Navigating challenging conversations

As you may know, Spry Fox has been an entirely virtual (work-from-home) studio for all ten years of its existence. So I’ve been getting a lot of pings from folks whose studios are suddenly in the same boat and are looking for advice.

In particular, I’m hearing from lots of folks who started out thinking, “wow, I’m amazed how easily we’ve switched to working-from-home!” and, after a few weeks, starting transitioning to, “uh oh, we’re starting to notice more friction between employees who aren’t accustomed to communicating so much via text.”

So I wanted to share a page from the Spry Fox team handbook, entitled “navigating challenging conversations”, which I thought might be of help to anyone in that predicament! (It also covers multi-cultural issues, which are a separate thing but can be exacerbated in virtual environments.)

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Navigating Challenging Conversations

Spry Fox employs people all over the world. We consider this to be a net strength, not a net weakness. Unfortunately, we miss out on regular face-to-face interactions, and that’s an unquestionable downside. But we believe that having the ability to hire the best, most “foxy” people anywhere in the world, and consequently benefiting from their diverse perspectives, makes us better as a whole.

That said, Spry Fox only works well when we acknowledge that remote communication — especially via text — is more prone to misunderstanding than face-to-face communication. Research has demonstrated that you’re twice as likely to misjudge someone’s tone and/or intent when chatting via text as you are when chatting in person! For this reason, we generally recommend that when a conversation starts to feel confusing, unpleasant or tense for any reason, you immediately switch to voice/video chat if possible. You should never feel reluctant to suggest this to the people whom you are communicating with!

Similarly, Spry Fox only works well when we all make an effort to respect each other’s cultural differences. Please try to remember that you may have grown up under very different circumstances than other Spry Foxes. Communication styles, emphasis on (and very definition of) “politeness”, and comfort with physical proximity are all examples of important interpersonal areas that may vary widely from culture to culture. Two equally wonderful people may have a completely different idea of the proper way to discuss a topic. What seems like an innocuous comment to one person might seem offensive to another.

We function well as a group despite frictions that might be caused by these cultural differences because we remind ourselves that Spry Fox makes a conscious effort to hire kind, decent people who want to make the world a better place. When you are interacting with another Fox, and they say or do something that rubs you the wrong way, please remind yourself of this. It’s hard to be angry at someone when you stop and think “they care about their work, and they are probably under stress, and/or they may not realize that what they are saying is likely to irritate me, and/or there may be a simple misunderstanding underlying this situation!” Put another way: when there’s doubt, assume the best of intent!

In summary: in any tense situation between Spry Foxes, there are half a dozen innocent things – totally unrelated to negativity or unprofessionalism – that might be underpinning the tension. Being remotely distributed and chatting via the imperfect medium that is text only exacerbates such tensions. Try to remember that the other person probably isn’t intentionally being a jerk… most jerks don’t make it through our hiring process and the very few who do eventually get fired. Whoever is upsetting you probably has different ideas and communication styles than you do. Or perhaps you are misunderstanding their intent or state of mind, because text chat sucks. Odds are high that you’re both lovely, hard-working people. 

If you’re struggling to work effectively and happily together with anyone, please don’t be afraid to talk to other Foxes (esp Pat, Dave and Danc) about it. We’ll help and we’ll be very happy to do so!

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