Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 4;   January 26, 2005: Virtual Communications: Part I

Virtual Communications: Part I

by

Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.

Katrina picked up the pencil and punched Ed's number. The circuit completed and she could hear the line ring. It rang again. She started tapping the pencil on her desk. The line rang again. 'Still not there,' she thought, tapping the pencil. 'Where is he?'

PencilsThen Ed's voice came on the line, but it was his outgoing message. Katrina thought for a moment, and hung up. "Damn," she said out loud, to nobody.

Frustrated as she might be, Katrina has just done something smart — rather than leave Ed yet another message, she decided to just hang up, saving both Ed and herself some time.

Virtual teams depend on effective telephone and email communications, and that effectiveness has both individual and team components. Here's Part I of some guidelines for virtual team communications. See "Virtual Communications: Part II," Point Lookout for February 2, 2005, for more.

Have regular check-ins
If you lead or manage the team, check in with each team member regularly. Depending on the nature of the work, you might check in daily, or two or three times a week — less often than that risks disconnection.
Make appointments
Communicating within
a virtual team
as if you were
co-located almost
never works
Making appointments minimizes phone tag, which is expensive in terms of stress, frustration, and time spent. When you want to talk with someone, make an appointment, possibly by email or by text message.
Keep your appointments
Running a little late when someone is waiting outside your office does hurt, but not nearly as much as running late for a phone conversation. When you're late for a phone appointment, the caller often has less idea what's happening or when you'll be available.
If you're running late, take time out in advance — if you can — to advise your next appointment that you're late. Rescheduling is best.
Agree on message response times
Adopt a standard of reasonableness for the elapsed time to respond to email or phone messages. A rough rule of thumb: respond in about half the time you thought was reasonable outside of the remote management context.
Use meta-responses
If you can't return a message promptly, send a message saying so. If you can explain why, all the better, but at least let your partner know that you're aware of the delay, and estimate when you can respond.
Define a three-level priority scale for messages
Green messages (good news or bad) are non-urgent, yellow is possibly urgent, and red messages are urgent. Use this scale for email and voicemail, taking care never to inflate a priority just to get attention.
Agree that non-response is a performance issue
Agree that failure to respond to (or at least to acknowledge) a message within a "reasonable" time could be a serious performance issue. Clearly define the kinds of circumstances that could excuse the failure to respond.

I'd like to continue, but we're out of time for this week. Let's continue at the same time next week. Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Communications: Part II  Next Issue

Reader Comments

Chris Riemer (www.knowledgestreet.com)
Your advice is generally non-technological, but I thought I'd mention something that was a great help in improving the efficiency of a virtual team I managed in the past: webcams.
We already had a network backbone, and I spent a few bucks to buy a webcam for each location. Using only Microsoft's NetMeeting, it gave me a chance to see the folks who were many miles away, and that was an opportunity to notice a new hair cut, or see a smile, or share a picture of the dog. It made us feel much more in touch than the telephone alone. I was famous for drawing ideas on my white board, so this also let me communicate in the way I like to, even if the white board was pretty hard to see with a webcam.

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