Communication is a funny thing. You’ve probably read a good grammar joke or two – perhaps the infamous Dear John letter or the humorous punctuation play of Woman, without her man, is nothing — versus Woman: without her, man is nothing.
One thing is undeniable: Without the benefit of face-to-face contact, getting your intended meaning across can be tricky. Scientists say that only 7% of communication is about the words you use, while 38% is tone of voice and 55% body language. That’s why so many of us resort to emoticons and superfluous exclamations in our emails, social media interactions, and other online forms of communication: we want to transmit not just our words, but the feeling behind them.
When it comes to modern business, so much of which is conducted online, effective communication becomes even more important. Virtual teams are commonplace, linking the best talent to the best talent, no matter what their locations. Perhaps you’re planning a project with web designers in Costa Rica, programmers in Los Angeles, and a project manager in Nova Scotia. You may be coordinating a product launch with your virtual assistant in Germany, customer service reps in India, and your producer in New York. Whatever you’re doing, it’s gone global – and now you’re wondering how to effectively communicate with all your far-flung team members.
The very first, and most important thing to understand is that there is a big difference between virtual communication and office interactions. In the absence of facial expressions, body language and voice signals, your underlying meaning is not always clear. Misunderstandings can occur and rapport can be damaged.
Follow these 7 tips to work better, more efficiently and more enjoyably with your virtual team:
Tip #1: Maintain a Visual Element
Even if your first inclination is to keep face-to-face communications to a minimum (we get it: pajamas are really comfortable!), make sure to schedule virtual face-to-face meetings at regular intervals via Skype or another video conferencing tool. Depending on your team, this might be daily, once a week or twice a month. Whatever your schedule, make one and stick to it.
Tip #2: Embrace Technology
Speaking of Skype, the best thing you can do for a virtual team is embrace collaborative technology. There are myriad online tools available to manage your workload, communicate instantaneously (and as a group), share computer screens, track tasks and your progress, share files, report bugs or problems, and generally collaborate as one, fluid team.
Tip #3: Respect (& Understand) Time Differences
Time zones are one thing you can’t manage or tech your way out of – you simply have to accept and adapt to these night-and-day differences. As a general rule of thumb, try to build a team where the greatest time difference between any two members is 12 hours; that way, one can hop online early and the other late in the day for your scheduled face-to-face meetings.
Tip #4: Eliminate Micromanagement
In an office environment, CEOs and managers often follow their team members’ incremental progress, from emails sent to hours logged. A virtual team works differently: you chose qualified, skilled team members – trust them to do their job. Don’t manage tasks; manage results. Use benchmarks and deadlines to gauge effectiveness and success.
Tip #5: Value Everyone’s Time
We’ve all fallen for the easy fallacy that email is the most efficient method of communication, but with virtual teams, that’s not always true. Email chains can take days to play out, especially when team members work different hours. Instant messaging, group chats, and video conferencing – anything instantaneous and that involves all group members at the same time – is often the most efficient way to solve pressing concerns or come to a group decision.
Tip #6: Share in Leadership
Leadership responsibilities often instill pride in a team member, thus fueling motivation, creating smoother interactions and, ultimately, producing improved deliverables. Be sure to divvy up responsibilities throughout the team, and encourage leaders to participate in one-to-one coaching and management interactions with other team members.
Tip #7: Get a Little Personal
Tips #1-#6 were very business-oriented, as most discussions about virtual teamwork tend to be. And like this list, it’s probable that your email communications, group chats, and even video conferences are task-oriented and to the point. That’s where we say, STOP! Social bonds and personal interactions are essential to building rapport, bolstering teamwork, and even diffusing tension. Make an effort to get a little personal with your team. Have every team member “check in” before a meeting; they could share some photos of their kids, report on their weekend soccer game, or chat about their favorite TV shows. Create a virtual water cooler of sorts, and see how positively it impacts your work.