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Effective Communication in Virtual Teams

By vts | December 12, 2016
Effective Communication in Virtual Teams

If interaction fuels action, as the Law of Communication states, then it’s no wonder so many virtual teams in your company might be struggling to get things done.

Without effective communication in virtual teams, team members are often left asking the same question as the pre-school aged boy eating an apple in the backseat of the car. “Daddy,” he said, “Why is my apple turning brown?”

The boy’s father explained, “Because after you ate the skin off, the meat of the apple came into contact with the air, which caused it to oxidize, thus changing its molecular structure and turning it into a different color.”

There was a long silence, and then the boy asked, “Daddy, are you talking to me?”

Studies indicate that about one-third of all virtual team members cite communication as the team’s greatest challenge. Other research reveals the best virtual teams emphasize good communication skills and high emotional intelligence as essential prerequisites. With so much awareness of the problem, you might think managers and leaders at your company would focus on effective communication in virtual teams as the key to success. Like the little boy with the apple, however, virtual team members often can’t see leaders face-to-face when trying to communicate.

The reality is that communicating effectively never just happens—on any team. It requires intentional action by leaders. If they want to not just communicate, but also truly connect, they should focus on what the dad in the above example didn’t do—keep it simple.

Five Tips to Keep It Simple

Feel free to pass along these five tips from John C. Maxwell to help your company’s leaders and managers keep communication simple. When practiced consistently, these practices will produce more effective communication in virtual team and increase engagement on virtual teams every time.

1. Talk to People, Not above Them. Like the dad’s convoluted but technically accurate explanation to his son, leaders who understand certain industry complexities can easily talk over the heads of team members. Technology makes it especially easy to do because your managers can’t always get reliable non-verbal feedback when casting vision on a video conference call.

A practical way to do this is to focus on using shorter sentences, not to insult your team of educated professionals, but to ensure clear communication is taking place across cultural boundaries. Greater complexity is never the answer in communication—if your leaders truly desire to connect with their virtual team members.

2. Get to the Point. All good communicators get to the point before their listeners starts asking, “What’s the point?” When communicating over distance via technology, listeners have even more ways to opt-out of listening to what your leaders are saying. They can browse the web, answer emails, or work on another project if a virtual meeting drags on.

Your managers can proactively prepare to get to the point in virtual meetings by asking two questions before they try to communicate: What do I want them to know? What do I want them to do? Everyone likes clarity. Good communicators give it to them.

3. Say It Over and Over and Over Again. “The first time you say something,” says William H. Rastetter, “it’s heard. The second time, it’s recognized, and the third time, it’s learned.” With a virtual team environment, your managers don’t have the luxury of using physical space to reinforce messages. They can’t put up posters on break room walls or place paper memos in the hands of employees. The team can easily lose sight of the vision altogether.

The leaders in your company can avoid that trap with virtual teams by focusing on a single point—one big idea—in each communication opportunity. They can then make sure that everything in that communication drives home the main point. If it doesn’t fit, it may belong in another communication instead. Keep it brief, inject some humor when feasible, and repeat the main thing. Again and again.

4. Say It Clearly. Members of virtual teams will be persuade to act by what they understand, not by what your leaders say. Complicated doesn’t mean correct. Instead of trying to sound as if they know a lot, your leaders should focus on saying the right thing in a way that can be easily understood. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric pointed out, “Insecure managers create complexity.” When your managers speak clearly and simply, more team members will understand what they are trying to say.

Your leaders may benefit from thinking of their virtual communication time like a puzzle the listener needs to assemble quickly. They should tell the team clearly what the puzzle box top should look like, then give only the pieces that fit that puzzle. Make it easy to understand and the team will be equipped to do more.

5. Say Less. The quickest way to kill the productivity of a virtual team is to talk too much while saying too little. Virtual teams can be more productive because they can avoid the usual time sinkholes in the office. Your leaders can hardly go wrong by keeping things short, but there are a million ways they could go wrong by talking too long. And if their team has freelancers or members who are paid based on time invested, talking too long can, quite literally, hurt the bottom line.

Your leaders can learn from one of the greatest communicators who rallied an entire nation during World War II using technology—Winston Churchill. Churchill believed all great things are simple and best expressed in a single word—hope, freedom, justice, love, etc. “Broadly speaking,” he said, “the short words are the best.” Rather than dumping a lot of information on virtual teams in meeting, your managers can do the hard work of first sorting through it all and giving a simple, but effective framework that team members can use to make sense of it all.

Your leaders can enjoy effective virtual team communication if they are willing to do the hard work first and practice the art of simplicity.

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