It’s just that communicating, even with technologies like Zoom, GoToMeeting, Webex and others, is harder to do virtually. As noted in the sixth principle of the Agile Manifesto, face-to-face communication is most effective[i]. In the ideal world, then, we have a greater chance of successful communications when we’re together. Many of us, though, are working from home, so we need to maximize tools and techniques that will enhance communications in our less-than-ideal world.
Here are three keys the virtual leader can use to promote effective communications:
Teams usually function better when they have a sense of community, of belonging to group whose purpose is to complete a common objective. When we’re focused more on what both the team and the organization need to accomplish than on our own individual needs, we tend to have less conflict and greater productivity.
It’s easier to establish sense of community when the team is housed in the same building or on the same campus than when the team is spread across a city or worse, across a region or a country. And when the team is international, it becomes even more difficult. Time zones, for example, make it harder to get the team together frequently. Cultural and language differences can diminish the team spirit. The farther away the team members are from each other, the more difficult it is to establish that sense of belonging. However, this difficulty can be mitigated by:
- Frequent meetings with all the team members. It’s even more important to have frequent team meetings virtually than when the team is together. Team members working from home can find themselves feeling isolated and unproductive. The virtual leader can help by meeting:
- Initially with the purpose of getting to know something about each member personally and to ensure everyone understands the project objectives and constraints.
- On an on-going basis. It is important to take a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting for small talk about family, vacations, activities, entertainment, etc. However, it’s also extremely important to ensure the project is on track. Sharing status and issues helps reinforce the sense that the team is working together to meet objectives and solve problems, knowing that if they get stuck, the leader or other team members will help them move forward.
- As needed to solve problems. Solving problems together creates a sense of unity. When a leader steps in to solve all the problems, the benefits are short-term. And not all problems require the involvement of all the team members. Having subgroups solve problems and report back to the larger group is also effective.
- Meetings with individual team members
- During initiation to learn about their individual wants, needs, concerns, issues, etc.
- To resolve individual issues and conflicts, rather than trying to do so in a group meeting
- When trying to assess level of commitment
As virtual leaders, we need to emphasize and reinforce this sense of community, keeping in mind that the team itself is part of a larger set of communities.
2. Establish communications protocols and norms
Protocols establish norms for how we want to engage with each other. Although important for collocated teams, they are obligatory for successful virtual teams. They help ensure that the team becomes and stays cohesive and productive. All projects are subject to unproductive time related to resolving conflict among team members. As a project manager, I tracked this time for about 15 years. On average about 5% of the project total was spent on HR-related issues. Having more communications protocols might not have prevented conflict, but they would certainly have helped to bring these issues to light sooner.
Ideally, when the team is in the process of “forming” during initiation, it establishes these norms within organizational and technical constraints. Where possible, the team meets to recommend appropriate protocols. Virtual leaders need to take these recommendations seriously without rubber-stamping them. Effective leaders ask questions about the reasoning behind the protocol recommendations to ensure they further the team’s goals. If they do not, virtual leaders need to provide direction and guidance without being heavy-handed. This balancing act is tricky and difficult, but necessary.
The following are some topics to consider for communications protocols:
- Types of meetings. These might include status, celebrations, milestone checkpoints and decisions, and issues newly identified and/or resolved.
- For each meeting as appropriate,
- How often to meet, keeping in mind that more frequent check-ins are necessary when leading virtual teams
- Duration of meeting
- Meeting time and venue
- Whose input is required, desired, and optional
- Use of videocam and muting
- Frequency of breaks
- Handling questions and interruptions
- Preferred technology, if choices are available
- Response time – maximum wait time to respond to other team members and stakeholders.
These protocols are included in the communications plan and can, of course, be updated as needed
3. Clarify communication preferences.
I remember years ago I had a sponsor who said to me, “Elizabeth, why do you send me emails instead of coming to see me? Are you upset with me?” We were a mere floor apart from each other. At the same time, I had a boss who, when I stopped by with what I thought was an urgent issue, told me to just send an email. His cubicle was right across from mine.
We all have our communication preferences. The virtual leader should discuss preferences with team members and appropriate stakeholders.Here are some considerations that may affect preferences:
- Stakeholder and team member stated preferences may not always be practical. If the preferences result in risk or will have a negative impact to the project, they should be discussed and negotiated.
- Priority, urgency, and importance of resolving issues. An issue, for example, might become urgent if not dealt with by some future date, but the urgency is not immediate.
- Nature of conflict. Interpersonal conflict requires a one-on-one, preferably through video or teleconferencing.
- Impacts and risks of delayed communications.
Effective communications are important for all teams. However, because of the inherent difficulties communicating virtually, the virtual leader needs to carefully plan how the team will communicate not just within the team, but with key stakeholders as well. By focusing on the three keys discussed above, the virtual leader can minimize the confusion, contention, and feelings of isolation that often prevent virtual teams from being successful.
[i] “Enable face-to-face interactions– Communication is more successful when development teams are co-located.”
[ii] [ii] What FDR, Churchill, and Shackleton can teach us about leadership during the coronavirus crisis, 4-3-20, Fast Company Nancy Koehn, https://www.fastcompany.com/90486187/how-courageous-leaders-navigate-turbulent-times?utm_campaign=eem524%3A524%3As00%3A20200407_fc&utm_medium=Compass&utm_source=newsletter