As data science and natural language processing analysis becomes more mature, HR and People Analytics departments are beginning to deploy sophisticated technologies to help managers and employees become better leaders. These new AI/ML technologies (like the Cultivate platform) can help analyze a user’s digital communications, such as chat messages, emails and calendar events, to find patterns and give helpful nudges (or suggestions) to improve their habits. Getting feedback on communication skills is nothing new – performance reviews have been doing this for decades – but the ability to systematically analyze digital communications with AI/ML platforms reveals interesting patterns that are more often than not missed by human observers.

Here are some of the unique insights that these new AI/ML coaching platforms can provide (based on emails, chat messages and online meeting habits). Do any of these apply to you?

You Don’t Communicate Enough While Working Remotely

Perhaps a review of your messages shows that you don’t engage with remote team members as often as you do with those in the office. Regular interactions are important; Gallup found that remote workers are three times more likely to be engaged if they receive feedback from their manager at least a few times per month. This is often easier when you’re both in the office since you’ll probably have plenty of interactions with your team simply by chance. When working remotely it can be easier to lose touch, especially with members who you don’t need to collaborate with often, like for a specific project. Don’t worry about over-communicating while working remotely – worry about under-communicating.

To avoid this, take some time to note how you’re responding to different members of your team. Do you notice any anomalies or biases? The Cultivate platform can help with this by baselining how quickly a user responds to different people via different digital channels, giving this data back to them as feedback, and providing useful suggestions when they deviate from it (i.e. “It’s been three days and you haven’t responded to XXX’s email yet”).

You’re Not Using the Best Digital Channel For Your Message

Different communications platforms have different strengths. You might be communicating often enough with your team, but if they’re not responding or engaging with you, then you may be using the wrong channel for the type of conversation you’re trying to have. To help resolve this, think about the strengths of different channels and try to pick the best one for the type of message you need to send. Here is a quick overview:

Email – In general, only a small portion of a conversation comes through via email. Use this for assignments and sharing information that is less time-sensitive.
Phone – Although phone calls are more disruptive, they are more intimate, and they add tone of voice to your communication. Because phones are more interruptive, they are also more likely to be taken seriously and remembered, so use them strategically with this in mind.
Instant Chat – These tools, like Slack or MS Teams, are ideal for sharing information and having informal “water cooler” conversations. Be mindful that you’re not hitting up your team too often though – since these chats are instant, they can create more pressure to respond quickly and can take people “out of the zone” and affect productivity.
Video Conferencing – This can be the best tool for most manager communications. Consider using them for important conversations like 1-on-1s and team meetings where engagement is important.

You View Your Inbox as a Measure of Your Productivity

If you tend to send chat messages and emails at odd hours, which sometimes inconveniences or stresses out your team members, you may be thinking too much about your own productivity. Most knowledge workers do this to a degree – our inboxes become our to-do lists, and we try to accomplish them in the most efficient way possible. If you’re working remotely, that might mean working late, early or (if you have a family) whenever it’s your partner’s turn to deal with the kids. Contrary to some of the stereotypes, Cultivate data has shown that employees worked more hours and sent many more messages on nights and weekends since widespread work from home began (this is consistent with other sources as well).

Working outside the traditional 8-5 workday isn’t necessarily a problem (and it might be helpful for some people), but if you’re a manager it may unintentionally put pressure on your team. Working late at night or over the weekend can set an unspoken example that this is what you expect from your direct reports. This can make them more stressed and contribute to burnout (see this WSJ article: Sunday Night is the new Monday Morning and Workers are Miserable). Instead of thinking about how to clear out your inbox as fast as possible, consider how your messages will affect the experience of your team and how you might be able to improve it.

To help with this, Cultivate offers a Chrome extension for Gmail called SmartSend to make it easier to schedule messages for delivery during the recipient’s working hours (and many email platforms have “schedule ahead” features that can also help with this).

You Struggle to Give Negative Feedback

If the thought of giving your team members negative feedback or constructive criticism makes your stomach churn, don’t worry! This is normal – many managers find this stressful. Psychological research has shown that creating a successful relationship requires making five positive statements for every one negative one. Be on the lookout for ways to build up this “bank” of compliments with your team members so you can give them constructive criticism when needed. When you do need to deliver negative feedback, consider using a method like “I like, I wish, I wonder” where you begin with a comment about what you like about the work, continue to point out something you wish was different, and then finally make a specific request for a change, phrased as “I wonder if we can try…” This reassures the person receiving the feedback and comes off as less threatening.

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically reset HR’s priorities, and companies are still adjusting their processes to support remote digital workforces. To learn more about how you can improve digital communications with your remote team, check out Cultivate’s Leading Remotely ebook.

Joe Freed, CEO
Joe Freed, CEO

As Co-founder and CEO of Cultivate, Joe is focused on building leadership development and future-of-work technology for the digital workforce. In addition to leading Cultivate, Joe enjoys writing about workplace trends, teaching about startups and product management at UC Berkeley Extension, and occasionally running a marathon.