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Communications of the ACM

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Primer on Communicating With Virtual Teams


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virtual meeting, illustration

Credit: Captive.com

Virtual work or remote working arrangements have been commonplace in many organizations for years, aided by ever growing and improving technical tools. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the number of teams working virtually versus co-located within an office.

The goal of the virtual team leader is to facilitate success of the team in completing its task and assignments. The hallmark of a well-developed and well-managed team is well-managed communication. The team leader must be hypervigilant, first about ensuring that his or her messages are clear and understood, and then about being aware of the nuances of responses and feedback. Every virtual meeting or message sent must have a clear purpose so team members understand why the team is being convened or receiving communication. 

First, team leaders must be clear about their intent and expectations. This includes defining the overall objective and identifying the desired response and/or outcome, then breaking down the objective into specific planned action items and choosing an appropriate communication style. Remember that spontaneous ideas that are generated in one-on-one dialogue should be worked into planned action items to avoid confusion.

Second, the communication style one chooses depends on the composition and needs of the team members.

  • What do they already know and expect?
  • How much background information must one send?
  • How much is needed from them?
  • How will they feel about the meeting or the message?
  • Will they have a strong bias — positive or negative?

Remember that people will easily misconstrue messages without the aid of visual or verbal cues on tone and emotion. 

Third, capture the comments and feedback throughout the meeting or from email responses. Circulate a summary — and most importantly, which actions were tasked to each team member. Clearly designate who needs to do what and which deadlines were agreed upon. Develop a virtual team meeting site where all documents can be posted.

Finally, support team members in celebrating team accomplishments in written and verbal, live and/or recorded means. This helps the team stay focused on the overall mission, which is challenging to do when working individually and task-focused. Ask team members where they need help, and model the offering and asking for help in communications. No one should feel as if they are stranded on an island.   

Adapted from "Managing Teams From a Distance: Making the Most of Virtual Meetings" (Darden Business Publishing), by Darden Professor June A. West.


 

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