If today’s a work day, chances are the first thing you did this morning was check emails. Over coffee, you might have sent a message to the work chat in Slack or Teams.
Perhaps you jumped into the WhatsApp group you share with your colleagues for not-strictly-work-related messages and friendly banter. As the day progressed, you may have had a serious video meeting with a customer over Teams or Zoom. The boss might have texted you. You engaged with your contacts over Twitter or LinkedIn.
And – who knows – you might even have made or received a good old-fashioned voice call!
Smartphones and online platforms have transformed the way we communicate in our personal and working lives. They are immensely powerful tools for productivity and collaboration – but with such a wide array of apps, chats and messages at our fingertips, it can be easy to feel bombarded – especially in these times when so many of us are still working from home and it’s much more difficult to “read the room”.
That’s where good workplace culture and etiquette comes into play – helping us all take the positives from technology without succumbing to the stresses of always-on culture.
The topic of etiquette in electronic communication was one of the themes that emerged from our recent round table event, which saw business leaders from companies of varying sizes discuss the challenges they had faced during lockdown and beyond.
Our recent survey of 1,000 SMEs in the UK also highlights how many businesses have had to fundamentally change the way they communicate overnight. 27% use video conferencing software more frequently, and 29% use messaging software more often since the shift to homeworking.
So – what’s the etiquette? There are no hard and fast rules – each business, and each individual, is different. But here are some of our tips to get you thinking:
Don’t be a platform hopper
You will know that some of the people you communicate with prefer to work in certain ways. Some hate being called out of the blue and prefer to have a pre-arranged chat. Others insist you just pick up the phone when you need them. Some just live in Teams and you’ll only get through to them there. That’s all fine, and it’s good to be flexible.
However, as a rule of thumb, we’d say it’s a no-no to hop between platforms. So if someone has dropped you an email, that’s probably because they would like an email back when you’re ready. If they’ve texted you, it’s perhaps more urgent and needs a quicker answer – send a text message back.
Unless you think it’s necessary or urgent, we’d suggest that you don’t reply to an email with a phone call. A note back to ask when a good time for a chat will probably be far more welcome. Likewise, don’t respond to that urgent missed call on your mobile by sending an email back to ask what you missed. They were probably calling because they wanted to speak to you!
There are exceptions but generally, if you reply in the same way you were contacted, you won’t go far wrong.
Especially when some people are in the office, and some are working remotely, it’s important to look at the bigger picture rather than just what’s important to you at that moment.
Agree some boundaries with your colleagues – what’s the earliest acceptable time for a work meeting on a normal day? Should you start a video call out of the blue? How many video calls in a day is too many? What are the hours in which you can be expected to be responsive on email?
At Onecom’s Round Table event, Mandy Garrett, Group Director of not-for-profit housing organisation Pobl Group, told us how her teams took some positive steps to address these issues over lockdown when people were working from home.
“We wanted to ensure that there was transparency and a polite etiquette around digital working, and that our staff were conscious of others’ circumstances when working from home,” she said. “We wanted people to be mindful of things such as no same-day meetings and no meetings before 8:30am, so people were courteous to their peers.”
As Mandy says, courtesy is key – so set some limits and let everyone know what they are. If that means the morning meeting is better at 10am than 8.30am, or phones don’t ring after 6pm except in emergencies, then make sure everybody knows and respects those boundaries.
Understand that not everyone keeps the same schedule you do
Had a genius idea at 10pm that you absolutely must share with the team? Woken up with the lark and feel a flurry of activity coming on? You go for it – but again, choose your platform wisely. Popping a 1,000-word brainstorm into your team’s email inbox at 6am is probably fine – they can look at it when they have time. Texting round at the same time with “just a thought!” is intrusive if they’re used to a 9am start.
Likewise, if you’re working at the weekend because it suits you, and the recipient is more a Monday to Friday kind of person, by all means send that email – but make sure it’s clear that you don’t expect a response until their working week begins. It sounds obvious but it needs saying – and again, it’s a case of choosing your platform wisely and making sure everyone understands expectations.
Make sure there’s time to switch off
Just because you CAN access emails or send messages to colleagues at any time, it doesn’t mean you should. Make sure people know how they are expected to behave towards team members who are enjoying time off. It may be that you reserve the right to call them in an emergency, but they’re not expected to be in the group chat or checking emails.
Onecom can help with a setup that suits your way of working. Most smartphones have Do Not Disturb tools with flexible options – for example allowing exceptions for certain numbers, or allowing a call to get through if the caller rings twice. If calls are diverted to mobiles, make sure your system knows who is active and who is having a rest. Some companies go a step further in preserving work/life balance and act at server level to actively prevent users accessing their emails during their annual leave.
The options are there – it’s a case of knowing what they are and choosing the ones that are most appropriate for your business.
Have a clear policy
Lots of this advice relies on common sense, company culture and the needs of your business. However, it helps if everyone knows what the rules are and clearly understands them – and a written policy may help.
A document as part of an employee handbook or welcome pack can ensure everyone knows what’s expected of them, and also gives employers a more solid foundation if they need to take any action against staff who break the rules.
Be especially clear with potentially grey areas such as the use of social media – for example it might be acceptable to be on Facebook during the working day for customer engagement or promotions, but not for personal reasons
Adapt your approach
How do you feel when you receive an Outlook meeting request out of the blue?
That can be fine for some people who love the convenience of calendar requests. Others feel it’s impersonal and they would prefer a message first – “shall I book something in for Tuesday?”
How about a FaceTime call without warning? Again – it might be fine, but maybe something you’d expect from your mum and not from a customer. You’ll get to know how people prefer to engage with you but if there’s any doubt, it’s fine to ask.
Technology is powerful – use it!
There are quite a few don’ts here – so it’s time for some do’s. As we said at the start, technology can be incredibly powerful and encourage new levels of collaboration and productivity. That’s something lots of us learned over lockdown and will take with us in the months and years to come.
Do be courteous but don’t be afraid of technology – it’s there to help. When we talk to businesses about the impact of lockdown, one theme that often comes up is that people who were previously slow to embrace technology were suddenly thrown in at the deep end, and found themselves loving it.
As John Hendy, Property and IT Director at the motor business Hendy Group told us, “I’d been trying to get my senior teams to use Teams for the last year or so – and they wanted to physically meet and didn’t see the need for it.
“Then on March 23 it became a godsend. Now we don’t even think twice about it – it’s changed the dynamics massively on communications.”