Through technology, virtual teams can take on crucial projects, but collaborating remotely requires special skills.
According to Gallup data, 43 percent of people work at least some of the time in a different location from their colleagues, and 31 percent spend 80–100 percent of their time working remotely. Smartphone apps, productivity software and a variety of instant messaging platforms connect employees worldwide.
As more and more organizations rely on virtual teams, the need for effective communication has become paramount. Here are five areas that organizations should cultivate to create seamless interactions:
1. Open and honest communication.
Nonverbal communication might not account for “93 percent” of all communication, but it is important. The lack of visual cues, body language and facial expressions puts remote workers at a severe communication disadvantage.
To compensate, companies must build an atmosphere of trust, in which clear, honest communication is a priority.
Text messaging and chat channels allow for easy and instant communication, but the lack of verbal and visual cues can cause misunderstandings. Misconstrued messages can lead to confusion, frustration, disengagement and even resentment.
Successful virtual teams must commit to sharing honest opinions, providing clarification when something is unclear and regularly checking in to ensure everyone’s on the same page.
2. Demonstrate respect and consideration.
Working remotely can be a lonely, isolating endeavor. It also can foment disrespect.
In a traditional workplace, it’s usually obvious when a question or request would interrupt someone’s work. However, working virtually requires team members to be more aware of each other’s availability and workload. Some might work in different time zones; others might be swamped with projects. Fail to respect co-workers’ time and space can erode mutual trust.
This awareness extends to virtual meetings, too. Without visual cues, it’s easy for certain employees to dominate a conference call while others feel shut out.
The onus is on virtual leaders to promote respect, awareness and unified teamwork. Check in with your workers regularly, and use project tracking tools that let everyone know who’s working on what. Team leaders must strike a delicate balance that honors workers’ autonomy yet provides structure to ensure everyone stays on the same page.
3. Build meaningful relationships.
Whoever said “absence makes the heart grow fonder” probably never worked remotely.
One major challenge for virtual teams is cultivating the social bonds that make people feel they’re a part of something special. Close-knit teams are more invested in seeing each member succeed, which fosters camaraderie that fuels productivity and engagement.
Unfortunately, not having those emotional connections between team members can be detrimental. Survey research has shown that lack of interaction with co-workers is a leading reason for job dissatisfaction among fully remote workers, resulting in declining productivity, engagement and retention rates.
This kind of social activity doesn’t happen naturally with dispersed teams, so team leaders must facilitate interactions. Top-performing virtual teams often schedule social events such as “virtual coffee chats” or video chat lunches to strengthen relationships and build rapport. If virtual meetups prove difficult to organize, try taking a few minutes at the start of conference calls to let team members share news, ideas or personal updates. Go out of your way to create emotional bonds that will hold the team together in the face of challenges.
4. Ask questions, and encourage everyone to do the same.
One advantage of working in a traditional office is being able to ask for clarification and assistance at any time. Remote workers can ask for help, but they are often less willing to “impose.” This can have terrible long-term consequences for productivity and morale.
If anything, virtual teams should be communicating more deliberately and asking more questions than in-person teams. We’re often oblivious as to how many questions people ask in day-to-day office conversation, ranging from minor clarifications to filling in sizable knowledge gaps. Virtual leaders should consistently encourage and affirm workers in this regard and facilitate daily forums where questions can fly back and forth.
5. Communicate progress on goals.
Even if people are working on separate projects, it’s a good idea to have an internal hub that documents project updates, statuses and responsibilities. There are plenty of tools and resources available; pick the ones that work for your people.
Framing communication around quantifiable goals also helps virtual teams stay on task and track progress. If objectives are measurable, there’s less room for ambiguity. Tangible, specific goals also provide a common context for team members, helping them focus their conversations and interactions on what the team must accomplish to succeed.
The virtual workplace is expanding rapidly—even into industries with little experience in managing remote teams. Organizations cannot merely transfer traditional team structures to a virtual setting and hope for the best.
Rick Lepsinger is managing partner of OnPoint Consulting. A version of this post first appeared on the OnPoint Consulting blog.