Technology has opened up a wide range of options for organizations using virtual teams to tackle their biggest projects. Smartphone apps, productivity software, and a variety of instant messaging options have made it possible to connect employees around the world, regardless of their geographic location.
More than ever before, companies can assign their most important tasks to their best people and redirect workflow on the fly, enhancing productivity and responsiveness. According to 2016 Gallup data, 43% of workers spend at least some time working in a different location than their coworkers, and a whopping 31% spend between 80-100% of their time working remotely.
As more and more organizations make use of virtual teams, the need for effective virtual communication skills has become increasingly evident.
Unfortunately, companies often have a tendency to dive headfirst into the virtual pool without checking the depth beforehand. It’s one thing to organize and implement a virtual team, but ensuring that team has the communication skills necessary for success is quite another.
Many organizations simply apply their tried-and-true best practices from traditional, in-person work teams without taking into consideration the unique characteristics of the virtual workplace. It’s no wonder, then, that an OnPoint research study found that more than 25% of virtual teams were not effective and experienced a decline in performance after just one year.
The challenge now is to create virtual workplaces that function as “high touch” environments, providing multiple points of contact and interaction between team members. There is no shortage of technology solutions to help encourage virtual interaction, but that’s only half of the equation—remote employees must communicate well to maximize the team’s performance.
So what are some of the communication skills found among successful virtual team members? Here are five qualities every organization should consider to create a “high touch” environment.
1: Open and Honest Communication
The lack of visual cues in the remote work environment might seem like an obvious point to bring up, but we often fail to appreciate just how much people communicate through nonverbal signals. While a confused expression, an uncomfortable shifting in a seat, or fidgeting fingers make it clear to everyone that something is amiss in an in-person meeting, these subtle hints would go unnoticed in a virtual one.
It’s absolutely vital, then, that team members share their concerns and thoughts whenever possible. Clear communication helps build and foster trust, which is a key element of all successful virtual teams.
While text messaging and workplace chat applications allow for easy and instant communication, the lack of verbal and visual cues can cause messages to be misinterpreted, leading to confusion, frustration, and even resentment. Virtual teams must be committed to both making their thoughts known and providing clarification when something is unclear.
2: Demonstrate Respect and Consideration
The virtual workplace can leave team members feeling like they’re operating in isolation rather than functioning as part of a group. Since they’re not able to see what coworkers are doing most of the time, it’s easy to forget everyone is wrapped up in their own tasks and can’t be expected to drop everything at a moment’s notice.
In a traditional, in-person workplace, it’s usually obvious when a question or request would interrupt someone’s work. But working virtually requires team members to be more aware of each other’s availability and workload. After all, some members might work in different time zones, making coordination even more difficult. If remote employees don’t respect their coworkers’ time and space, it will be difficult for them to develop trust in one another.
This awareness extends to virtual meetings, as well. Without visual cues, it’s all too easy for some members of the team to dominate a conference call, talking on and on without allowing anyone else to contribute. While active listening skills are of extreme importance here, it’s also vital that a structure is put in place to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to discussions. Knowing who can speak and when both prevents confusion and makes everyone feel welcome and involved.
One of the biggest challenges for virtual leaders, then, is creating an environment that provides some semblance of structure while still allowing for flexibility that respects the team’s autonomy.
3: Build Relationships
Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean you have to be strangers! In fact, one of the biggest challenges with virtual teams is cultivating the social bonds that make everyone feel like they’re a part of something special. A close knit team is more invested in seeing each member succeed, which creates a sense of camaraderie that makes the team much more effective.
In fact, NOT having those connections between team members can be quite detrimental to an organization. Survey research has shown that lack of interaction with coworkers is a leading reason for job dissatisfaction among fully remote workers, resulting in declining productivity, engagement, and retention rates.
However, this kind of social interaction doesn’t always happen naturally, especially with virtual teams where the members might rarely see one another. While frequent in-person meetings can be quite valuable for building social bonds, especially when the team starts out, cultivating positive interactions between team members is one of the most important tasks for a virtual leader. Top performing virtual teams often schedule events like virtual coffee chats or virtual lunches to promote social interaction and strengthen relationships. If virtual meetups like these prove difficult to organize, simply taking a few minutes before a conference call to encourage team members to share something about themselves can go a long way toward creating powerful emotional bonds that will hold the team together in the face of challenges.
4: Ask Questions
One of the advantages of working in a traditional office is being able to ask for clarification and assistance at any time. Despite having a wide range of communication options at their disposal, remote workers can easily fall into a pattern of working in isolation and keeping problems or questions to themselves. This can have terrible long-term consequences for productivity and morale.
If anything, virtual teams should be communicating more deliberately than in-person teams. We often don’t consider how many questions people ask in day-to-day conversation, ranging from minor clarifications to filling in sizable knowledge gaps. Virtual leaders in particular need to be tuned in to questions their team members might have, but are sometimes hesitant to reach out.
Team members should also ask frequent questions to stay abreast of any developments that might affect the team. With the wide variety of communication channels being deployed, it’s easy for an important detail or two to go unnoticed by some members. Maybe someone wasn’t part of a group chat about a particular client, or couldn’t view a screen share during a teleconference. Asking short, specific, and frequent questions can keep team members informed and productive.
5: Communicate Progress on Goals
Since virtual teams don’t have much day-to-day interaction, it can sometimes be difficult for members to get a sense of what everyone is working on at any given time. Remote workers are not constrained by the demands of a traditional 9-to-5 schedule and may choose to approach their tasks differently than their coworkers. Given these work pattern variations, it’s crucial that communications focus on measurable accomplishments rather than less easily quantified activity.
Demanding to know what someone is “doing” at any given time shifts the emphasis from results to process, which can be frustrating and discouraging. After all, if a remote worker is setting their own schedule, there’s a good chance they’re not working on a specific project at a given moment.
Framing communication around quantifiable goals also helps virtual teams stay on task and get a sense of their progress. If objectives are measurable, there’s less room for the kind of ambiguity that creates dysfunction in a virtual work environment. They also provide a common context for team members, allowing them to focus their conversations and interactions on what the team needs to accomplish to achieve success.
The virtual workplace is expanding rapidly to include industries with little experience in managing remote teams. Organizations cannot merely export their traditional team structure into a virtual setting and hope for the best. Effective policies for implementing a remote workforce need to be designed from the ground up and staffed by people with the appropriate skills. Virtual communication skills are certain to be among the most valuable assets for a generation of incoming workers entering this new workforce. By focusing on identifying and developing these skills in prospective team members, organizations can embrace the change and position themselves for success in the future.