As a Boss, There's Much More to Digital Communications With Your Team Than Using the Right Emoji How can managers most effectively navigate digital relationships with their direct reports?

By Joseph Freed

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My friend Karen told me about a scenario that arose at her startup the other day. The team was onboarding a new team member, Bill, and on his first day, team members were welcoming him in a public chat channel.

Related: Why Your Emails Could Use an Exclamation Point (or Three)

Lena, a team member, wrote in the channel offering to give Bill a demo of the product. Bill did not immediately reply to Lena's offer. Several messages later in the same channel, another team member, Brian, also offered to give Bill the demo. Bill eagerly accepted Brian's demo offer.

There are many ways to explain the scenario above -- for example, maybe all other team members were in a meeting at the time Lena sent her message -- but the outcome could have real consequences for Lena's feeling of belonging on her team.

If you were managing this team, how would you handle this scenario?

Like it or not, with the rapid adaption of workplace communication platforms like Slack, the way managers give and receive feedback is dramatically altered. How can managers most effectively navigate digital relationships with their direct reports?

Related: It's Not Only OK for Your Employees to Engage Through Digital -- It's a Must

Here are four tips for channeling strong management skills in your digital communication:

1. Use digital platforms to provide real-time recognition and feedback, but don't use them as a replacement for face-to-face time.

Recognition remains one of the top human motivators, and is a well-known management tool for motivating employees.

However, providing frequent praise is harder than it looks, particularly when output is created by a team, or day-to-day progress is incremental. Digital chat and productivity platforms can be a big asset here.

Use the messaging capabilities of these tools to show employees that you appreciate their everyday good work, not just their big wins. A quick "good job," "nice work," or thumbs up emoji goes a long way! But, 1:1s are still important for building a relationship with your direct reports. Don't forget to keep a normal schedule, and stick to it.

2. Think before you type.

Productivity tools of today provide the immediate benefit of communicating with those sitting floors (or miles) away from you. However, without the aid of body language, the tone of digital communications -- particularly those rattled off in a stream of consciousness -- can be easily misconstrued.

Just as you would think before you speak, take a second to think before hitting send on your next email. Consider how the contents and wording of your message will land with your team member.

Ask yourself: "Is my message clear? Would I say this in person?" If the answer to either of these questions is no, consider re-wording or taking the conversation offline.

Related: 10 Tricks for Using Slack to Execute Your Business Strategy Like a Pro

3. Create team norms around digital communication after hours.

One great benefit of digital tools is that they empower individuals to work when it is most convenient for them. However, this increased flexibility raises new challenges with respect to after-hours communication.

In a 2015 study on workplace flexibility, 65 percent of employees reported that their manager expects them to be reachable outside of the office. Left alone, a plugged-in company culture can become a costly problem in terms of negative side-effects for employees, including low engagement and burnout.

Clearly communicate norms around after-hours communication and when employees are expected to reply, and set an example for your team by adhering to them.

4. Don't forget to create an inclusive environment in your digital spaces.

Public chat channels and email chains can be a great team bonding tool.

However, it is important to be aware of the voices that are dominating the dialog in these contexts. Notice that your team's #random channel has become an ode to the Philadelphia 76ers? Consider the team members who can't participate in these conversations, and how that exclusion might impact their feeling part of the team.

Digital dialog can also provide a valuable tool for understanding unconscious biases that might be affecting your team culture.

Related: Want to Improve Your Communication Skills? Stop Saying These 25 Words.

Back to the example from my friend Karen's startup. Remember that Lena seemed to be ignored in the group thread only to have Bill accept the demo invitation from Brian? What are the consequences for Lena? At best, she might feel a little weird. At worst, she might feel that her ideas are not valued on the team.

As a manager, these seemingly small bits of conversation can add up to issues in team dynamics. If you notice situations like this, be proactive. Take the time to speak to all parties privately, and offline.

Remember, managers account for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement. So, while digital communication platforms at work can make collaboration easier, the importance of managers in the digital age is just as critical.

Joseph Freed

Co-founder and CEO of Cultivate

Joseph Freed is a repeat entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of Cultivate, an AI-powered platform for leadership development and talent management. Freed writes about the future of work and lectures about Software Product Management at UC Berkeley Extension.

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