Virtual Teams: Candid Communication is Possible

Working remotely is not a new concept, but many more people have found themselves in this situation over the past year and a half. For those new to remote work, the transition can feel overwhelming. 

Keith Ferrazzi, a #1 New York Times Bestselling author, had his firm spend two years researching virtual teams. They found that 43% of employees say they are more confused and feel more overwhelmed when they move to remote work.

One would think the ever increasing number of communication platforms available for texting, email, and instant messaging would make things less overwhelming, but in many cases, Keith’s firm found they are actually having the opposite impact. 

Workers are left feeling like a rodent in a maze trying to find information. Was that sent by email? Or was it a text? Maybe it was on Slack or a Google Drive?

What teams desperately need is effective collaboration and communication.

Leaders need to put a “communication contract” in place. Everyone in your organization should understand the hierarchy of communications. For example, a text might mean something is more urgent and needs attention right away, while an email is more of a “get to this when you can” signal.

Virtual miscommunication can be mitigated. When sitting in a conference room together, it is easy to read the body language of your team members. It doesn’t make up for it fully, but you can achieve some of the same level of insight by turning on the camera. Whenever feasible, make video conferencing mandatory. 

Leaders should over communicate. Be explicit in your directions and communications. There is a psychological phenomenon known as “signal amplification bias” where we think we send more information than we actually do. Give your team tangible action items and direction.

Once you have communication channels being utilized in the correct fashion, you can start to really collaborate. 

Collaboration is not the same thing as consensus building. As the leader, you want to provide an environment that brings out innovative ideas. 

Keith suggests two practices you can try to encourage your team to collaborate and speak candidly:

  1. When trying to tackle a problem, set aside a significant amount of time to discuss it. Ninety minutes is ideal. Present the challenge carefully and consider the ideas you want to spark. Then break into small groups of 3 to 4 people. The idea behind the small groups is that people will often speak more candidly. Then reconvene and have the small teams present recommendations. The topic owner gives the ideas a yes, no, or maybe. They ultimately have the accountability to deliver.
  2. A different, and more rapid approach to problem-solving, is called the “5x5x5”. There are three rounds of five-minute sessions. Round one is the presentation of the problem. Round two is spent clarifying questions to spur deeper insights. Round three is feedback and recommendations. This approach in a remote meeting starts to condition your team members to turn to one another for help and solutions versus remaining isolated and just relying on themselves for problem-solving. 

Conclusion: Candor is King

Your team members must be willing to speak up in service to the mission and to one another. You can reinforce this behavior by rewarding naysayers. It will spur more criticism, but it will also spur more critical thinking.

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