Communicating with peers, managers and subordinates in virtual or distributed team environments is a challenging area to understand. But, with some thought and planning, communicating with those you can’t see can be structured in such a way as to give very effective and meaningful results across the whole of the project team.
When planning communication in distributed teams I would suggest you need to consider at least the following aspects;
- What messages do I need to communicate?
- Who is my audience?
- Where is my audience, and how will the time differences affect how we communicate?
- What tools do I need and what do I have available?
So, just how do you communicate with those you can’t see?
What messages do I need to communicate
More than anything, you need to work out what you need to talk about. If you are in a technical role, the chances are that most of your communications will be of a technical nature, sharing work with colleagues, comparing ideas and notes, checking one another’s work, etc. It is likely that in this kind of role you will also need specific tools to support the material you need to discuss.
If your role is more of a leadership or management one, you will probably be talking on more general subjects, working with coordination of tasks, acquiring and providing status reports, financial situations, progress, personnel planning, etc. Here you will need communication media and tools that support the more organic, less technical and direct nature of much of your discussions.
So knowing what you need to discuss will affect the tools and form of much of your communication.
Who is my audience
Knowing your audience will be very contextual. For example, if you are working in a middle management position, you will need to communicate both up to your own management and down to your subordinates, you will also, of course, need to be able to be “communicated to” by each of those other parties. Getting the right messages, in a timely way, to your managers can be a very time consuming task in some organisations and there is a risk that “communicating up” becomes the dominant form. But, those below you in the organisation are depending on you to provide them with guidance and leadership, a task that must not be neglected. Having a well informed management, but an uninformed workforce has seen many projects experience difficulty.
The key, really, is to take some time and do some stakeholder mapping, both internally and externally, to determine who you need to talk to, when and on what subjects.
Where is my audience, and how will the time differences affect how we communicate
Understanding the temporal and geographic location and context of your colleagues is something I have discussed extensively in a paper a while ago. At its simplest level however, it is necessary to understand how the physical location of your virtual team colleagues will impact how you are able to communicate with one another.
If, for example, you are in the same time zone but physically remote, you will be able to communicate relatively freely for all, or at least most, of the working day. Also, that communication can use whatever tools are most appropriate for the discussions, be they telephone, instant messaging (both desktop and mobile based), video conference (again either fixed VC system or desktop based) or by email, and the discussions can be relatively unstructured since the extensive work day overlap allows for simple, frequent ad-hoc discussions.
As the temporal separation between colleagues extends, from a one or two hour difference to eventually a twelve or thirteen hour separation, the impact of the time difference becomes increasingly tangible and has a real impact on the flow and form of communication. Once colleagues are working at completely different times, ad-hoc communication is effectively impossible without impacting on the non-work time of one or all parties. As such, communication becomes more formal, more structured and less fluid. Meetings tend to be planned days, weeks or months in advance, and must run on fixed agenda’s to make the most of the time available.
What tools do I need and what do I have available
Once you know who you need to communicate with, what you need to say and where the other parties are located, both geographically and temporally, you can give real thought to the tools you need, then compare what you need with what you actually have.
As an example, I have spoken to a number of companies who use free desktop communications tools such as Skype for audio communications, but struggle to use the video side of such tools as the bandwidth causes problems for office systems. Equally, some organisations run tightly controlled IT networks, where only specific tools are allowed. In these organisations, freeware software platforms such as Skype tend to be excluded or prohibited, limiting personnel to choices from among the company supported suite of products. Being constrained by these internal systems can be problematic for some organisations, as the personnel choosing the tools do not necessarily select them based on the needs of employees working in virtual team environments.
Video conference suites are also managed very differently from organisation to organisation. Some businesses have their VC equipment installed in boardrooms only, tending therefore to be viewed as elitist tools for the senior managers only, when in fact they need to be available to many other members of the organisation.
Giving due consideration to the who, how and when, when planning your virtual team communications is an important part of getting things right before you start. If you have any questions or need any guidance and support with your communications planning, please contact us at Ulfire, we will be happy to help.
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