With the move to more remote work, this is a good time to think about improving virtual team communication. Fortunately, I've been working with remote teams since the 1970s, so have learned a few important lessons along the way. Communication, for some, is difficult face-to-face and even harder when working remotely.
Here's a perfect example of how not to act with remote colleagues. A manager saw a presence indicator on for a remote employee indicating she was online, so called her on the phone. He got no answer, so immediately called again because he felt he had urgent information. On the third call, he left a screaming voice mail telling her she had to pick up the phone when she was working. A few minutes later the employee returned the manager's call. Her first question was "Do I have to take the phone to the bathroom with me?"
There are multiple problems illustrated by this incident, including an over reliance on presence indicators, a lack of meaningful response time standards, and an abusive voicemail. So here are six tips to improve team virtual communication.
Don't build an over reliance on presence indicators. Online presence indicators are a way of telling others when you are online and working, or away and unable to answer. Unfortunately, they often require manual updates or the automation is less than perfect. Don't take these signals as hard evidence of anything, and above all, don't "yell" at people who don't respond.
Set reasonable expectations for responses. As a more helpful alternative to presence indicators, set standards for responses to communications. For example, in every syllabus, I tell my students that I will reply to voice mails and emails within 24-48 hours, I further add, that if they don't hear from me, they may want to assume I did not receive their message (e.g., email in spam box, garbled voice message) and they should contact me again. Ask the team to participate in the decisions, which need to reflect both industry/organizational standards and urgency, and self-enforce them.
For virtual teams in different parts of the world with different languages, be sure to consider having longer response times for non-native speakers. While the language used for communication may be their second language, do not automatically assume this is with the same proficiency as their first language. More time may be needed for them to process the communication and provide the best responses.
Be cognizant of time zones and cultures. Even within a country like the United States, there are different regional holidays and celebrations, a sign of a distinct culture. These cultural differences get more difficult to work with when there are large disparities. For example, one team member may be used to having 10 paid holidays and two weeks of vacation, while another may expect a 6-week summer holiday period. Learn about these cultural differences and make sure everyone understands them and how they affect the work of the team.
On top of this, there are time zones that must be respected. Don't send a communication in the middle of the night for your recipient and expect an immediate response. Be sure to consider time zones in your response time standards.
Choose the right communication tools. Choose the right tools for the specific message context. For example, it is usually counter-productive to have an argument via email. It is probably better to just pick up the phone and work through the details. You may want to read How to Choose the Right Project Management Tools for some ideas on how to select these tools.
Ensure everyone knows how to use the communication tools. It is natural for virtual teams to standardize some communication tools, including email, messengers, and collaboration tools. Do not assume everyone knows how to use them. After picking the tools, be sure there is training and help on the features that will be used. And remember, you should think about how tools also fit into response standards.
Some face-to-face time can help. One of the best virtual teams I worked with had quarterly face-to-face time. It was usual over a weekend and included some fun activities. The goal of the meeting was to plan the work for the coming quarter. It facilitated getting to know everyone better and getting a better plan in place. After that, everyone went back to their remote office and emails and phone calls were used to keep track of everything. If the budget doesn't allow for quarterly, perhaps once a year is sufficient. And with modern video-conferencing, there might be opportunities for virtual face-to-face meetings as needed.
Do you have more tips to help with virtual team communications? Let us know in the comments below!
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