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Recipe for Great Virtual Teamwork: The Right Communications Tools at the Right Time

~ By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Communication signs over a green background

You've just finished the project kick-off meeting with your new virtual team. Everyone seems clear about roles, responsibilities, deliverables and deadlines. So far, so good. But, as you think about the magnitude and velocity of the work that lies ahead, you realise how critical a well-orchestrated team communications plan will be to getting the work done.

Begin by acknowledging people's differing communication styles. Some people need frequent real-time conversations, while others may require just an occasional sharing of ideas. All members need certain information periodically, but not everyone needs the same frequency or level of detail. Also, remember that team members may span several time zones and have different levels of English fluency, making synchronous participation difficult or impossible at times.

Joining me in writing this article is Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, principal of Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts & Associates. We offer some simple guidelines to keep in mind as you assemble a communications plan to make it easy for virtual team members to communicate and collaborate wherever they are, whenever they need to.

Face-to-face meetings are a great luxury for many teams that operate virtually a high percentage of the time. Face-to-face meetings are especially valuable when a new team is forming, a high degree of trust is necessary to get work done, leadership of the team shifts, issues are likely to be emotional or contentious, or the project outcome will have a significant impact on the organisation.

Tip: Realise that not all team members may need to participate face-to-face. Consider whose work is most intertwined with others' and where trusting relationships are most critical. Make sure to involve those who can't participate in other ways to minimise feelings of alienation or resentment.

Simultaneous audio-conference can be tricky when members span time zones. Some may have difficulty communicating using a shared spoken language or they're perpetually overbooked or travelling. Conference calls work best for real-time conversations by all or most members, building social capital and trust, brainstorming, problem-solving, and providing quick status reports.

Tip: Secure a commitment from all members for a time and day that works for all. Clarify whether attendance is optional or mandatory. Trade off full-participation for less frequency. Consider whether everyone needs to be on every call. Rotate times monthly to accommodate multiple time zones.

Simultaneous audio-conference plus Web meeting tools allow more people to participate fully. This is best used when many ideas are needed in a compressed period of time, some members communicate more readily and easily in writing, anonymity may be important, or output is required quickly.

Tip: Set up your Web meeting in advance with questions and other content posted before the call. Be realistic about what kinds of conversations lend themselves to Web meetings. Allow sufficient time for keying in ideas and reviewing as a group. Consider whether you need two facilitators, one for the verbal exchanges and one to manage the meeting content.

Asynchronous Web meetings allow participants from anywhere to enter the meeting at a time when it's most convenient. This is best used when you want to collect input in advance (or instead) of participating in a phone meeting, have a better sense of everyone's thoughts and opinions, make it easy for everyone to see where everyone else is coming from (literally and figuratively).

Tip: If used prior to a same-time meeting, allow at least three working days for people to enter the asynch meeting. Limit the required time to no more than 10 to 15 minutes to increase the likelihood of participation. Carefully craft questions to ensure that they have the intended meaning so you get the types of responses you're looking for. When in doubt, test the wording with others before going live.

Email is the most common method of communications among most teams, though not necessarily the most effective. This is especially true because email is improperly used too often. Email is best used for a virtual team to notify members about important news such as changes to meetings, relevant company news, important status updates, Web postings, or issues that require attention.

Tip: Create a descriptive subject line that gives details of what's in the message. (For example, Problem with ABS delivery. Needs IMMEDIATE attention). Make your message brief, but thorough. Say what you need to on no more than one screen and provide links for more information. Carefully consider who needs to be on the "to" list and who needs to be "cc'd." Better yet, establish a team convention to signify whether action is required and with what urgency.

Team repository for content and shared resources. This should be some type of clearing house or Web-based repository to store, edit, and distribute shared documents. A repository may also house some type of chat forum where members can pose questions, offer ideas or build on solutions.

Tip: Create a document directory that is intuitive to navigate through and simple to use. Agree on naming conventions up front. Determine who has rights to do what to which documents. Have everyone on the team set alerts to eliminate the need for separate emails, unless a particular update is of special importance to all.

Instant messaging is best used to get a quick question answered, set up a spur-of-the-moment meeting, discreetly pose questions or share feedback during a con call, or conduct a real-time conversation when a phone connection is impractical or impossible.

Tip: Let fellow team members know when you can't or will not respond to an IM. Establish a team protocol as to the conditions under which IM may be most productively used. Ask each member to be candid about the extent to which they can cope with frequent interruptions.

Videoconferencing is most productively used when team members are first getting acquainted, conversations lie at the heart of the meeting (versus one-way presentations), or members need to regroup after a change or setback.

Tip: Make sure the technology works smoothly and that all team members have easy access. Avoid mealtimes. Keep the conversation engaging and minimise the use of "presentationware" so people maintain good eye contact.

Once you and your team have created an agreed-upon communications plan, be sure to formalise it in writing as a quick reference guide for everyone. Be prepared to make revisions as you go along, checking periodically to make sure that the plan still serves the work of the team.

Having a formal communications plan also helps to orient new team members or other stakeholders who will have significant involvement with the work of the team.

Guidelines for Successful Asynch Meetings provides practical tips for preparing and running an asynch meeting to solicit valuable input from your team with minimal time and effort.

Mapping the Best Technology offers a quick comparison of some popular project communication methods.


Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles, white papers, ezines and booklets aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Visit Nancy's website for more information about her services.

© Nancy Settle-Murphy. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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