Recently, I was on a conference call with my IT department. I was walking them through the business requirements of a recent change in policy. That policy change would cause changes in the online tools employees were currently using. The change was a bit complicated. They didn’t understand the taxonomy the business used. They didn’t understand all the steps in the process. An hour later, I hung up the phone and wondered if they really understood what the business needed. It was frustrating to see the least.
It reminded me of an old story I heard about a US business that was acquired by a British company. The US leaders, anxious to keep their business, presented several initiatives and projects to their new boss. The head British leader responded to each project review with the word, “Brilliant.” The US leaders, not realizing that this was the equivalent of saying “interesting,” misinterpreted it as the go ahead to begin work. A few months, and a few million dollars later, the US leaders were shocked when all work was stopped and they were reprimanded for wasting company funds. The point is, when we communicate in the virtual workplace, or just across functional departments or geographic lines for that matter, there are many things we take for granted.
There are several things you can do to help improve communications within your virtual team, even if you’re technology is limited.
Taxonomy. Different groups or functions within an organization often use a different set of terms or language. In my case, I was using terminology that came directly from the legal department and was very, very specific. I kept finding myself correcting my counterparts because they didn’t understand the importance of the specific words being used. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to spend a few minutes during the first meeting to walk everyone through the taxonomy used. Perhaps a quick reference list provided to all team members would have helped too.
Visuals. To use the old cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words, or at least a good 15 minutes on a conference call trying to explain yourself. As much as I hate create a deck of PowerPoint slides just for the sake of creating slides, it’s often easier to walk people through a chart, process map, or provide some reference point. People will hear and interpret things in different ways. If 10 people are on a conference call, you may get 10 different versions of what the problem/goal is or what needs to be done. Leave nothing to chance by spending the time to prepare and create some visual aids to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Leverage technology available. Technology can greatly enhance communication. Desktop sharing applications ensure everyone is looking at the same thing at the same time. Video conferencing allows you to watch body language and judge whether people understand. Shared spaces can ensure version control. Virtual whiteboards allow people to think out loud while engaging the rest of the group. All of this can help. Use it.
Follow up and document. Always follow up and document the conversation, points made, actions to take, etc. Again, leave nothing to chance in the communication process.