Readers of this site will know that I have been passionate about project based virtual teams for a number of years, I’ve written about it in magazine articles, presented on it at a number of conferences, set up this website and blog to share my insights and, in the background for the past 8 years been working on a PhD exploring how team members communicate and interact in large, complex, project virtual teams. The PhD was completed last month when I graduated and my thesis is available for download here for anyone interested. The timing between that and the emergence on the global stage of the corona virus/Covid 19 has been an interesting coincidence.
So, the question I have now is how can I help individuals and organisations, as many struggle to come to terms with working remotely, sometimes for the first time. And how to do this while staying in my area of expertise.
For a lot of organisations and projects, virtual teams have been the way of life for a decade or more. However, the majority of that work is done with large teams of people congregating in a number of offices around the world. The teams are often large but separated into teams, communicating along established channels.
Self isolation/work from home therefore is going to be quite a shock to a lot of people and bring some real surprises to their employers. There is too much however to cover in one article, so, what am going to try to do is write regular, short pieces on different aspects, some will be accompanied by podcast episodes, others will come out stand alone. There is quite a library of articles already on the site, some of which may be helpful in the current situation, others possibly less so.
Let’s start with technology.
I will start here with some thoughts on technology. It can be easy when you first start virtual teaming to assume that you need to go instantly to video for everyone. This is really not the case. Yes, your team will need access to some video technology, but many of the other communications tools you use in your normal office environment will suffice as a base line. Email and the phone are still the most common tools for communications and can cover much of your day to day needs. BUT, you need to use those tools well, use them often, and back them up with video where appropriate. You need to replicate the personal conversations as much as possible to keep things flowing.
Email can and should still be used for group communications, sharing materials and much of the one on one communications. However, you need to be more aware of context and content, particularly when it is a new subject to the recipient. In a traditional office, word of mouth covers so much background context that simply isn’t there in an email without context, so try to communicate fully and maybe proceed or follow an email with a call or video chat.
On the subject of email, also be careful how you react/respond to email. It is easy both to poorly phrase an email so that a benign message can be taken to be incendiary, equally, it is to misread a benign email and become upset. Assume, therefore, as a staring point, when reading any email, that it is not meant to cause harm or offense and keep that it mind when you reply, take a breath, leave your reply for a while before sending etc. Overall, It is rare in a project or business environment for people to write intentionally offensive messages.
Use the phone as much as sensible.
Voice communications are still very effective for communicating, particularly one to one. It is much easier to communicate a clear and concise message verbally (and to test it for accuracy), than a written message. Be careful though with conference calls, particularly for new teams and situations where you have a lot of people working from home, once you get over a handful of participants on a conference call they are really only effective for broadcast messaging. Also, different personal technologies and environments (homes are rarely designed as good acoustic spaces for conference calls) can make them incredibly frustrating for all involved. So my advice would be to put a lot of thought into your choice of media before you start.
So, what about video?
Video communications are now so easy to access, whether Skype/Skype for business, Zoom, WebEx, FaceTime or whatever, there are a myriad of free or close to free platforms to choose from. Some will work better for one application and others for others. If you are using video try to get everyone on video and not some on, some off. Video helps to maintain engagement on extended calls as it can be easy to get distracted and start to do side tasks while someone else talks, so keep them brief, keep them focused and get everyone on the same level. If you are having a group update call, consider using a platform that allows recording, and make the recorded call available for those unable to join.
Hopefully these first little pieces are of some help. Please get back to me with any topics you would like me to discuss and in the mean time I will endeavour to keep these posts flowing over the next few days and weeks.