live in time zones different from the one to which they formerly commuted. Another example: some new hires who would normally have commuted weekly, or who would have relocated for their new jobs, are now hired on remotely. And some team members just decided for the duration of work-from-home to go somewhere they'd rather be. The result is that some formerly co-located teams are now dispersed across multiple time zones. Such teams might not regard themselves as time-zone-dispersed, but they definitely are.
- These teams are now noticing what geographically dispersed teams already knew too well. When the sender and recipient of a message are in different time zones, confusion happens when someone cites a time without specifying the time zone. Confusion can also happen when team members cite times in different time zones, compelling each other to make appropriate conversions — correctly.
- Defining a "team time zone" and citing all times in that time zone does help, but I've found that it's still necessary to include the time zone whenever citing a time. Teams of people in multiple time zones will likely run into time confusion unless they adopt a standard time zone for citing times in messages, and then reference the standard time zone when citing times.
- Cite times with time and time zone name only
- Some message senders do cite times with a reference to the time zone, but they reference the time zone incorrectly. The issue is the accurate citation of Daylight Saving Time (also known as Summer Time). As an example of this error, the zone known as Eastern Time in North America is sometimes cited as EST when Daylight Saving Time is actually in effect. This can be confusing.
- To avoid this confusion, cite the time zone by its name only, omitting the reference to Standard time or Daylight Saving Time. For example, to cite a time in the Eastern Time zone in North America, cite it as "ET", "Eastern Time", or just "Eastern".
- Even better: cite all times in Zulu (see below).
- Use Zulu time as a team standard time
- For collaborations that include many time zones, use Zulu (officially "UTC") as the standard time. As a standard time zone for a team, Zulu, which is the successor to GMT, has multiple advantages. Zulu doesn't have a Daylight Saving Time switchover, which eliminates that source of confusion. For organizations that have many teams with multiple time zones, a proliferation of different team standard times can create confusion in the minds of team members who belong to two or more teams. An organization-wide use of Zulu for team standard time addresses these issues and more.
- Zulu time apps in wondrous variety are available in your app store.
- Use absolute days and dates
- A relative day or date is a term such as "tomorrow", "yesterday," "today," "last week," "next week" and so on. An absolute day or date is a term such as "Thursday" or better, "Thursday, June 2," or "next Thursday, June 2."
- Relative days or dates do work well in conversation. They also work well in messaging, but only when the recipient reads the message on the same day as the sender sent it. That's why relative days or dates don't age well. Consider reviewing a message that's more than a day old. When the reader encounters a relative date, such as "yesterday," the reader must first ascertain when the sender sent the message, and then determine what the meaning of the relative day or date might be. That operation might require the use of a calendar.
- As a sender, you can save readers trouble — and eliminate a potential source of error — by using absolute days or dates whenever you need to specify a day or date. And if you do cite a day or date, cite it with respect to the team standard time zone (see above).
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
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when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes
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- Bemused Detachment
- Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our
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- Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation
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- Please Reassure Them
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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