A large percentage of the business population is now using video conferencing tools for meetings. But there is much more to virtual communication than just meetings. And when working in a virtual world, communication takes on a whole new level of importance for leaders.
When you work in a virtual work, gone are the quick drop-ins to an employee’s office, gone are the informal chats around the water cooler, gone is the reading of an employee’s body language to give context to their words, and gone are the easy observations of how your employees are doing their work. Lacking all these in-person communication options, leaders must learn how to adapt into the vast world of virtual communication.
Without being able to peek over shoulders, leaders must learn to give up any micro-management of how things are being done and learn to focus on the results of what is getting done. Leaders must also learn to be much more intentional about communication. They need to be strategic in determining how often to meet with their team as a whole and with individuals. Most people are not aware of how much informal communication they engage in when in an office setting. But without frequent and ongoing communication, employees will feel the void – even if they can’t identify what is causing it.
Another challenge is that leaders need to shift how they think about communication, especially its purpose and how it is delivered.
It is said that only 7% of communication is about the words you use, while 38% is tone of voice and 55% body language. That’s why so many of us resort to emoticons and exaggerated punctuation in our emails, social media interactions, and other online forms of communication. It is an attempt to convey the tone and feeling behind the words. But those strategies are not always appropriate in a business communication setting.
The Solution Toolkit
Virtual teams have five primary ways to communicate – phone, email, instant messaging, collaborative tools, and video. Each of these tools has its pros and cons, and each person will have their preferred tool. It is important that leaders know which one each of their employee’s are most comfortable with and use that for one-on-one check-ins.
Phone. This may seem a bit old school but hearing a voice can help convey feelings and attitudes that are difficult to portray in written communication. If you are simply delivering information and expect minimal feedback, then you could have large numbers. But if there is to be an exchange of comments and conversations, these numbers need to be kept small.
Email. When you have a lot of details to share, lots of people to reach, or if the communication needs to be written and formal, this is your best tool. It is helpful to use a consistent format to call attention to any action items that people need to respond to. This might be the use of color, bolding, highlighting, or other attention grabbing stylization.
Instant Messaging. This is the best way to mimic an in-person conversation with another person. The exchanges are typically short messages with and informal tone. Responses are expected to be quick and to the point. Shorthand, abbreviations and emojis are commonly used.
Collaborative Tools. These are effective for teams that are contributing to the same set of documents or projects. They allow for sharing computer screens, tracking tasks and team progress, sharing files, sharing comments and notes, and more. These tools are perfect for project management tasks.
Video. This has become the new way to interact face to face. This is as close as you can come to being in the same physical space as someone. The purpose of videos is to be able to see everyone, so make sure that everyone is using their camera and not hiding behind a photo. The camera needs to clearly show your face and lighting should be behind the camera so as not to shadow your face.
Leaders need to pay attention to which tool they are using when. The purpose and context of the communication should dictate which tool is chosen. Establishing clear expectation of which tool to use when, can help everyone be on the same page for effective and efficient communication.
“Any virtual community that works, works because people put in some time.” Howard Rheingold
Virtual Communication Tips
Whatever method of communication you are using. Here are a few tips to keep your messaging on point and your work productive.
- When using the phone, it can be difficult to hear clearly without seeing the words as they are spoken. Speak slowly and check in with others to make sure they understood you clearly.
- As with any conversation, don’t just be thinking about what you’re going to say next. This is even more important on a conference or video call where you can easily zone out and miss critical information. Listen to what the speaker is saying first, and then confirm what you heard by restating. This also happens with written materials. We tend to skim and intuit what is being shared rather than reading for comprehension. Clarify before you respond.
- Remember the tone of your voice can be hard to read, especially in written form. Be sure to state how you are feeling as appropriate. This may be a new skill for many people but explicitly stating your intended emotion or attitude is important for others to properly understand your meaning and context.
- Make sure everyone gets an opportunity to share, provide feedback, and ask questions, regardless of which tool is being used. Fast and loose are the ingredients for miscommunication. Take the time to clarify and create mutual understanding. It takes more time on the front end but can save you a lot of time and headaches down the road.
- Social bonds and personal interactions are essential to building rapport, bolstering teamwork, and even diffusing tension. Incorporate some personal bonding time with your team. Have every team member “check in” before a meeting; they could share some photos of their kids, report on their weekend activity, or chat about their favorite TV shows. Create a virtual water cooler of sorts and see how positively it impacts your work.
Putting It All Together
When working in a virtual setting, leaders must be more intentional and more proactive about their communication than ever before. In office settings we tend to take communication for granted and don’t realize how many micro moments of communication are taking place. When we take all these little connections away, people can quickly feel despondent from a lack of interaction.
It is the responsibility of leaders to make sure everyone on their team receives multiple communication touches every day. With a variety of virtual communication tools available it is easy to mix up the types of interaction – writing, seeing, and hearing. Each type of connection is important and should be used daily. Leaders need to sort through which messages are best served by which tool to keep their communication effective. They need to plan their communication strategies to ensure they are connecting with everyone every day. Ideally, multiple times a day and with different tools.
How and when and where and why may be aspects of communication that leaders haven’t paid much attention to in the past. But in the virtual work, the communication choices you make will determine your success or failure as a virtual leader. Make sure you set yourself up for success!