Me, My Team, and the Wi-Fi Between Us

April 7, 2020

From 2019 into the beginning of 2020, one of my most important goals was to improve my digital communication. I wanted people—whether it be in an email to a coworker or classmate, a text to a friend, or a funny, scribbled Instagram story to whoever may see it—to feel like they were actually talking to me instead of just reading empty words on a screen.

What I never anticipated was for a global pandemic to make being personable a necessity instead of a nice touch to our professional online presence. After all, when we can’t communicate face to face, how do we truly see each other? How do we, as leaders, connect from behind a screen?

The Beauty of the Personalized Email

In addition to my work with Backpack, I work with first-year students in CLA. In particular, I work with first-year students who, if I do my job right, can rely on me both as the person who reads and grades their assignments and as a mentor they can turn to for help while navigating their first few semesters. This work is why I started thinking so much about how to write interesting, personal emails while maintaining a professional, appropriate demeanor. Have you ever received an email so dry you almost deleted it after reading three sentences but then remembered it was probably important? Yeah, not fun. 

So what have I been doing to keep the people on the other end reading?

First, I add color to my emails. Not a lot, because it’s important to consider the digital accessibility of your audience, but enough to be eye-catching. I’ve found that an email with a lot of information is better read when broken into smaller chunks with short, relevant headers in a color that’s bright enough to be fun but dark enough to be easily read across all manner of devices, like a medium blue or dark green. I probably wouldn’t recommend breaking up an email to a client or professor like this, but when connecting with my students or even my Backpack coworkers, it hasn’t hurt to format the information in this way.

Second, I add something at the end that lets them not only get to know me more, but also is like a fun bonus for reading all the way through. Depending on the audience and the accessibility needs of each group, this can be fun, colorful gifs; photos of my pets and an invitation to share photos of theirs; relevant memes; or even a short list of songs curated into a mood playlist. (Lately, the playlist themes have all been calming.)

The point is, consider your audience, but don’t be afraid to have fun with your emails, especially when you have a lot to say.

Making Online Homes From the Comfort of Your Own

My second tip for revitalizing online communication is to make spaces that don’t necessarily have to be about work—spaces where your coworkers, students, fellow group members, etc. can chat with you and each other freely.

Sometimes, this looks like social-oriented group message threads that are curated specifically for talking casually instead of discussing work. Sometimes, it’s a weekly video-call or other digital meeting where people can get together to study, work, or hangout. Sometimes, it’s holding pseudo-office hours every week so people know they have a time and space to connect with you.

What your created space looks like depends a lot on the device, Wi-Fi, and time availability of your team, but what’s important is making a place where everyone feels welcome and can connect with you and each other in a meaningful way. I’ve never smiled bigger than the first time a student popped into my digital office hours just to talk about music after listening to the songs I’d sent them in an email.

People-First Prioritization

My last tip is to check in on your teammates. I don’t have the answer for what will happen now that we’re facing a collision of generational burnout and global grief over the pandemic. But what I do know is that people are more important than productivity. Even though a relationship with a coworker or student looks a lot different than one with a friend, to me it’s still important that they know they’re valued and can turn to me for support.

Again, what this check-in looks like is individual. If you’re direct, you could message or call them and ask how they’re doing. If you prefer to be more subtle, you could just offer to help them with their work and acknowledge that you know they might be stressed. There’s no wrong way to check in on someone.

So here’s my final advice: whatever connecting digitally looks like to you, embrace it. Don’t be afraid to be yourself in an email or to invite your team to a socially-distanced dinner party over Zoom. Maybe we can’t reach through the computer and give someone a pat on the back, but we can still be ourselves. We can still let them know we care.