So much of work-life is a negotiation, deciding timelines for a project, allocating budget, choosing who works on what projects, the list goes on and on. And since many of us are looking at a hybrid or virtual work situation for the foreseeable future, it’s an excellent time to strategize around the times when a written negotiation serves you better than getting on the phone or video conference. While the research suggests “face-to-face negotiations were less hostile and resulted in higher profit than virtual negotiations,”* that doesn’t mean there aren’t some critical times where you would prefer to negotiate over email or other written communications.
1. When it’s like a contract.
The most reasonable time to use written communications is when you already have rapport. You are merely hashing out details of something that is, to some degree, in both your favors or is a foregone conclusion. You don’t have to worry (as much) that the nuance will be lost or that your interests won’t be aligned.
2. When it’s part of your process.
Sometimes faster isn’t better, especially if the other side is trying to be fairer or be more thoughtful about bandwidth allocation and has put a process in place to achieve that. If you have agreed with the product team that product requests should be logged in a specific platform, with written documentation making your case, that’s how they should be logged. While there might be other opportunities to negotiate, process is critical to functioning organizations and shouldn’t be discounted because it might be slower or more demanding.
3. When you want to be more equitable in your organization.
Creating a written negotiation process is more equitable in that it allows the output to have the center stage as opposed to the personalities of the people involved. You don’t have to worry about who has the loudest voice if you work off a written document. You might try implementing anonymous voting to decide the outcome of a negotiation so that no one’s voice carries more weight than another’s.
4. When you need a witness.
Sometimes you need it to be very clear to your manager, your direct reports, or anyone else what you’ve asked for and how you’ve asked for it. This might involve the classic passive-aggressive email technique, “+So-and-so for visibility.” A paper trail makes it easy to look back at what transpired and understand the situation.
5. When you want to have more transparency.
Distributed work, with everyone working in their own location somewhat asynchronously, relies on information transparency. If significant negotiations are seen to happen behind closed doors, two things can happen. One is that you can have an organization run solely on relationships and not on data, with decisions being made for personal reasons and without scrutiny. The second is people not in “the room” where these discussions happen can’t be sure what information was on the table and what compromises were made. Transparent documentation, such as a public list of projects to possibly be funded, with all of their pros and cons laid out, demands better preparation by leaders and drives engagement amongst team members.
6. When you’re working in inconvenient time zones.
Of course, for serious matters, you need to get on the phone or Zoom usually, but when it’s not that big a deal, it’s much better to use asynchronous communications and not force people unnecessarily into a meeting. Distributed work cannot happen if people aren’t willing to step back from synchronous communications. And committing to asynchronous communications means committing to transparent rules and processes that dictate how decisions between two parties will get made without needing verbal confirmation.
Remote communication opens up different avenues for work collaboration, each with its pros and cons. Knowing what tool to use when is a new skill to be developed to help any remote or hybrid employee achieve their goals and connect better with colleagues. Negotiating over email, project management software, or document often requires more clarity of thought than a verbal negotiation but ideally the outcomes will be all the better for the process put in.
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*Stuhlmacher, A.F., Citera, M. Hostile Behavior and Profit in Virtual Negotiation: a Meta-Analysis. J Bus Psychol 20, 69–93 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-005-6984-y