Virtual Teams Unlocked: Communication

Posted by Trevor on 30 April 2012 | Post a Comment

When you put a virtual team together, all team members must communicate well, or the team will fall apart. In a regular office environment, communication is often unsophisticated. For instance, you might visit a colleague in her cubicle with the intention of discussion. She is on the phone, so you settle for jotting a note on a post-it pad and attaching it to her computer screen. It is sufficient to convey the message. Our natural ability to interpret body language and other communication cues allows you to confirm she has received the message clearly when she gives a very slight nod of her head while holding eye contact.

The virtual business model, in which members of any team or project live remotely from each other, does not tolerate such casual communication. I learned this lesson soon after setting up my first virtual company. I have a tendency toward vagueness, and in my regular career my employees had learned to interpret my words. For instance, if I casually mentioned that we needed to consider another manufacturing run, those around me would know I meant for them to get together to analyze the production plan, determine when a run was best made, order supplies and manage the process in time. In the virtual business, that same statement was interpreted as conversation rather than instruction, and we almost ran out of inventory.

When managing a virtual team, clarity and specificity in communication is essential.  Messaging becomes like a throwback to times when most people could not read and write. In those days the spoken word became critical and interpretation of it could mean the difference between life and death. In the virtual business world it becomes as critical. It is not enough to send brief texts or ambiguous emails, and you cannot stick post-it notes over a screen or gauge body language. The business owner must be like Gabriel, the main character of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, and “map out his mind on his tongue.”

Having communicated instructions via email or letter with deliberate care, the virtual business owner must then follow up with the recipient to ensure those instructions have been fully understood. This feedback loop is essential to keep projects running smoothly. All verbal communication should be recorded, (provided for free by most online conference call systems), and minutes taken from those recordings. Videoconferences can add an element of proof that the message has been received and understood.

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