7 wickedly simple ways to improve virtual team communications


I’ve been interested in remote working since I first worked remotely as a computer book technical reviewer back in the nineties. I’ve put my stake in the ground about the importance of culture for collaboration. Fast forward to today, I’ve had the opportunity to write about some of the platforms and mobile apps that power today’s virtual teams.

Recently, I’ve gotten back to thinking about virtual team communications. Something so simple as communications, can be made so difficult or so it seems.

1. Write emails in bullet points

Email is a cause of so many miscommunications or so it seems in my experience. When communicating amongst virtual team members via email, you should:

  • Make your emails scannable
  • Avoid long winded email threads
  • Remember clarity is your co-pilot

When I was a computer book technical editor, I was taught that a person’s emails and comments needed to stand on their own. That rule should apply to email communications in virtual team environments too. While I’m not without my personal communication hiccups, I try to make sure my emails are scannable.

2. Keep chat system logs “on the record”

I’m certainly a proponent of chat systems in moderation. In the past year or so, I’ve used Slack, HipChat, Lync, and Google Chat or various client projects. I’ve come to see it as important to turn on the logs so you can refer to a conversation later.

Part of being “on the record” is also to know the natural ebbs and flows of a coworker’s day. Chat sessions can be very distracting to some people.

3. Don’t fear the phone

I have one client who reaches for the phone first and I give them lots of credit for it. While we do use Slack and email to communicate, they are my one client that prefers the phone. Needless to say, I rarely experience miscommunications with this client. To them, the phone represents:

  • Team relationship building
  • Real-time decision-making
  • Less back and forth

When I returned to freelancing after a layoff in 2012, I may have gone three months without speaking to any client. I still have some clients I’ve yet to communicate with in real-time. However, I’m the first to say that virtual teams shouldn’t fear the phones for communicating with each other.

4. Use calendars to combat crisis

It’s romantic to some personality types always to be going from crisis to crisis. It makes these people feel needed. The nature of virtual teams can only magnify the drama of real or imagined crises.

My recommendation is to use a central calendar to communicate minor to major project milestones and events. In a virtual working environment, one way a crisis can snowball is an urgent project appearing from nowhere disrupting the flow.

5. Respect team member personalities and communications styles

Respective team member personalities and communications styles can make working remotely challenging for some people. Give other team members space and yourself time to learn how to communicate best with the various personality types on your team. Providing a critique to another team member after they send an email to another team member or client is ultimately counter-productive except in extreme circumstances.

There are merits in being straight to the point in written communications just as there is to being overly friendly.

The thing is, there’s no merit in trying to change one of those communications styles to the other. Trying to bend entrenched personality and communications styles may only get you tuned out the next time you communicate with that team member.

I never understood the terse communications I would get from some editors. It all became clear to me when my email box began to fill up with PR pitches why I got such emails.

6. Think first, Write second

There’s the long-standing advice of never sending an email in the heat of the moment. My advice is to “think first, write second” to ensure that your communications with other team members are clear, on point, and can stand on their own.

7. Democratize project management

Project management factors into the quality of virtual team communications in my experience. The current generation of cloud project management platforms is ideal for virtual project teams because they enhance communications around project tasks with online discussions and social tools. The convergence of project management and collaboration in the cloud enable easy and clear communications around project tasks and scheduling.

Final thoughts

Looking back to my first virtual working experience back in the mid-nineties (dial-up Internet, email, and FTP sites, baby!), I’m excited to see the practice become more the norm now. Unfortunately, some of the same communications challenges remain despite the latest technology improvements.

Image by Luis Llerena via Unsplash.com

Will Kelly is a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. His writing experience includes writing technology articles for CNET TechRepublic and other sites. Will’s technology interests include collaboration platforms, enterprise mobility, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), project management applications, and big data. Follow him on Twitter: @willkelly.

Will Kelly

My name is Will Kelly. I’m a technical writer and content creator based in Northern Virginia. These days I write a lot about cloud computing and DevOps. My articles have been published by TechTarget, Samsung Business Insights, TechBeacon, CNET TechRepublic, and others. By day, I work in the corporate growth group of a large systems integrator. At night, I do circuit training, then go home and write more. Follow me on Twitter: @willkelly.

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