August 4, 2019

Sara Rusniak

Running with Rusniak: Establishing Virtual Rules of Engagement

virtual rules

As a virtual contractor and member of the Gig Economy, the normal rules of office behavior don’t apply to me. I don’t have to worry about packing a lunch and offending the nostrils of my co-workers as I reheat my food in a communal lunchroom. I don't have to follow a dress code policy—although, I do feel more awake and prepared for the day when I've put on something other than gym clothes or pajamas!

I’ve had the freedom to develop my own personal guidelines for my home-based workplace. My virtual rules of engagement evolve and adapt as I gain more experience working in this space. I polled some trusted advisors (family and friends) when developing my latest iteration, which I’m sharing in this blog post.

Forms of Communication

The prevalence of email today makes written communication the default for sending a message. Email messages are great because you can send them pretty much whenever and from wherever. But sometimes a phone call, text message, video call, or in-person meeting could be much more effective. For example, if I need an answer immediately, I usually start with a phone call and follow up with a text message if I really need the answer now. If I want to build a relationship and not just complete a task, a video call or an in-person meeting is the way to go for me. I’d say that at least 80 percent of my communications are still email-based; email works well when my timeline for action is flexible and I want to keep detailed task notes for future reference.

Email Openings

Something that I continue to struggle with is the formality I use when preparing emails for clients and clients of clients. Starting with “Dear, [first name]" seems far too old fashioned for me; it just doesn't work with my e-voice and writing style. If I'm really comfortable with the person (e.g., family, friends, and my closest clients), I'll address them by first name alone. I can't seem to figure out how to start an email to a client of a client, though. For the longest time, I've opted to use a time-based salutation, like "Good morning” or “Good afternoon,” but there are a few situations when this gets tricky:

  • I'm based on the East Coast but work with individuals from all over the United States, and even internationally. If I'm emailing someone on the West Coast at 1 pm my time, and I know it's only 10 am their time, do I say, “Good morning” or “Good afternoon”? When sending an email, should the salutation be relevant to where I am or where the recipient is? I’ve landed on using my own time zone as the default, because I can’t possibly know at what time the recipient of my email will read it, making the entire dilemma potentially irrelevant!
  • The other complication I face when using that type of salutation is that I don't know what to say when I'm emailing in the evenings. As a stay-at-home, work-from-home mom, I do a lot of work when my husband gets home from his day job or after my daughter goes to bed. If I'm sending an email at 8:30 pm, what should I say? "Good evening” seems as good of an option as any, so it’s what I use most often.


I also struggle with—especially over text—the use of exclamation points, capitalization, and emojis. It’s hard to insert emotion into written communications appropriately. I often find myself adding an exclamation point to the end of every sentence when I’m trying to convey my excitement. If I'm trying to make a point and explain something, sometimes I use ALL CAPS. Whenever I try to add a bit of humor to a message, I insert an emoji. The problem with all of these behaviors is the recipients might misinterpret my message as yelling or being overly casual. It's a fine line that I find challenging, and it is where I make the most changes to my messages when proofreading them before I send them.

Multi-Recipient Communications

At my first job out of college, someone shared with me the importance of the difference between CC and BCC. Ever since then, I’ve been very cautious about sharing the email addresses of others through mass emailing. There are times when I send the same message to many different individuals with different relationships to me (and often all of the recipients are affiliated with one another in some way). Using BCC allows all recipients to remain anonymous because their email addresses are not shared with the others who receive the message. If anyone replies to the message, it only goes to only me (instead of everyone as when the REPLY ALL function is unintentionally used).

Response Time for Emails

This is my favorite personal work rule! While I'm spending time with my daughter (and not actively on the clock for work), I try to avoid checking email or doing anything work-related that takes away from my interactions with her. This means I don't always immediately respond to questions and other requests over email. In some of my roles, I actually have a policy to not respond to an email too quickly, which helps avoid setting a precedent that reflects constant availability. This is something I especially enforce on weekends! However, I do try to acknowledge emails within 24 hours during the standard Monday through Friday workweek. Even if I’m not able to fully complete the request detailed in the sender’s email during that time period, I will reply and explain that I’ve received the message and also provide a timeline for completion.

Do have any written or unwritten rules for how you work, either in an office or virtually? I’d love to hear about what works for you!

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