Improving Collaboration in Virtual Teams

September 24, 2013

virtual collaboration

There are many opinions and perceptions about collaborating remotely or within a virtual team.  Many assume that collaboration decreases as the geographic distance between team members increases.  But is there any truth to this?  Do virtual teams have it harder than teams that are co-located?  The answer is yes.  Research has shown that virtual teams face more challenges than their face-to-face counterparts.

First, virtual teams communicate less effectively than face-to-face teams, even as they communicate more frequently.  As you may know, a greater volume of communication does not necessarily lead to better communication.  On the contrary, having more messages than your inbox can handle and being inundated with information can actually lead to more confusion, not less.

Second, conversations in virtual teams have been shown to be more task focused, to the exclusion of social interaction.  Although this effect lessens over time, intuitively it makes sense.  It takes a while to build and grow virtual relationships.  However, an extreme task focus may lead to less effective communication and weaken relational links between team members.   A lack of social communication is also associated with lower trust and cohesion in the team, along with difficulties in establishing a shared knowledge base.  Obviously, this can negatively impact team performance.

Fortunately for virtual team leaders, research also provides strategies on how to overcome these challenges.  These strategies fall into 2 major categories:

Increasing social identity within the team 

To increase engagement within remote or virtual teams we need to first think about social identity.  Social identity theory basically says that we all find ways to identify with various groups and the more we identify with a group, the more likely behave in a manner in line with the interests of the group, putting our own needs and desires aside.   Greater identification with a group can leads to greater trust and cohesion, better communication and cooperation, and ultimately better performance.

So how do we do that?

You may already be familiar with the stages of team development – forming, storming, norming, and performing.  Think about that first stage: forming.  How do you select people to become part of the team?  In some organizations I have worked with, leaders consciously select team members based on their experience and past performance working within a virtual team.  Having team members that are comfortable and adept at working virtually from the beginning can help the forming stage go smoothly.

Additionally, it may be helpful during the early stages of team formation for team members to meet face-to-face meetings before engaging virtually.  This can help foster higher trust, improved socialization, and closer interpersonal relationships.  (Of course this depends on logistics and budget).

Lastly, don’t forget to make time for social interaction.  To some, this may be seen as a waste of time.  Remember, if communication within the team becomes too task focused, it can eventually erode team performance.  Use ice breakers when the team first meets to start building relationships or reserve a little time during recurring team meetings to socialize and ensure people are comfortable around each other.

Leveraging the right technology

Technology also plays a big part in how virtual teams collaborate.  Communicating solely over email and conference calls can make collaboration difficult.  Thankfully, the tools and technology available are getting better and better.

High quality, affordable videoconferencing is accessible to all of us and can make a big difference in virtual teams.  In a study that compared how users collaborate virtually with or without video, users unsurprisingly wanted video.  Users believed that video added value to their interactions and made their interactions more satisfying.  If you are not already using video within your teams, you should start.

Also, there are a number of tools on the market that enable teams to collaborate, from meeting applications to document storage and content management to social networks.  All of these applications can enrich the team experience and allow for better communication and collaboration.  Too often I find teams not exploring or experimenting with new tools but complaining about how difficult it is to work on a virtual team.  Virtual team leaders can take advantage of what is available today.

In summary, virtual teams may have struggled in the past but it doesn’t have to be that way.  You may find with a little effort that the experience can be just as good, and in some cases better, than if you and your teammates were face to face.

Good luck,




The Never-Ending Quest to Write a Better Email

April 2, 2013


Considering how long email has been around, you would think that most people would have this down by now.  The length, content, and style can be a source of frustration for many recipients.  Unfortunately, email has become the primary means of communicating for many companies.  Ironically, I constantly see something like “written communications” in performance appraisals or job descriptions, yet few organizations I’ve worked with offer any sort of training or guidelines to help employees in this regard.  Here are a few quick guidelines to think about before you hit the Send button:

  1. Use alternate means of communication.  Before you draft your email, think about how else you could get your message across or query answered.  If it is a simple, straightforward question that needs an immediate answer, use instant messaging or send a text.  Better yet, pick up the phone and try calling the person to talk live.  In many cases, email should be the last, not the first choice.
  2. Be careful with the “Reply All” button.  People I work with have a fascination with the Reply All button, especially when responding to a large email distribution list.  You may be clogging up someone’s inbox by replying to everyone.  Ask yourself if everyone really needs to be included before responding.  If you are asking a large audience a question, read point 1 above.  Do you have an internal discussion board, blog, or other social media to get others involved?  If so, use that instead.
  3. Keep it brief.  Since many people have an inbox with hundreds of emails stacked up, it’s likely they’re only going to spend approximately 1 minute reading yours.  If recipients have to scroll down to read your message, they may just put it off to later, or worse, never read it entirely.  Remember the acronym BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front.  Make your point or ask your question in the first line of the email.
  4. Keep it concise.  Do you enjoy talking with someone that is longwinded?  Likewise, most people don’t enjoy longwinded writing styles.  This is a little different than the point above.  In this case I’m referring to sentence structure.  Short, clear sentences speed up reading.  Long run-on sentences slow down reading.  Use as few words as possible to convey your message.  Use bullet points instead of writing entire paragraphs.  Simple, common words are usually better than using words that will force someone to Google the definition.
  5. Spelling and grammar still count.  We all make mistakes.  Sometimes we let an email go without spell checking or proofreading it.  However, keep in mind that your communication is a reflection of you.  If you are working virtually, and the only way people identify you is through your electronic communications, then this is especially important.  If you are constantly sending out emails with spelling errors or making common errors, such as confusing “their” with “they’re,” then recipients may eventually form a negative perception of you.

Happy communicating,




The Things We Take for Granted When We Communicate

March 12, 2013


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.

Good luck,



Creating the Telework Elevator Speech

February 19, 2013


When trying to make the business case for telework internally, it may be helpful to create the proverbial elevator speech.  An elevator pitch is the concise summary of what telework means to the organization and what it will do for the organization.  As the old adage goes, if you found yourself riding in an elevator with an executive in your organization, what would you say during your short journey to hook the decision-maker on your idea?  This short sales pitch is a practice that can be used for almost any type of project or program and has become some prevalent in many organizations that it is almost passé.  However, it is still an effective tool for getting your message across quickly and clearly.     

You may have already developed your business case, whether it is a detailed document or lengthy series of PowerPoint slides.  The elevator speech is obviously based on this but you want to articulate it in about one minute or less.  First, consider who the listener or audience may be.  What do they care about?  What are their “hot buttons”?  What do you want them to remember most?  You may even develop a couple of different versions based on different audiences.  Think about the key benefits the telework program brings to your organization or the risk of not implementing the program (i.e. will you lose key talent to competitors that offer more flexible work practices?)

If the organization has attempted to implement telework in the past and it has not been overly successful, be prepared to add something that will explain why it is different this time around or why the decision-maker should consider revamping the program. 

Lastly, add in the timing, whether it is a short-term goal you are striving for or when a decision needs to be made to allocate resources or gain commitment.  There has to be some level of urgency, otherwise it is just nice-to-know information. 

If you really want to create a concise summary, try the “15 words or less” exercise.  In this exercise, you try to effectively summarize the entire program in only 15 words.  It may help you nail down what’s really important and the essential key words to communicate.  When you are done, test it out on your peers and team members, then make refinements as necessary.

Good luck!



Learning Virtual Work from the Next Generation

November 13, 2012

Back before the summer I was lamenting about how I’ve given up on Generation Y for inspiration and looking at the generation beyond them (see Forget the Millennials.  Why I’m Betting on Generation Z).  I found it amazing that 50% of 11 year-olds have their own cell phones and 40% of 8 year-olds use the internet daily.  If having to explain to my kids the difference between VHF and UHF television channels didn’t make me feel old, then watching them carry around tablets certainly does. 

But, I’m over it.  I may be a dinosaur, but I’m a dinosaur that can still learn a few new tricks.  That’s why I’ve been observing how younger kids use technology for clues as to how us “older” folks can be better virtual workers.  For example, I mentioned in an earlier post that some employers are requiring job applicants to hand over their Facebook passwords or forcing employees to ‘friend’ their managers (see Your Boss Wants Your Facebook Password).  While speaking with a few local high school kids, a thought occurred to me.

“Are you friends with your parents on Facebook?” I asked.  I didn’t bother asking if they even had a Facebook account.  A few of them said they had at least one parent as a Facebook friend – mandated by their parents.

“How do you get around that?” I asked.  It took a few minutes of coaxing and promising that I wasn’t going to turn them in, but one mentioned how he and his friends use Twitter to vent, express themselves, meet up, find the next party, etc. while keeping a very innocuous Facebook page to keep their parents happy.  At this point, I started to see the future if more employers start intruding on their employees’ Facebook pages.  Employees will simply find other social media or communication tools for personal use while placating their employers with a more professional social media face.

Beyond social media, kids can teach us how to use technology better and differently.  My kids, who are elementary school age, are teaching me a little about virtual collaboration.  My children have become addicted to an online game called Minecraft, in which players can construct anything they want with different types of blocks.  Sort of like a virtual Lego world.  My daughter, using her Kindle Fire, will work with my son on my iPad to build out their own landscape and designs.  What’s interesting is that they sit right next to each other on the sofa, heads down in their screens, while shouting commands to each other.  It got me thinking about typical web conferencing tools like WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc. are used.  We assume that these applications work when we are virtual, but limit their use when we are in person.  Watching my kids made me realize the value of collaborating virtually, even when we are face to face, and how the tool itself makes us more efficient when building out new ideas.

I challenge you to watch how your own kids use and how they interact with tools and technology.  You just might learn something.



Post Mortem Reviews of Your Telework Program

September 18, 2012

Whether you are just completing a pilot of your telework program or you have a mature program that’s been around for a while, it’s good to pause and reflect on what’s working and what could be done better.  The name “post mortem review” may imply that you wait for the program to be complete but it’s recommended that you pulse your employees throughout a telework implementation.  Below are 2 simple lists of questions that will help leaders conduct a review.

The first is a simplified approach borrowed from the US Army.  The military typically conducts a quick review with soldiers after a mission known as an After Action Review (AAR).  It consists of 3 simple questions:

  1. What did we do right (at least 3 things)?
  2. What can we do better (at least 3 things)?
  3. What are your overall comments or observations?

The second post mortem checklist is more thorough and is typically carried out by project managers when a project is complete.  I have modified the questions to apply to telework.

  1. Program plan
    1. Did we have a well-defined plan?
    2. What was good about it?
    3. What could we have done better?
    4. Did we have the right stakeholders defined?
    5. Were roles and responsibilities clear?
    6. Were expectations clear?
    7. How could we have managed it better?
  2. People
    1. Did we have the right people on the team?
    2. Should we have a bigger or smaller core team?
    3. Who should we have involved early/later?
    4. How could we have functioned better?
  3. Communications
    1. Were we clear about the goals?
    2. What communication methods worked best?  Least?
    3. Did we communicate to the right audiences?
    4. Was the program socialized effectively?
    5. Was the frequency of communications appropriate?
    6. Were information sharing methods effective (non-meeting communications)?
  4. Finance/Cost
    1. Could we have done escalations differently?
    2. Did we have any cost/budget “surprises”?  Were they handled effectively?
    3. Did we meet financial objectives and cost targets?
  5. Schedule
    1. How well did we meet critical schedule milestones?  If not, what did we miss?
    2. What activities took the longest?  Why?
    3. How could we condense the schedule?
  6. Overall impressions
    1. What were your overall observations or impressions (that we didn’t cover above)?

Although there are a lot of free survey tools you can use to capture this feedback, I still recommend that leaders do this in a live session.  When participants hear what others have to say they may be reminded of other details that they may simply skim over on a typical questionnaire.  This may mean that you have to conduct multiple sessions just to cover a sample of the population.  That’s okay too – the feedback you get will be well worth the time.  Also, remember that this is not a one-time activity.  Continue to hold periodic reviews so you can continually improve your program.

Good luck,



Can You Over-Communicate to Teleworkers?

September 11, 2012

Last week I read an interesting article from the American Society for Training and Development ( about a study conducted by Kathryn L. Fonner and Michael Roloff, a communications professor at Northwestern University.  The pair studied the frequency of communication related to the teleworkers’ identification with the organization.  Their findings, originally published in the June issue of Communication Monogrpahs, run counter to many commonly held beliefs about communicating to teleworkers. 

Specifically, they found that the frequency of communication to teleworkers didn’t increase the teleworkers’ feelings of attachment with the organization.  Furthermore, they discovered that teleworkers experience more stress from interruptions when communication increased, whether it was email or even face-to-face.  This, in turn, negatively impacted their feelings of attachment to the organization.  Ironically, office workers experienced more stress from interruptions compared to teleworkers but this didn’t impact the feelings of closeness office workers had with their organization.

As I have always argued, you can never communicate too much.  As it turns out, I may be wrong.  Office workers may be numb to the constant walk-in interruptions or other office distractions whereas teleworkers may expect more freedom from the constant barrage of work interruptions.         

The study does give us some potential lessons for all managers:

  1. Communicate when necessary, not just to insure teleworkers are connected.  Often, managers may feel the need to touch base with teleworkers very frequently to make sure they are connected or that they feel included.  Managers who are frequently communicating with teleworkers to ensure they are actually working should let go and recognize that they are doing more harm than good.  The study did point out that teleworkers feel just as connected to the organization as office workers do and there isn’t a need to communicate just to make teleworkers feel part of the team.
  2. Understand the work patterns of your team.  Everyone works a little differently.  Managers should seek to understand the work habits and styles of the people reporting to them.  Some may need more attention than others.  Managers can tailor their communication practices based on the needs of the team.
  3. Quality over quantity.  Don’t inundate your team with email.  In today’s work environment, many people, whether they work from home or an office, complain about the massive volumes of email they receive.  Make sure your communication (especially emails) have a purpose and get to the point.

I think it is worth pointing out that preparing an organization to begin teleworking is a little different than an organization that is already teleworking and considers teleworking just part of the job.  For organizations just starting down this path I still feel that leaders need to constantly communicate to solicit feedback, answer concerns and questions, and gain buy-in.  However, the study points out that leaders can scale back the communication once employees are comfortable with teleworking.