As our new world of working continues to reveal itself, virtual teamworking is fast becoming a standard in many organisations. With more teams working fully virtually and others at least working partly on a virtual basis, there is a growing need for virtual teams not used to working in this way to get some tips on how to get the best from themselves and their members in the new normal. In today’s blog, I want to give you some tips on how to improve communication in a team, specifically in a virtual context, right now.
My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, genetically wired to bring you evidence-based tips on how to get the most from yourself and from your work colleagues; and even from your outside of work life, each week on a Monday morning as you prepare yourself for the week ahead.
Why is good team communication important?
First, something on the importance of team communication – why is communication important in a team? Good communication underpins so many characteristics of high performing teams according to study after study.
- First, effective team communication enables the free flow of ideas and information which allows high quality decision making based on good data.
- Second, good communication in terms of listening, questioning and challenging provides a solid basis for team innovation and creativity in terms of problem-solving and solution-finding.
- Third, when teams communicate well, there is a greater chance of them developing a climate of trust and a culture of belonging and inclusion, in itself creating a team that feels cohesive and ‘as one’, which drives up team engagement.
- Finally, respectful, open collaboration with other team members provides a forum for diverse views to be heard and acted upon and that knocks on to increased innovation and creative problem-solving.
And what about virtual team communication?
Virtual team communication challenges, magnified in the new world of work, are what I want to focus in on now. So here are my 9 top tips on how to improve virtual team communication, harvested just for you from our collective new world of work team experiences at Strengthscope.
I present these in no particular order, they’re all designed to address virtual communication challenges. Please take whatever you wish from the following smorgasbord to consider, and potentially apply, in your own day to day team experience:
1. Create virtual watercooler moments
So these days you, and/or other team members, might be missing the watercooler chats, the few words by the coffee machine, the over the back of the chair quick check-ins. And probably you’ve tried building in small talk to virtual meetings (which I’ll come on to as that in itself is important). But it just doesn’t feel like you’re connecting with your colleagues like you used to. So here’s tip no 1, for maximum connection potential and to improve that understanding between you that good team communication is based on, actually put informal catchups in your diary with your colleagues, just for you to chill and chat and have some time together. It will pay dividends.
2. Pick the right mode of communication
This is an age-old challenge that’s been amplified by virtual teamworking because there are more methods for team communication than ever before. So if you prefer to receive tasks via email (so you can file them and tick them off), instant messaging for quick Q&A, and video for more tricky or emotional conversations, then know your preferences and be honest about them with other team members. Your colleagues won’t necessarily know until you tell them. And if they don’t get it the first time, communicate it again until you’re getting closer to the kind of communication that works for you.
Which communication mode is the most efficient?
Also, there are some modes of communication that are just more efficient than others – firstly, when you can see a text chat turning into something where wires are getting crossed or there’s something that you need to quickly align with a colleague on, make a call and talk it through because, sometimes, a 2 minute call will save a 10 minute text exchange.
Secondly, emotional content is better not on email. Chat is better because you can use emojis. Video or voice are best because that way you have more information from the other person coming from their body language, their face and their tone of voice. If you’re not sure then, try and default to the best likely communication mode depending on what you want to communicate.
3. When in doubt, over-communicate
I mentioned earlier the need to communicate often more than twice. People miss stuff first, second, third time round. Email it, and put it in the calendar invite, and email again, and remind on chat, and finally, don’t assume people will have read what you want them to have read. Instead, assume they haven’t, and come prepared with a quick summary of the salient points rather than a pointy finger and an eyeroll.
4. Make time for human connection with other team members
As well as building in virtual watercooler moments, I’m talking here about the kind of ‘small talk’ that you have at start of in-person meetings where you’re just finding out what’s happened with a colleague’s house move, or plumbing leak, or kid’s school application, or tray bake, whatever’s important right now.
Make time for checking in and out, either formally (like everyone ‘check in’: ‘how are you feeling right now?’ And at the end ‘check out’: ‘in one word, how are you feeling, leaving the meeting?’). Or you can just do it by asking people their latest news. But all of these micro-behaviours demonstrate thoughtfulness and care. That builds effective team communication through connection, cohesion, and this will get oxytocin involved. Oxytocin is the connection hormone, which evokes a strong sense of belonging, and ultimately well-being.
Bring your strengths to meetings
At Strengthscope, as well as checking in, we also ask at the start of most meetings – ‘what strengths are you bringing to this meeting and why?’ And at the end, we check on whether each person has brought their intended strength and how it helped. Last thing is in meetings, make it ok to check-in on people in the moment. If anyone’s looking disconnected or perhaps upset or you sense a change in tone in a discussion, honestly checking in on the person or people involved is a powerful thing to do to build a climate of trust, support and belonging. And that promotes good communication, particularly in the context of virtual teams .
5. Be kind to yourself with your diary management
Give yourself 10-15 minute breaks between meetings whenever you can. The reason is for you to be able to decompress between meetings, including getting a cuppa or taking a toilet break. Also, during your day, do put full breaks in – for a walk, for lunch, for relaxation time. Same reason: state change – when you decompress, reset and feel more in control, when you feel that you’ve got a better chance of capturing your essential actions (maybe even doing a couple) before running headlong into the next meeting, you’re going to be better able to communicate because you’ll have less running around your head.
6. WFH doesn’t mean AWA
Acronym jargonbuster here = Working from home doesn’t mean Always available. Make sure you are respectful of people’s time and how they have organised their day. Don’t assume they’ll always be able to give you a ‘quick 5 minutes’, just because they’re WFH. They’re still working, and you don’t know what they’re actually doing, but best to assume it’s important and that if they can spare a couple of minutes, maybe see that as a bonus, not an expectation.
Also, be realistic about how much time you need from them and about how important your ‘really important thing’ actually is. That way, you give other virtual team members the best chance of prioritising effectively. That respect for each other is a fundamental building block of effective communication.
7. Be respectful of meetings, inside and out
So inside the virtual meeting – be present, show your hands, raise a hand, listen well, be conscious of where you’re looking. This has become much harder on virtual meetings than in real life. I personally also find it harder in a group meetings than in 121s (where I seem to automatically stay present) but it’s equally important to stay engaged. So, know when you’re going to get distracted and call it out or squash it.
Outside of meetings, don’t be texting people in the meetings and expecting an immediate response, because the tech is telling you that they’re in a meeting! You wouldn’t be running up to the meeting room door in person and demanding an immediate response unless there was a genuine emergency like there was a fire in the building. Don’t be the distraction for your work colleagues – let them stay focused, engaged and attentive.
8. Reduce distractions but be okay with being human
This is another two-parter and it relates to you being present so that you can communicate well and show that you’re communicating well in a team environment. First off, I mean clear around your working space so that you’re not too distracted by mess and things to do and various eye-catching materials. Desk clear downs I find to be a useful periodic activity coz it seems no matter how well I clear my desk (like into the bin in one sweep, or more likely into a cupboard), the stuff has a habit of spreading again when I don’t deal with it immediately. The being human part is that when you’re working from home, or in a shared space of any kind, stuff will happen. Other people you live with, and also the not people you live with – cats, dogs, other pet life – will happen into video shot and that’s ok. This may be distracting for other people on a call but if you see it as a moment to chill and change state, it can be a useful distraction. Plus it’s just gonna happen anyway so be kind to yourself and step into being more of you when working in the new normal. It’s all part of building those genuine human connections and a climate of trust on which to base better, more open and honest team communication.
9. If you’re a manager, role model it
All the things I’ve said so far are super-amplified in importance when you’re a manager. If you want to see your team being present in meetings, listening respectfully, raising hands, not expecting immediate responses from people on chat, then you need to set the bar through your own behaviour. If you’re not communicating well in your team environment and you know where you need to get better, take those tips of mine and put them into action so that you can be a better role model for the behaviour you’re looking for.
And that is it, you have been listening to nine top tips for working well as a virtual team, focusing in on the importance of team communication. As I say, take your pick, perhaps just pick one or two, no more, to do really well in your team. This new working norm is here to stay, I would say, so give your virtual team communication a chance and give it a go.
Till next time, stay strong. And for more, have a listen to my back catalogue for more on team communication and virtual team working.
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