Four Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams

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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    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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