As a leader or a member of a virtual team, you have likely experienced periodic challenges associated with team members being physically located in various places.
You may wonder if there is a better way to minimize challenges and maximize the chemistry and performance of your virtual team. In my opinion, virtual teams require additional focus and practice in order to achieve the success they desire.
I have worked with virtual and matrixed teams for 17 years and have discovered that communication (or lack thereof) is most often the top challenge for virtual-team effectiveness.
Connecting with team members who aren’t across the hallway or in the cubicle next door can be tricky. How can virtual-team leaders and members ensure that better, clearer communication is the norm and not the exception? Here are three important rules for communication to ensure virtual teams are highly productive and focused on accomplishing their goals and building a healthy team culture.
1. Learn the team’s communication patterns.
Text messages, instant messaging, email; more often than not, these are the tools of choice for nearly all communication that is short, in the moment, or targeted to reach more than one person. When these time-saving tools are used with the recipient(s) in mind, they can be very effective methods for communicating with team members.
Unfortunately, too many team leaders and members today send a text or an email without much thought regarding how the message will be received and interpreted. When messages are consistently misunderstood by recipients, the effectiveness of the communicator (the message-sender) will almost certainly be thrown into question over time.
How many of you work with team members who love to carbon-copy their correspondence to everyone on the team, even though the message may only be relevant to a select few? What about the individuals who choose to write volumes of information every time he or she is in communication with the team? And what about team members who speak to others in “tweets,” limiting themselves to 140 characters or less?
The opportunities to misunderstand one another in this modern world are nearly endless, and each of us has a personal preference for how we communicate with others (and how they communicate with us). The trick is to better understand the needs of the individuals with whom you communicate, be willing to flex your personal communication preferences to accommodate those of others, and adapt your communication style and method to ensure that your message is interpreted correctly.
2. Ask, don’t assume.
I have a wonderful team and some amazing clients, and all of these professionals require me to communicate with them regularly. One of my clients provides me with limitless opportunities to communicate with her on a daily basis. This is one of my most-important business relationships, and I recognize that I must be conscious of her preferences as a message-receiver in order to communicate with her successfully. My preferred style of communication is to provide details, and in some cases, I over-explain.
This client prefers communication to be short and sweet: Three sentences is plenty long enough for her. Guess how I found out her preferred style? When we started to notice that our communication opportunities were becoming more frequent, I asked her how she’d like me to communicate with her. That was months ago. Like so many of us, she is very busy, and in her role, she has several hundred people who regularly communicate with her for a variety of reasons and needs. Her demand for succinct communication is absolutely out of necessity, and I have listened to that request and respected it.
At your next team conference call or web meeting (or even one-on-one, as the opportunities arise), request that your team members provide you with candid and honest feedback about the effectiveness of your communication. Ask them to tell you specifically what you are doing well and what you could change and improve. If your team has a high-performance culture, your team members should willingly assist you with this request.
The ancillary benefit of asking team members for their candid thoughts is that they will see you as a collaborator and partner, someone who is willing to instigate personal change in order to help the team have more clarity and understanding. People who are willing to make adjustments in order to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes are generally held in very high regard by their team members.
3. Do something unexpected.
I love when I get a note from someone I haven’t heard from in a while, or even from someone I have who sends a funny quote or comment unrelated to business. Being a surprise communicator is a powerful way to build better relationships, especially on a virtual team.
Think about this: How many times this week (virtually or otherwise) have you been asked how you are doing by your colleagues? It’s a question most people ask without even thinking about it. When working to do the unexpected in your communication with others, ask questions designed to elicit a more genuine response:
- What has your day been like so far?
- Who on the team needs a call?
- What is the latest news with your spouse, significant other, child, or parent?
- Where are you planning to go on your next vacation?
Better questions lead to better answers. To build relationships with team members, you really should devise deeper, more interesting questions to ask the team. Giving feedback and recognition is also a great way to do the unexpected for your team members. A card or handwritten thank-you note that includes a gift card appropriate for the person is a little thing, but it will do wonders for your reputation as a considerate, thoughtful team member. Small gestures can make a big impact.
The best teams build their strong culture through communicating effectively, trusting one another, sharing the workload, and meeting expectations collectively. They recognize that teamwork takes effort, communication is essential, leadership is shared—and that when we focus on others’ needs when crafting and sending messages, each of us will make a huge impact on the team’s path to greatness.