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The Fine Art of Communicating in the Digital Age

Communication is a very personal thing, reliant on the style of the communicator and the receptivity of the recipient.

By John Salustri
IStock 1128695078

Communication is a very personal thing, reliant on the style of the communicator and the receptivity of the recipient. Communication in business is especially challenging since it carries with it the added burdens of clarity for the sake of efficiency and, let’s face it, corporate politics.

There are theories about how to communicate in this digital age—what mode of messaging is better in what situations, be it face-to-face, email, video conferencing or social media. And there are stereotypes based on age, such as millennials preferring texts to in-person conversations and baby boomers thinking TikTok is just a creepy phrase from “Silence of the Lambs.” (“Tick tock, Clarice!”)

Put the assumptions and stereotypes aside. As the IREM Members we talked with attest, there’s more fluidity between the generations on the topic of communication preferences than sweeping statements allow. And there’s agreement on the etiquette of communication in the digital age.

Can We Talk?

Every time you take one of the five senses away from a communication, you lose impact. Facial expressions are lost in phone conversations, the subtleties of inflection disappear in a text or email. And no, emojis just don’t count.

Neither, by the way, does social media for the purposes of this conversation. It can be a valuable tool for emergency outreach. (Japanese CPMs, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, used Twitter to message constituents.) Outside of crises, it’s typically used to “get our brand out,” as Michael M. Daniels, CPM, chief operating officer of Cagan Management Group, AMO, in Skokie, Ill., points out. “It’s a marketing tool and not effective for two-way communication.”

The problem is, “Too many people hide behind computers,” says IREM San Diego Chapter President Lucinda A. Lilley, CPM, who is vice president at FBS Property Management, AMO. “Communicating verbally is a lost art. Email is one of the least effective means of communication, unless you simply need to have something clearly documented.” Ironically, it’s usually the most readily at hand.

It should be noted that Lilley is a member of the international John Maxwell Team, a group dedicated to grooming leaders. Lilley, a certified coach, trainer and speaker, is currently coaching leaders within her organization and using Maxwell’s book, “Everyone Communicates; Few Connect.” Tellingly, the group is made up of millennials. “The boomers weren’t interested,” she says.

In all communication, but in business particularly, good communication demands the input of “the tone of voice, eye contact, body language and recognizing where the listener is, and meeting them at that level,” Lilley says.

And here’s where myths start to break down. If such niceties as tone and body language sound like the concerns of a bygone era, millennials are sensitive to them as well.

“You need to know your audience,” says CPM Candidate Cody Kirkpatrick, ARM, president of the Austin, Texas-based SAPPER Group. “Everybody receives messages a little differently, depending on who’s on the other end of that message.”

For that reason, and despite the pace of the property management business, taking a breath to think for a minute is a good idea. “I typically pause to consider what I need to say and the best communication method for that message,” says Erin Leahy, who earned her CPM last September. She serves today as senior facilities manager at Cushman & Wakefield, AMO, in Manhattan. “It saves time, energy and miscommunication.”

“I typically pause to consider what I need to say and the best communication method for that message. It saves time, energy and miscommunication.”

—Erin Leahy, CPM, Cushman & Wakefield, AMO

Goodbye, Mr. Bell?

Visual clues to messaging that come with face-to-face meetings are obviously lost in an email, and only inflection survives a phone call. But even that audio signal might be going away as the phone competes with newer forms of outreach.

“The phone is probably my least favorite form of communicating, which is funny because I grew up in the ’70s, and I was on the phone the entire decade,” says Lilley. “People can blindside you.”

Daniels, on the other hand, believes phone calls are still a valuable form of communication that leads to faster resolution. But these days he says he prefers calls as planned and scheduled events. “Texting, email and Outlook invitations are effective ways to set up these conversations,” he notes.

Kirkpatrick, who defines himself as being on the “back end” of the millennial age, embraces phone calls more than the two boomers. He counts them, along with face-to-face encounters and emails, among his primary communication tools, adding, of course, that “it depends on the situation.”

But face-to-face encounters come at the expense of time, unless they’re folded into the building-inspection process. Otherwise, Kirkpatrick notes that Skype is a popular tool, especially among millennials, for closing that time gap.

That is, when done properly. As Lilley adds, “Skype is great for business meetings that are impossible to hold otherwise. But you need an agenda and you need to stick to it.” And you don’t want to lose the time you’ve saved fussing with technology. “It needs to work well to work at all.”

Leahy probably embraces email the most, and reserves the phone for brainstorming or passing on difficult information. Phones, she says, “work best for more complex topics that would otherwise require a lengthy email that could be misconstrued. I like to use emails to follow up after phone calls, which also helps summarize the phone conversation.” By the way, she also hates voicemail and doesn’t even have an office VM set up. She pans text messaging as too personal.

Face-to-face conversations she reserves largely “for negotiating a contract or a deal, when I have to have a difficult conversation with someone or I’m trying to build trust or common ground.” Recalling the five-senses rule, “You can see sincerity on people’s faces.”

Generation Gap—Revisited

When it comes to generational differences in communication technique, there’s so much boomers and millennials can learn from each other. Kirkpatrick, who is vice chair of IREM’s Student and Academic Outreach Advisory Board, says that in addition to the group’s focus on student outreach, participation gives both cohorts a front-row chance to exchange ideas.

“Millennials can learn so much from boomers in terms of real-life scenarios and applications that you can’t get out of a classroom setting,” he says. “Likewise, millennials have grown up in a world of technology and an environment that encourages outside-the-box thinking, and we can help [boomers] to overcome those tech challenges.”

Daniels agrees that adaptation of new technologies is needed in an environment where our clients and occupants are trending younger. “I’m the old guy in the office, so I’ve had to adapt and become effective in the way people are communicating today.”

“We have a lot to teach,” says Lilley, “and I’m excited that millennials understand that and are looking to us, the older generation, to figure out how to communicate effectively and make a connection with somebody.”

But are millennials more technologically advanced than their seniors? “No way in hell!” is her frank answer.

Please Pass the Rule Book

As Lilley stated, the point of communication is to make connections, and so, as in every civil interaction, etiquette is key. (For instance, we all know, even if we don’t adhere to, the warning about all caps in emails.) So we asked our experts for their rules of communication etiquette.

Our two millennials stress the importance of cutting to the chase, especially in face-to-face conversations, where one could get lost in pleasantries.

Cody Kirkpatrick, a six-year Army veteran, says that, in emails or in person, he carries over the military mindset to promote a “bottom-line, up-front approach. No matter the communication method, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time, including my own. If there’s a problem, I lead with that, and if there’s good news I lead with that. I keep it short and sweet and still portray the whole story.”

Emails carry specific rules, he continues: “Keep it business. I don’t need smiley faces or emojis, and if you weren’t asking for a reply, make that clear. And if no reply is required, don’t reply.”

“I’ve been accused of responding too quickly. The result is what people around me call ‘Michael-isms.’ So read over your emails, check the grammar and make sure you’ve addressed all the concerns that could otherwise result in a reply for clarification from the other party.”

—Michael M. Daniels, CPM, Cagan Management Group, AMO

Short and sweet is Leahy’s rule as well. Especially in face-to-face meetings, time is of the essence. “The rules of etiquette are: Be on time, be present during the conversation and limit as many meetings as possible to a maximum of 30 minutes,” she says. “And have an agenda. It will minimize off-topic conversations.” Spend thirty seconds here and there on pleasantries, she believes, and by the end of the week, we’re talking about real money.

When it comes to emails, Leahy liberally uses delayed delivery after hours. “I don’t want to be that person who interrupts people’s personal lives for non-urgent matters,” she says. Recipients tend to “be prompted to check it and respond. So when I do send an after-hours email, they know I’m not crying wolf.”

Leahy finds that, although some clients may be reluctant to adopt technologies such as computerized maintenance management system software as a means to communicate with property and facility management teams, ultimately they come to embrace such tools and their efficiency in dispatching services directly to the occupant. “Tools such as 360 Facility and Workspeed allow us to deliver best-in-class services to our clients,” she says.

For Daniels, taking care to craft an email or text is an important part of messaging, something, he confesses, he struggles to do. “I’ve been accused of responding too quickly,” he says. “The result is what people around me call ‘Michael-isms.’ So read over your emails, check the grammar and make sure you’ve addressed all the concerns that could otherwise result in a reply for clarification from the other party.”

“I think I could teach a class on communication etiquette,” says Lilley. When it comes to emails, of course, no caps, and she agrees with Daniels that it’s not so much a matter of length as much as clarity. “We need to construct proper sentences with appropriate grammar. You need to spell properly and get to the point. Don’t write an essay when bullet points will do.”

At the end of the day, communicating is much more than what we say. “It’s about connecting,” she says, “and you have to understand your audience and the content of the specific message before you can make that connection.”

Issue: May/June 2019  

Journal of Property Management

John Salustri is a contributing writer for JPM®.

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