One of the biggest issues most remote work environments face is effective communication. With virtual teams, we sacrifice the ability to walk to a team member’s desk and have a quick talk about the project at hand. It’s common to have a level of communication lag time, where we have to wait a few hours before getting a reply to an email or chat message. This lag time can have serious consequences on productivity for project work which relies on collaboration.
It’s not only the delay in communication that is the issue, it’s the way we communicate that can also have an effect on productivity. Achieving inbox zero is a struggle, and this becomes a bigger problem when working within remote teams. Too often virtual teams don’t use enough mediums to communicate through, often leading inbox’s filled with unread email.
Develope a Communication Hierarchy
Create guidelines of communication through a hierarchical messaging plan. Gregory Ciotti at Help Scout, a web-based help desk software, recommends developing a messaging plan to avoid overflowing communication channels such as your email. The guideline should focus on what types of messages should be communicated through the different mediums.
For example, short messages and questions work well through chat software like HipChat or Sqwiggle. This avoids email blasts to the entire team. If you have a longer question, which would lead to multiple follow up questions depending on the answers, then this would be a good time to setup a quick call. At Speek, we use our conference calling software for these kind of situations all the time.
If you have longer questions which you need to ask multiple people then this would be a good opportunity to send out an email. You should also use email if there is communication which you would like to keep others in the loop by cc’ing them (executives and project managers).
Hold Weekly Conference Calls
You should plan weekly conference calls to allow team members to have a good understanding of the work to be done and what everyone’s responsibilities are. These conference calls are a great opportunity for team members to ask important questions which would otherwise be sent over in email to the entire group. I think that a lot of teams have reduced the amount of conference calls because their experience is that they are not productive. Conference calls are productive when all individuals are aware of and practice proper conference call etiquette. The person leading the conference call should have an agenda, and should stick to it.
Availability is Part of Effective Communication
Effective team communication is often effected by availability. Have you ever left your computer to take care of an errand without telling anyone? Yes you have, and so have most virtual workers. The problem is not that you left to go do something, it’s that you didn’t tell anyone. Now team members are expecting a response on their chat message or email, without knowing that you’ll be gone for a few hours.
The solution: let people know you availability. Chat software like Google Hangouts and HipChat give users the ability to set their availability. Whether your ‘online’, ‘busy’, or ‘away’ you should be using this as often as you can. You can also just simply send out a chat message to team members in the chat room that you’ll be stepping away for an hour for lunch, or handle a few errands. The key here is being proactive about your availability so that team members are guessing whether you are available or not.