Category Archives: business communication

virtual team communication

Communication in virtual teams may not feel as fluid and dynamic as it does in face to face teams, especially if you’ve spent most of your time working in collocated teams.  Here are four ways to improve communication in virtual teams:

1. Develop communication norms.

Email. Texting. SharePoint. Phone calls. Workfront. Jira. Slack. Sales Force. Instant messaging. And the list goes on (and on!).

There are so many communication technologies available for virtual teams these days, it can be hard to figure out which one is best used for which type of task.

The more you can establish norms for communicating through certain media for specific tasks, it will make it easier for your virtual team members to find what they need and communicate effectively.

2. Be available as much as possible.

When a collocated team member walks by and sees your door open and that you’re not on the phone, it is easy and comfortable for them to stop by and ask a quick question, get clarification or simply say hello.

Virtual team members don’t have access to those same physical and visual cues, so they will need other means to know when you are available.  Whether it is through using an onscreen status indicator or regularly scheduling office hours where virtual team members can “drop by” via phone or video conference, make yourself available to your virtual team members in a regular and dependable way.

3. Strategically over-communicate.

Communicate your expectations through multiple means (project plans, documents and meetings to name a few). Over-communicate the things that you feel are the most important, being mindful to keep it at an expectations level rather than at a task level in order to avoid micromanaging team members.  Additionally, do your best to preempt any side conversations with individual team members in which important or critical information is exchanged. This will help to ensure that team members who are not present don’t feel out of the loop or disenfranchised because they were not part of the discussion.

4. Communicate the story of the team and how it fits into big picture

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, virtual team members need to hear the story of their team (why it was formed, what it’s goals are and how it fits into the mission of the broader organization) regularly and told with conviction. When team members understand the broader context for the team’s existence and their specific role on it and that they are fulfilling a critical role in the organization, they will be more likely to be committed and engaged.

These four steps, taken together, can make significant strides toward bringing more cohesion and connection to your virtual team. These steps are meaningless if you don’t act on them.  Pick one and start doing it today.

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    man-on-phone-background-noise

    Dogs barking in the background.

    A noisy lawnmower outside an open window.

    Doorbells, other phones ringing and text message alerts.

    These and other distractions have been the impetus for many virtual teams to enforce a ground rule of muting during calls when others are talking.

    Muting comes with its own set of pros and cons. Sure, the dogs, doorbells and children are not a distracting part of the meeting. At the same time, muting the line often gives way to doing other work and non-work activities.

    A recent study by Intercall, supplier of teleconference lines to the vast majority of Fortune 100 companies found that many employees report doing other things while attending conference call meetings:

    • Two-thirds of those surveyed admitted to doing other work while on other calls,
    • 63% reported writing and sending email,
    • nearly half admitted to using the restroom while on a call,
    • and others reported being on another phone call or exercising while on conference calls.

    Clearly mute is necessary to perform these unrelated activities without disrupting the call.

    Is there an alternative?  One that will keep employees engaged in the call at hand – the one they are supposed to be on?

    Indeed, there it and it is unmuting.  I advise virtual teams to UNMUTE during their meetings (think three to ten people on a call or video chat; the same rules to not apply when there are more than a dozen people on the call).  Having everyone “live” on the line fosters a more natural flow of conversation.

    Social cohesion is also more likely to develop since team members’ laughter and other social cues are heard and more easily understood.

    As for the issue of background noise such as a barking dog, the doorbell, or even the sounds of family members, these can be a good reminder that team members are people in real environments with real things happening in their environments, rather than work-producing robots. It’s also a good reminder that someone might be joining the call at an odd hour in their time zone or on a day when they might otherwise not be working.

    So, if you’d like to create more social cohesion, more accountability and get people to pay more attention on conference calls, reach for the “unmute” button.

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    micromanaged

    “I do my best work when micromanaged,” said no employee ever.

    Managers typically do not set out to micromanage, but it is easy for those who supervise virtual employees and teams to micromanage on accident. Without observing the day-to-day work behavior of others, some managers and supervisors will resort to overmanaging the daily responsibilities of their direct reports.

    To manage more effectively in a virtual environment, follow these five steps.

    1. Provide more structure than you think they need.

    As a leader of a virtual team, you’ll need to take a more structured approach than if you were managing that same team in a collocated environment.  To provide that additional structure you can be proactive in explaining what success looks like at each step of the project team members are working toward.  Use technology tools to make sure team members know who is responsible for what and when it is expected to be done, as well as highlighting the interdependencies among team members. When this structure is communicated directly and upfront, it is far less likely to be perceived as micromanagement.

    2. Lead the person, supervise the work.

    As you set expectations and provide more structure than you think you need to, be cognizant of the possibly of micromanagement creeping in.

    Managing virtually is best done when leadership and management are clearly thought of as separate activities. Lead the employee. Supervise their work.

    That may sound simple, but it is not always easy to implement.

    What does it mean?

    Leading the employee is about imparting values, communicating vision and direction and telling the story of the team (discussed in Four Steps to Creating Community in Virtual Teams).  Supervising the work, on the other hand, is about setting clear expectations on process, outcomes and timelines. Each employee may have different needs in terms of how much supervision they need. Be aware of those needs. Ask about them if you need to so that you can avoid micromanagement.

    3. Create a supportive work environment.

    Create a supportive work environment for your virtual team members by being available, having an established rhythm and encouraging informal interactions.

    When your team members know they can reach you for a quick question, they will feel more supported and less “out of the loop,” a common complaint of virtual employees. And, when there is a rhythm to their week which includes regular one-one-one meetings with you, regular team meetings or status updates, they will be less likely feel “lost” in the organization. Further, find opportunities to engage in informal interactions with virtual employees to approximate the connection that develops with collocated employees when you visit informally in the hallways or when getting coffee. These interactions create social cohesion between you and your employees and also model that it is okay – beneficial even – for them to have social interactions with one another.

    4. Provide more feedback.

    Employees who work virtually need more feedback. They don’t get the quick look of approval from you that may transpire in a face-to-face meeting or the questioning non-verbal reaction of your knit brow when you don’t understand something.  When they do good work, especially that which is above and beyond your expectations, be generous in your praise. And, if they are new to their role, be clear and specific as they learn the ropes, again being generous when they fulfill on their expectations and being quick to provide constructive feedback if they are not fulfilling on the expectations of their tasks or their role.

    5. Clarify expectations; track commitments and progress.

    During regular one-on-one meetings and team status meetings, clarify expectations.  Do your virtual team employees know exactly what they need to do and by when?  Do they understand how their work is interrelated with that of other team members? Set those expectations clearly and explicitly.

    Use tools for team members to track their commitments and their progress on those commitments. With smart use of technology, you can take a backseat to always knowing where each virtual team member is in relation to their work responsibilities. Insist that the tools be used and explain if necessary, that this is a tool that helps you from micromanaging them.

    With these five steps in practice, you will keep yourself out of the micromanagement trap with your virtual employees.  They will respect you more for it and their true value to the organization will have the best chance to shine brightly.

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    virtual teams

    Humans crave community.  In fact, our survival depends on it.  It’s true in our personal lives and it’s true at work, too.

    Community does not necessarily develop as fluidly and naturally when managing virtual teams as when managing collocated teams. Purposefully cultivating a sense of community is often overlooked when managing and supervising virtual teams.

    However, if you don’t create a vibrant community for virtual employees to belong to, they will find their own community. Again, it is part of our very fabric to feel a part of something. So if virtual team members are not finding community in the workplace ether, they might find it on social media through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.  Or they might find it in their actual physical community by walking the dog, hanging out with neighbors during work hours, or spending time in local coffee shops and other haunts . . . not working. Or they may fall back on other communities that they already belong to like extended family and friends.

    To create a virtual team that truly embodies community (that is commitment to one another, ability to be vulnerable, and a strong desire to see the team succeed) requires conscious, deliberate action.

    Here are four steps to create community in virtual teams:

    1. Get together in person early and often.

    Advocate tirelessly for a budget to bring team members together early and often. Although the tools for communicating and collaborating virtually have improved dramatically over the last decade, there is still no replacement for face-to-face interaction. Team members will build trust more swiftly, have a greater sense of comfort with one another and come to rely on each other the more opportunities they have to spend time together in the same room.

    2. Get to know team members.

    Into every team interaction, build opportunities for team members to get to know one another better.  Whether it is a simple round-robin roll call where you ask what people ate for breakfast or where they’d go on vacation if they had an unlimited budget, create opportunities for them to share small, relatively low-risk information about themselves.  As they build social cohesion, the team will become stronger and work together better.

    3. Create spaces and places for informal interaction.

    Whether it be through an enterprise wide tool like Yammer, Honey or Slack, or using a public platform like a private group on Facebook, team members need a place to gather, exchange ideas and be social. Consciously create the places and spaces for your virtual team members to hang out and communicate virtually.  And then get yourself there and model the behavior you’d like to see.

    4. Regularly communicate the story of the team

    While it might seem commonplace to you, your team members need to hear the story of their team regularly and told with conviction.  Include why it was formed, what it’s goals are and how it fits into the mission of the broader organization. When team members feel like their team is by design rather than by accident and fulfilling a critical role in the organization, they will be more likely to be committed and engaged.

    What are your favorite techniques for creating community in your virtual team?

    Share your ideas in the comments below.

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    man_woman_discussing

    Jon just received an offer for his dream job: a more challenging job (in a good way), a bump in salary and a plum location.

    The only trouble is, he enjoys working for his current boss Sarah, and he’s unsure how to explain that he’s leaving.  Hired directly out of college by Sarah, Jon hasn’t had to navigate a resignation conversation before.

    As Jon speaks with Sarah, there are two types of rules that will govern how their conversation unfolds. Constitutive rules help us understand how to create meaning. Regulative rules guide the behavior of the conversation and communicate what happens next in a conversation.

    Jon begins his conversation with Sarah by sharing how much he has learned from her in the five years he’s worked for her.  He mentions that she has been a role model in navigating office politics and securing resources.  Sarah must determine how to interpret Jon’s praise of her leadership (constitutive rule). She will draw on past experiences of being complimented on her leadership style and what those remarks meant (as well as her relationship with Jon) as she applies constitutive rules to make sense of what he means.

    “However,” Jon continues, invoking a constitutive rule that suggests Sarah will need to make additional meaning out of what comes next. “I’ve made the difficult decision to take a role with a new firm.”

    Sarah must compose some sort of response, governed by a regulative rule.  She may ask for more information about the new opportunity Jon is pursuing or if there’s anything she could do to persuade him to stay.

    As the two engage in the conversation and co-create their social reality, they will discover each other’s rule systems. Some rules they have known from working together and some will be discovered in this novel situation.

    While these rules are not spoken of aloud, they are constantly being negotiated in the moment, drawing on the life experiences and world views of the conversational partners, which may vary markedly. They may not agree entirely on the rules they are choosing to enact, but at least they can make sense of their conversation and what will happen next.

    What conversational rules can you identify – either constitutive or regulative – and how do they shape meaning making or turn taking in the conversation?

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    information-hoarding

    information-hoardingJeannie worked at ACME Corp in a field with government regulation, and although the regulations were slow to change, she and her department were expected to keep on top of them.

    Jeannie was pleasant and fun to work for. She always had a kind word and a question or three about the family and other topics of importance to her colleagues and direct reports.

    After several decades with little change, a variety of factors both political and economic, prompted rapid and swift change in her industry.  Regulations changed. ACME Corp needed to change too.

    A team of six people reported to Jeannie during this somewhat turbulent time of changing regulations. Over the years, Jeannie had divided up tasks and responsibilities among her team members in such a way that none of them could clearly understand the “big picture.”

    Her employees were keeping abreast of the changes in the industry and regulations and that, in turn, prompted questions from them. They needed to see, more and more, how their work was interrelated and how the changing regulations impacted the processes they followed.

    “No problem, don’t worry yourself about it,” was always Jeannie’s reply when her team members asked even routine and basic questions about the bigger picture. “It’s my job to worry about those things.”

    But it became more and more clear that if Jeannie was worrying about those things, she wasn’t letting on.

    She held the purse-strings on organizational knowledge tight and her emotions even tighter.

    The more the industry and the organization changed, the more tightly wound Jeannie became.

    Senior leaders at ACME became aware of the situation. It was the perfect storm that they hadn’t seen coming: Jeannie was heavily invested in the organization (her professional identity hinged entirely on her current role and ACME) and she was faced with significant changes in her field and she hadn’t kept up.  Her tenure with the organization and her information hoarding yielded power disproportionate to her position.

    Senior management feared firing her because of all the organizational knowledge she held.  They feared the status quo even more: a breach in compliance could cost them their license to be in business.

    So they coached and prodded and pried. But they could not crack Jeannie. She was a tough nut.

    And she was a liability. So they “re-organized” her right out of the organization.

    Withholding information, the tactic Jeannie clung to in hopes of job security, was eventually what “done her in.”

    Where do you see information hoarding? How is it compromising your team or organization’s success?

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    obstacles

    obstaclesRandall was ten years into a job that he thought he’d retire from. Everything was perfect . . . except for the past six years, when he’d been miserable.  He’d finally come to grips with his dissatisfaction on his most recent birthday, one with a zero on the end.  He’d realized it was easy to stay put in a job he didn’t like anymore.

    Easy, except for all the complaining to his wife and friends.

    Easy, except for his irritability that showed up in how he treated his kids.

    Easy, except for the impact on his health: high blood pressure, weight gain and disturbed sleep.

    Not so easy to stay put after all.

    So, Randall started applying for jobs, a daunting task, given he’d not updated his resume in a decade. After numerous false starts in his job search, he found his groove. He was networking, interviewing and growing hopeful.

    The perfect opportunity emerged.  It felt like the job description had been crafted expressly for him. Randall applied, was invited to interview, and knocked it out of the park. After three rounds of interviews, where he shined, he was convinced the job was his.

    Until he found out that it wasn’t.

    He rationalized that he didn’t want it anyway, the commute was too long, the industry wasn’t a perfect fit, and that he’d be better off without that job.

    In fact, he thought, his current job wasn’t so bad after all.

    Randall was full out compensating for the cognitive dissonance he felt. His desired state (new job) didn’t match his current reality (no job offer).  And his brain did what our brains are programmed to do: protect us. Except denying Randall a career where he can feel fulfilled and one that doesn’t compromise his health isn’t really what is the best for him.

    Many of us, like Randall, follow our instincts to avoid similar situations.

    The result?

    We deny ourselves the opportunity to want what we want, to go after our dreams, and stay where it is safe.

    Big dreams don’t always come to fruition the first time at bat. Or the second or the tenth.

    Connect with your dreams and don’t let the inevitable setbacks hold you back.

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    keyboard

     

    I’m breaking up with email.

    I’m in an all-out effort to be more productive and focused. As such, I’m experimenting with various productivity techniques. This week, I’m reducing my dependency on email as a distraction and a vice. It’s harder than I thought. Way. Harder.

    I’ve long touted the benefits of checking email two or three times per day when teaching emerging leaders how to be more strategically effective. And just between you and me, I thought I practiced this myself.  Until I got real with myself this week and actually turned email off – closed the application, the webmail version and turned off the “new mail” chime on my smartphone.  Then the shizzle got real.

    Take this morning for example: I’m in my office, prepping for a speech I’m giving on Friday. I’m combing through data from interview research to find the most compelling stories to support the points I’m making. As soon as I bump up against a challenge, like not easily finding a story that illustrates my point, I reach for email.

    Or as soon as I come to a natural transition point, I reach for email. I just completed one of the sections of the speech.  I have only one section to go (plus the conclusion), and what do I do? I reach for effing email. Sheesh!!

    I’ve often spoken about how email is as addictive as cocaine, sugar and Facebook. Somehow, I thought I was immune. I think we all do.  We think that we are stronger than that. We, certainly, don’t succumb to the dopamine rush that the brain produces when we get a new email.  But alas, we do. Totally.

    From an addiction standpoint, email has the perfect combination of elements:

    • It’s infrequent. You never know exactly when one is coming. Which makes it so much more exciting when you get one!
    • It’s personal. Even if it is a mailing list you are subscribed to, it’s most often addressed to you personally.
    • It’s the perfect procrastination tool. It feels like work. Like important work.

    And so, on this morning, as the minutes tick down until noon, when I can next check my email (one hour, fourteen minutes to go), I reach for my blog instead, hoping for a hit of dopamine somewhere down the line, when a reader comments on the posting.

    Perhaps blogging will become my next vice.

    And, if you’ve sent me an email this morning . . .

    expect a response at either noon or 4:00 pm.

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    Interruptions

    Interruptions

    You know the guy (or maybe it’s a gal): the one who steamrolls the meeting with their own agenda item.

    You can see it coming: his eyes light up, he leans in a little bit, he’s even salivating, isn’t he?

    The next agenda item is remotely related to his pet topic.

    He’s getting ready to pounce.

    He gets his chance and then . . . BAM! He’s on a roll and there’s no stopping him.

    You send all the right non-verbal messages to get him to stop. You try to interrupt. You glance around the table and see that everyone else is resigned to the next 15 minutes (or more!) of his recapitulation. You give up and settle in, feeling defeated.

    “How do I stop that guy?” a participant in a workshop recently asked me.

    Here’s how you stop “that guy” from derailing the meeting:

    Step 1: Be Ready.

    You can’t effectively stop him if you’re not ready. Watch for signals that he’s about to jump in, uninvited. You might need to observe him in action a few times before you are fully ready.

    Think of yourself as a cultural anthropologist: your objective is to learn the characteristics and habits of the interloper. What actions does he take in the moments and micro-moments before he interrupts?

    Get to know those characteristics until they are second nature.  You’ll be better able to head him off – and you’ll be more confident.

    Step 2: Jump In, Just Before He Starts.

    You’ve studied him. You know his demeanor. You know the specific gesture he makes just before he interrupts. You’ve strategically seated yourself across the table from him so you have an unimpeded view. He leans in and adjusts his glasses, just like he always does.

    And then, BAM! You’re there. And you jump in and take control of managing the turns in the conversation. You have two choices:

    1. You take a turn yourself. That is, if you’ve got something to say.

    2. You give the turn to someone else. It sounds like this: “Let’s hear from Jeanne about how we are doing on the budget before we take the discussion any further.”

    Step 3: Redirect.  Respectfully, Of Course.

    If he persists — and he will — repeat the steps and redirect the conversation.

    It sounds like this: “Steve, I know you have a lot of interest/passion/history with this project. In order for us to address all the things we need to cover in this meeting, we need to stick to a tight timeframe to make sure we get it all in. We still need to hear from Sherry on the budget and Rick on the overall timetable first.  Sherry?”

    You need to say that with complete confidence and authority. If you waver in the slightest, he will jump right in and you’ll be back to square one.

    You might also seek the support of a confederate on this. Let someone else in the meeting, ideally one of the people you’d like to take a turn instead, in on what you are doing.  They can back you up – and be ready to take the next turn when you pass it to them.

    Your turn: Next time you are in this situation, jump on it.

    Be aggressive.

    Everyone will thank you.

    Well, okay, one person won’t.

    But everyone else will.

     

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    no_ninjas_rockstars1

    no_ninjas_rockstars1

    Last week I attended a TechCities Women in Technology panel discussion titled “Finding the Talent to Win” at the Carlson School of Management. Women from some of Minnesota’s fastest growing tech companies shared their perspectives on recruiting, hiring and retaining women in the high tech market in the Minneapolis St. Paul region.

    The conversation was stimulating and fast paced and, as any good panel discussion does, included many questions and contributions from audience members (including men).

    Here are my top three take-aways from the discussion:

    1. Learn the language of the space.

    Caroline Karanja, Senior Manager at LeadPages, emphasized that organizations have their own language and that’s it’s strategic to learn the language. Speaking to others in their native language is how you get things done.

    Caroline shared the example of how she’s transitioned from the turn of phrase “I have have a gut feeling” when working with male co-workers to “I have a hypothesis.” Why the shift?  Intuitive hunches are ideas likely to be dismissed by analytical colleagues (male or female) but hypothesis are ideas to be tested, ideas that data-driven decisions can be made around. The idea has not changed. What has changed is the way she frames the idea.
    Frame the idea in the language of the space.

    2. Don’t advertise for ninjas.

    Vocabulary draws people in or turns them away. Emily McAuliffe, VP Strategy & Account Director at Clockwork Active Media, skillfully moderated the discussion. As she transitioned the discussion to attracting more female employees, McAuliffe aptly noted, “Companies are advertising for PHP ninjas. No one but my ten year old wants to be a ninja.”

    How the role is positioned says a lot about the culture of the organization. When organizations actively seek out MySQL “warriors” or PHP “ninjas,” those for whom the ancient art of Japanese warfare don’t resonate are not likely to apply. The functions of the ancient ninja included espionage and assassination. Not typically the things that women, who lean more toward collaboration than annihilation, are looking for in their next career move.

    Word to the wise: If you want to attract women, write job descriptions that resonate with women.

    3. Speak up.

    Angie Franks, Chief Marketing Officer at Sport Ngin, stressed that women in technology often don’t use their voice. “I can’t tell you how many times a woman has come up to me with a great idea – after the meeting,” she remarked. “Use your voice,” she implored the women in the audience.

    Speak up, even if you aren’t sure if you’re right. Taking a stand for something will help to develop the confidence to speak up again the next time. Contribute to the discussion, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

     

    All of these top lessons come down to one theme: effective communication.

    >> Culture is expressed through communication (and everyone insisted the right cultural fit between employee and employer is critical).

    >> Effective communication is paramount in attracting the right employees.

    >> Confident communication is imperative in ensuring that all the best ideas are put on the table – during the meeting.

     

    Question: What are some of the worst examples you’ve experienced – where the words/language/culture did not resonate with you?

    Share your answers on Facebook.

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