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What If Your Boss Will Only Speak With You In Cyberspace?

Like everyone else, I'm been following the war of words between Meryl Streep and our Twittering president-elect. For the record, I agree with Ms. Streep. We need empathy, and a lot more of it these days.

For my blog, however, this war of words raises a very 21st-Century kind of management question: What if your boss communicates with you solely in cyberspace, and never, ever face-to-face? And what if your boss likes it this way?

The Cyberboss Who Sits 50 Feet Away
To be clear, I'm not talking about teleworkers based 3,000 miles (or more) away from management. That's a whole different matter. No, I'm talking about the boss who works in the same office -- perhaps a mere 50-feet away behind closed doors! This manager inhabits the same office space as employees, but will only communicate via cyberspace. Email. Texting. Facebook. Twitter. Slack. Insert app here. It's gotten far too easy just to send a message.

But what message is management really sending here? This manager is very good at the cyber and seems to have built a fortified firewall to keep people at a virtual distance via electronic means. Talk to the handle, employees, and admire management's latest avatar. Don't worry; the boss will be back in touch -- just as soon as they hit another WiFi hotspot and are able to pick up where they left off.

At first, I thought, No modern-day manager would ever hide behind social media, texting, email and company intranet pages when they want to insult speak with employees! The very idea seems far-fetched, sort of like Yahoo! suddenly changing its name to Altaba. It will never work!

Then I came across this link, and that link, this other link and that other link. Some employees, it turns out, do work for bosses who only talk to them online!

It's tough, and more than a little disconcerting to be in this situation, because we humans need adequate in-person interaction to feel heard and valued. It's how we're wired. We want to read body language as much as we're opening the new app that pings us as soon as the president-elect says anything about a stock in our retirement portfolio.

How To "Talk" To the Boss Who Communicates Only Online
If you're an employee dealing with a manager who speaks with you only -- and I mean ONLY -- online, then there are a few things you can do. Here are five tips for working with managers who manage via cyberspace, all the time:

1. Request to meet in person with this manager. Simply say, "It would be nice to speak with you in person, when you have a few minutes" and see what happens. Of course, your boss may never have "a few minutes" for in-person interaction and ignore your request, but at least you've made it known that you would like for it to happen sometime.

2. Try to reset a few boundaries. Working with a manager who never communicates face-to-face requires you to think about what you need. Are there work matters -- sensitive and otherwise -- that you would prefer to discuss offline, for example? If so, then you might politely say that you'd rather take it offline. Alternately, you can say you've left a document in their inbox (the offline kind) detailing the matter at hand. Just hand it to Harry Potter at the front desk. He'll know which inbox it goes in.

3. Ignore the insults. What if your boss uses online communication to insult employees' work, intelligence, personal accomplishments or other attributes? Ah, now we get right down to it, don't we? Your boss won't change their insulting ways because such behavior is hard-wired into their system. Do your best to ignore the random insults and stay focused on the work-related details. Always be the adult in the chat room. Don't take the bait, and speak kindly of your hard-working co-workers who are trying their best. Look out for each other, and back each other up.

4. Ask for clarification. It's very easy to misinterpret tone online. Your manager wrote one thing in a text, and employees heard something completely different. Miscommunication could lead to staff confusion and mistakes, so don't be afraid to ask the manager to clarify. Your manager is the one who has set up the relationship be work entirely online despite your best efforts (see Tips #1 and #2), therefore your manager must make sure to explain things very clearly, all the time.

5. Decide if this is what you want. Can you spend the next few years working for a manager who won't communicate with you face-to-face? If it isn't working for you (and I can see why it is not), then this work environment might not be the best fit for you. There is no shame in craving real, direct, face-to-face discourse in the workplace! If something feels off about how your manager communicates -- or if you're the only one in the department the boss never speaks to in person -- then your gut is trying to tell you something. Don't ignore it.

Yes, we live in the internet age, where bits, bytes and devices rule the workplace roost. Still, there has to be a good balance between online and offline communication when you're in management. A little bit of good, old fashioned "management by walking around" never goes out of style. Feel free to share your stories and advice about working for the boss behind the virtual wall. Wow, that sounds like a good book title, doesn't it?


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