Last week I was in New York co-facilitating a training session on communications in the context of teams, partnership and collaboration. One of our participants raised a familiar question: what do you do when your team is “virtual”? In fact, either due to budget constraints or concern about their carbon footprint, non-profits are increasingly communicating remotely – and some tips and best practices are floating to the top. Here are just a few:
Face to face: This is still the gold standard of all communication. And, until we’re all sporting our own personalized holoprojectors, this isn’t likely to change. Research shows that more than half of all human communication is conveyed through body language; another third is conveyed through tone. The key for virtual teams is to carefully maximize precious face-time: make it count. Choose face-to-face meetings for building relationships and anything requiring creativity, synergy, complex decision-making, any sort of visual planning or strategizing and especially for ‘courageous conversations’ (a ‘courageous conversation’ is one where “opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong”). For things like basic information-sharing, use well-crafted, pre-circulated briefing notes, webinars, written communication, conference calls – but save your costly face to face time for the high-octane, high priority work that can’t get done well through any other format.
Phone: I confess: when a conversation could get a bit complicated, sometimes my Inner Coward would rather hit the keyboard than risk the more intimate, two-way and possibly lengthier mode of communicating in real-time. Sadly, that ‘safety’ is an illusion. Courageous or complicated conversations often get messier – which gets MORE time-consuming and complicated, not less – due to the sheer limitations of text-only communications. So pick up the damned phone, already!
Better yet: use Skype video or Facetime. At least then you can benefit from at least choppy and partly pixelated facial expressions to go along with the full range of vocal tone. In fact, all of my current coaching clients live in other cities – so all of our sessions are by skype video or phone. This honestly feels almost as impactful as face-to-face – as long as I use the following practices:
- Make sure I’m in a comfortable, quiet place
- Turn off all unnecessary devices and monitors. Let’s face it, most of us are completely ADHD now with our devices – so I chooseto get rid of the temptation altogether.
- If I need my laptop for note-taking, I at least turn off all other programs and close all tabs – again, removing the temptation to get distracted by the endless flow of incoming messages
- Minimize all visual stimulation (no TV in the background or staring out my window at the unfolding dramas of the street below…)
- Stay present. Of course, this is really what it’s all about. I strive to practice using the ‘muscle of my attention’, over and over, to come back to the present moment and make the most of our time together as disembodied beings. It makes a MASSIVE difference.
Email: Email is the main way more people over 20 years old communicate. It’s super-efficient, easy to copy and forward to others, easy to include links to further information… It’s also tricky, especially for more complex or ‘difficult’ conversations. Did that exclamation mark convey happy tail-wagging enthusiasm – or is the writer shouting at me? Was that period at the end of the sentence a calm, gentle downtone – or an abrupt, sardonic hiss? For any complicated conversations, avoid email. It’s really a last resort, with the greatest potential to create misunderstandings and time-consuming messes that then have to be cleaned up.
For everyday email, please, here are a few basic practices to minimize digital clutter and spare your colleagues the torture of endless unnecessary email threads:
- Don’t squander the CC field. Make sure anyone who MUST be copied is – and not one person more
- Pause before blithely pounding on the “reply all” key: Really. Does EVERYONE need to know that yes, you liked the article or no, you can’t make the meeting?
- POP it: clarify your desired purpose and outcome in the subject line. Is your email for information only? Urgent action? Calendarizing? Feedback? Decision? Start doing this – and better yet, get your whole team to adopt the practice – and you will be an Email Efficiency hero, I promise. It’s smart, helps others focus on what’s important and yields faster results for everyone.
- Use “priority flags’ sparingly. Otherwise, you risk sounding endlessly hysterical. Just as bad, you’ll be seen as the kid who ‘cried wolf’ once too often, and everyone will start ignoring your flags anyways.