Getting virtual communication right is more than a nicety–it’s a necessity.
If you don’t get this right, then talented individuals will leave, collaboration will suffer, decisions will be made without full information, and your culture will ultimately crumble.
There will always be a tug and pull between people who are co-located and those who are remote. Companies who take the time to understand the challenges and address them will increase productivity, collaboration, reduce miscommunications, and leverage the talents of all. Additionally, cultural norms and underlying values are spread by osmosis–as teams become more unified this sense of a collective culture will grow.
Consider the five common challenges that increase the complexity of building a cohesive culture with a distributed workforce, as well as the five corresponding antidotes.
|Locations||Assume a Virtual Perspective|
|Communications||Use Multiple Platforms|
|Technology||Improve Implementation and Optimization|
|Learning Languages||Post Learning Languages|
|Connection||Routinize and Personalize Connection|
#1 Challenge: Dispersed Locations Create Frustration “I can’t hear you.”
One day when I walked into my client’s office (let’s call her Linda), she had just come back from one of her monthly companywide meetings and was frustrated. She led a company of 80 employees with 70% at headquarters and the remaining 30% in regional offices and a handful of remote employees located elsewhere. Linda said the meetings were painful. She disliked the long silences after asking people on the phone for their opinions. She was sick of encountering “I can’t hear you,” “Use the microphone,” and “Can you repeat that?”
Antidote: Assume a Virtual Perspective.
I gave Linda an assignment. Next month, she and a team from headquarter were to “dial in” rather than attend the meeting in-person. (Afterwards they were to meet and brainstorm ideas about how to make the meetings more effective, connective, and less frustrating.)
Next time I saw her, she and the team had implemented these changes.
- In the middle of the table by the speaker, sat framed pictures of the staff from each regional office as well as individual pictures of the few employees located elsewhere.
- When it came time to open the floor for discussion, she asked the people on the phone first. She also learned to count to five because many of the participants were trying to unmute.
- They role modeled stating their name before making a point and diligently using the microphone. They repeatedly reminded others to do the same.
- The agenda and materials were sent the day before rather than two hours ahead of time.
Linda shared her experiences and learnings with the company. She asked if anyone had additional suggestions.
Assuming a virtual perspective is the most important and effective way to understand how to unify your team. Walk in the shoes of a remote team member. What is your experience? How are you handicapped? What are the upsides? Further, ask remote workers what is working and what could work better with regard to work flow, communications, connection, and engagement. By understanding and being empathic about the challenges that remote teams and members encounter, you will be able to better tackle the next four challenges.
#2 Challenge: Communication. “We don’t know what it going on.”
A common mantra I hear from remote offices and team members is that they feel forgotten and out of the communication loop.
Antidote: Use multiple platforms to communicate.
- One of my clients, an entrepreneur of a growing company has half of his team in San Francisco and half in Los Angeles. To bridge the gap, he records weekly Vlogs highlighting significant accomplishments/events and rotates the spotlight on different team members.
- Another entrepreneur, after growing his staff to 50 employees, half of them Bulgaria, started sending out a weekly note. Because remote workers don’t have as much of a chance to “run into” the CEO, seeing and hearing him on a regular basis connects them to the larger organization.
- The CEO of The Cheesecake Factory makes a short video on his way to work about what is on his mind and sends it out every week.
- Larger companies tend to send out newsletters and take advantage of their intranet to spread news.
#3 Challenge: Different Learning Languages “I don’t get it.”
Although language can be a true barrier in global organizations, what is often overlooked is differences in how people process and learn. There are seven learning styles (or languages): visual (seeing), aural (auditory, musical), kinesthetic (using hand, movement), verbal (linguistic, using words), logical (mathematical, using logic, reasoning), social (learn in groups or with others), and solitary (work alone, self-study). In fact, well-designed learning programs ensure information to appeal to learners of all types.
Let’s use me as an example. I was struggling to communicate with one particular virtual person. I had sent her documents in advance and used these as our visuals for capturing notes along the way. Although I tried my best to be explicit about which document we were looking at it, the experience was painful for both of us. From then on, I used screen sharing technology to focus on exactly what was important. This was me learning her language (solitary learning, visual beyond documents).
Antidote: Communicate your Learning Languages
Although technologies have come a long way, sometimes people by default only use email (linguistic) or telephone (auditory) which may not be the other’s language. If everyone knew how individuals best process information and adapt to that, this would improve performance. For example, I would communicate:
I am a visual and kinesthetic processor and learner.
How I best process complicated information:
- Send me thoughts in writing in advance of the meeting so I can think it through (solitary) and print it out so I can write (kinesthetic)
- Share your screen with me so I can see what you are seeing (visual)
- When you present ideas or data use a visual (visual)
You will not get the best of me if you use only auditory.
#4 Challenge: Technology: “Ugh. I don’t know how to make this work.”
There are many social collaboration tools on the market, yet at many companies (and other entities), the adoption rate remains low. (#Slack may be changing that, especially in technology organizations.)
One medium-sized company in Santa Monica, CA implemented Yammer to increase collaboration. After the initial spike, after three months only 25% of their employee population used it.
My own experience is with my alumni network. For years we had a listserv that pushed out individual email messages (or a daily digest). Nearly 300 were on the list and a solid 50% actively participating, 25% intermittently participating, and 25% lurking and learning. When the university announced they were changing technologies, an alumni committee surveyed the alumni body to understand needs and desires. Yammer was chosen because it met most of those needs. Although there was training, almost immediately the volume of interactions reduced by 50%. Now it is down to a dribble.
Antidote: Improve implementation and optimization of collaboration technologies
- Pick a program that integrates with other programs. In my example of adopting Yammer, it became an additional social network to monitor. I believe the popularity of #slack is that it integrates well with other systems and there is a central hub.
- Offer ongoing training and have a go-to person people can go to with questions. Because most software has user interface which is similar to other social media that people are already using, it is assumed that people need limited support. Also remember there is a digital divide between generations as well as different communication preferences. The organization needs to treat this as an important large enterprise technology implementation (for example, HRIS, Customer management, and SAP).
- Provide clarity about when to use which tool. For example, Google docs for collaboration on specific projects and for archiving files. Email for external communication. Groups in Yammer or channels in Slack for project-based day-to-day work.
- Finally, realize that sometimes the selected technology is not the right fit. I love the adage, “Build sidewalks where people are already walking.”
* If you are interested in the multiple options on the market place this is a good overview. This list is of free collaboration tools. (Warning – if you are looking to narrow your choices, do not look at the comments!)
#5 Challenge: Connection. “I am not included.”
One of my first clients who worked remotely (let’s call him Mark) had excitedly joined a company and loved the fact that he could work from home 90% of the time. After six months, he vacillated between loving and hating his job. He was feeling a deep sense of disconnection from his team and the company. Sure, he was on calls and collaborating on tasks, yet he felt as if he was missing out on the ideation and learning that happens in the hallways. He also learned he was often misinterpreted and because he wasn’t there in person.
He expressed his need for more connection to the team and they scheduled a standing Monday morning meeting to connect about the weekend and share their week’s priorities. Within a month, people in the office felt like this was forced connection and that priorities could be shared by email. It was suggested to him, if he wanted to connect to call people individually. This furthered his feeling of isolation because that one Monday meeting made him feel like he was part of the entire team and his needs mattered.
Antidote: Routinize and Personalize Connection
To increase productivity and well as minimize the potential feeling of isolation, ensure there is communication beyond email/social collaboration tools.
- Have daily stand ups and weekly status meetings (both by video).
- Invite remote team members to regional office gatherings.
- At least once a year host a company-wide gathering and fly people in. If a smaller, rapid-growth company, I would recommend twice a year.
I encourage my clients to come up with authentic ways to connect with team members.
Robe Dube, CEO of Image One, is constantly looking for new ways to engage his remote team members. He has found three things successful in strengthening those relationships.
- He makes an effort to pick up the phone just to call to say hi.
- He sends video messages from his phone wherever he possible.
- When in the vicinity, he swings by and takes people to lunch.
Next Step: Select one antidote you can do to improve connection and communication with distributed teams or remote team members which will help foster a cohesive culture.
Photo credit: Flickr/Kate