Effective communication is a key component to any successful team. It is especially important when managing a virtual team because not only do you deal with traditional communication problems with the team members, but virtual teams can face more obstacles trying to keep in touch. Learning helpful tools and techniques for effective communication can take any virtual team a long way.
Poor communication among team members and team leaders has been shown to cause low team morale and a decrease in productivity. Sometimes team members can feel unsure about approaching you or are not sure what to do when they have a problem. Encourage your team to engage in two way communication and ask questions when they receive new information. When they know who they can come to in a jam, they will feel more comfortable communicating their needs.
Communicate Early and Often
Early communication means not waiting for a problem to happen before addressing it. Check in with your team on a regular basis, whether by phone, email, conference, etc. Don’t let a team member struggle through a problem over a long period of time. Don’t wait for them to contact you; reach out to them to offer help. Contact each team member often and follow up after any problems they have reported. Keeping in touch with each team member not only cuts down on large problems, but it shows your support in the team and can boost their morale substantially.
- Create a regular schedule to check in with team members
- Find what methods work best for each team member
- Keep track of small problems that arise early to prevent bigger ones later
Rules of Responsiveness
Communication is a two way street and can shut down when one side doesn’t contribute or doesn’t act on their responsibility. When outlining communication techniques with your virtual team, one aspect to cover is the rules of responsiveness. Determine which forms of response are appropriate in various situations. Do you need a response right away? Is it something they can reply to later? Will you need a short or long response? When sending a communication to the team, let them know how soon they need to reply and how soon you expect to hear from them. The team needs to understand that the communication you exchange with them is very important and that they need to respond in a timely manner.
Communicate Face to Face When Possible
Sometimes communication needs to be made in person or face to face. Communication over the phone or email can often be skewed because there is a loss of tone and body language. Although this can be hard with a virtual team, there are ways the team leader and team members can work together. If distance is somewhat small, arrange a time for the team member to meet either at your office or theirs. If the distance is too great, the next best option is to use some sort of video message system, such as Skype. Although it does not replace in person meetings, it allows the team leader and team members to talk ‘face to face’ and monitor their tone and body language signals. Sometimes long distance communication just can’t deliver an effective message – so never underestimate the power of talking in person.
Choose the Best Tool
Every form of communication has an appropriate tool to use with it. Some information can be delivered by informal methods, such as email or telephone calls. Informal methods are great to use when a short or quick answer is needed rather than a longer response. Participants can share information quickly and then continue with their work. Other messages should be delivered more formal, such as face to face talks or even in a group meeting.
Formal methods are better used for in-depth messages and descriptions. The information is often lengthy and may require explanation or presentations. Formal methods also allow participants to ask questions or add their input. To choose the best tool, the team leader should determine how urgent the message is, how quickly it needs to be received, and what kind of response they are looking for. Once they determine what is to be shared and what they need in response, they can then choose the best tool for the job.
Be Honest and Clear
One of the pitfalls about team communication is that we try to hide information from each other. Tea leaders will try to ‘sugar coat’ a problem within the team or team members won’t mention how hard they are struggling with an assignment. When speaking with your team, don’t try to hide facts behind blurred words. If you have to deliver bad news, be upfront and let them know what is going on. If you need to change something they are doing or working on, be clear as to why and the effect it will have on them. When we try to hide facts or information, team members can become skeptical and will eventually lose their trust in you.
- Remain honest, even if it is a negative aspect.
- Speak clearly and don’t hide the fact behind ‘sugar coated’ words.
- Ensure the team is clear about what they hear (Any questions?)
Stay in Constant Contact
Nothing can be more frustrating than trying to reach a team leader that has fallen out of touch. Team members need to be able to reach you during regular business hours and should always have a source to contact outside those hours (i.e. on-call, second shift manager). It is especially hard for virtual team members since they cannot always physically contact you and will need some other way to speak to you when needed.
It is important for you to stay in constant contact with your team members and ensure them that you are there for them when they need you. Some examples include sending daily emails to check on progress, or making regular meetings to follow up with the team. Make a note of team members that need your assistance more often and be sure to check up on how they are doing over time. By staying in contact now, you are helping to prevent further problems later.
Don’t Make Assumptions
We all know that old saying of what happens when we assume. A common problem in communication is assuming that we have delivered all of the information needed or assuming that the team will not have any trouble with their work. These assumptions can cause us to leave our team members out to dry and cause them to feel as though you are not there to help them. The team can begin to resent you and may feel too uncomfortable to ask for further information.
Ask for the team to follow up on any information they receive, especially if they have questions or concerns. Periodically check on each team member’s productivity and ask if they are having any difficulties or need another problem addressed. Your team members can benefit from your guidance, so don’t assume they will make it on their own without you.