The Secret to Managing Virtual Teams: Overcommunicate, Then Overcommunicate Some More
There are plenty of choices. Some would choose words relating to relationships and community. Others would side with cultural sensitivity or efficiency. For me, the choice is easy: overcommunicate. (By the way, it’s a valid single word. I looked it up! )
Scores of papers have been written about how important communication is for teams in general; in fact, for relationships in general. But this importance soars as soon as the participants are separated by time, culture, and distance. If there is a situation where it would be important to communicate with a team, then overcommunicate if it is a virtual team. And once you are done overcommunicating then overcommunicate some more.
Overcommunicate in this case isn’t just about time and volume. It is also about how you interact with the members of the team. Here are five ideas that will help you overcommunicate:
1. Repeat in different forms -
When a message is important it should be delivered in several different forms. This might include sending content in an email, posting it on a team website, and then sending and posting the same message in video form. After that the leader might present the information using video conferencing followed by individual team meetings where the individual managers present the same message.
Does this seem like a bit much to you? It isn’t. Overcommunicate. Just like physical transmissions fade with increasing distance, human message also tend to get lost along the way.
If you have a large team and do all the kinds of things I’ve noted above then the odds are the someone will still miss the message.
2. Be overly explicit and overly clear -
One of the biggest killers in virtual team execution is misunderstanding.
I happen to wear hearing aids. You’d think that my biggest problem is that I don’t hear things. It isn’t. The biggest problem is that occasionally I hear things that someone didn’t say.
Misunderstanding something that you think you heard correctly is a killer problem.
Simple misunderstanding can cause huge problems in a virtual team. This is especially true because the separation of the team members often allows a misunderstanding to remain in place for much longer than it would for a local team.
To avoid misunderstanding you should overcommunicate by making sure that all important interactions are very clear and explicit, even if the result sounds a little odd to you. Some people resist doing this because they feel that the resulting language is overlay formal or even unfriendly. Others resist because they think that it is insulting to their teammates by assuming that they are “not that bright.”
The reality is that it isn’t unfriendly or insulting. It is designed simply to make sure that no misunderstanding occur.
3. Avoid communication-killing cultural references -
Everyone knows that you should be careful to avoid any comments that could be offense as it relates to race, culture, religion, etc. That isn’t really what I have in mind here. What I’m thinking of here are comments or references that can only be fully understood by someone who is very familiar with your cultural base.
The classic example is the use of sports analogies. To my fellow Americans: overcommunicate by overavoiding all baseball analogies. I say that in part because one of the things I’ve learned by traveling to almost 90 countries is that people all over the world are driven crazy by Americans use of baseball analogies. “You’re in the bottom on the ninth with two down” may communicate a lot to your fellow New Yorker but may not mean as much to someone from Uzbekistan.
Suppose you hear someone say, “It’s just like launching the attacker from the tramp.” That might mean a lot to a Belgian who plays a lot of Bossaball (http://www.bossaballsports.com/) but probably not to the rest of us. Saying, “you’re up the bog without your snorkel” may be very clear to those at the bog snorkelling championships in Wales (http://tinyurl.com/5pahbc ) but it’s not very universal.
If you happen to be using illustrations based on extreme ironing (http://tinyurl.com/c8l2yab ) then you should probably not bother to overcommunicate. You should probably just give it up and find another line of work.
4. Select a victim or two for each meeting -
For each meeting or interaction select one or two team members that you plan to highlight during the conversation. Be sure to specifically ask them to give their input. There are some cases where this will make the “victim” feel uncomfortable, but if simply ask for their opinion most will appreciate it, even if they decline to share an opinion.
Follow up after the meeting by writing them an email or giving them a call to thank them for their input and to comment on some of their input. The point here is to establish clear connection to a specific member of the team. At the next meeting choose a different victim. After even a few meetings you will begin to feel much more connected to the team on the other end and communication will be much more effective in the future.
One note of caution: only do this if you are doing it sincerely. Faking interest is both disingenuous and ineffective.
5. Demonstrate respect of culture -
One of the most important areas where you can overcommunicate is in regard to demonstrating respect for culture and differences. If you are on a team with members from a location and culture that is very much different from your own then it is important to go out of your way to demonstrate true respect for that culture. This is especially important if the other culture is located at what is thought of as the “distant” office and you are located at the “home” office.
But here’s a hard question: HOW, exactly, do you demonstrate respect?
The answer is that you show respect by demonstrating changed behavior. We’re not talking about giant behavioral changes here (for example, going from a bank robber to a model citizen). We’re talking tiny little observable signs that say that you care enough about someone’s culture to take the time to learn something about it and to become at least a little part of it. That might mean learning to pronounce “unusual” names correctly. It might mean learning at least a few words in the language and going out of your way to use them. It might mean learning the very basic history of a country and perhaps learning to recognize the three most important national heroes.
All of this is a part of “overcommunicating” because it isn’t something that most people do naturally. In many of these cases you have to go out of your way and do things that may not feel natural. There will be situations that feel over-the-top and downright weird.
But in the end you need to think of yourself as an actor in a live play rather than as an actor in a film. All actors have to communicate well – just like all members of teams need to learn to communicate well. But if you an actor playing live on a large stage to a big audience you need to exaggerate your facial expressions and movements – to overact – if want the people in the cheap seats to share in the show. In the same way, you need to consciously overcommunicate if you want your virtual team to be successful.
One last comment about all of this “learning to communicate and respect cultures.” I’ve had this discussion with quite a few people and I enjoy listening to the reactions. Some people enjoy working with global virtual teams in part because it allows them to meet amazing people from all over the world and to learn at least a little bit about each one. They find this to be interesting because they have a basic curiosity about people and how they live in different places in the world.
If you aren’t one of those people then what I’ve written here may drive you crazy. It can become very tiring and very annoying. If you find that you HATE doing all this stuff, and the prospect of having to learn a few words of Cantonese drives you up a wall that isn’t really a crime. But it probably does mean then you aren’t in the right job. In this case you probably really should quit and go home – and start looking to find a better fit that you would enjoy much more.
For those who do enjoy it, go out and be that actor on a live stage – and overcommunicate to make sure that everyone in every seat can see the whole show.
These are my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.