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6 Ways For Virtual Leaders To Communicate Effectively

By Robert M. Burnside

The nature of leadership has changed now that many of us are leading virtual teams. It’s no longer in-office, live, face-to-face in a shared environment, or the old “watch me, I’m in charge, here’s what you need to do.” It’s a virtual conversation across time zones and geographies where participants rarely see the leader or each other. The risk is that most interactions are written, sometimes with little context to help understanding.

In Nomadic’s virtual leadership programs, among many of the insights emerging, one stands out: the change in how the leader communicates to the team. In the virtual environment, the skill of communicating as a leader increases in importance. As one program participant, a leader in a huge global manufacturing company, notes: “What becomes more important as face-time becomes less frequent, is the ability to not just lead by example (because people can't "see" you leading), but be able to clearly articulate priorities, strategic intent, principles, and thought process to others.”

Pretty much everyone in the program emphasizes the new challenges of communicating with virtual teams, not only due to loss of face-to-face context, but also the misuse of communication technologies. As the Senior Director of Product Development at a large pharmaceutical notes: “While the technology deployed in (and which enables) virtualization should in principle facilitate communication, it often renders communication more complex (e.g., lack of "face time", inability to read body language and other non-verbal cues during team teleconferences, over-reliance on superficial modalities such as instant messaging). Leaders must now be more adept at effective communication than they were before the advent of these technologies.”

And as the Director of Marketing at a large services organization notes, even the leader’s reputation is now related to their understanding and using technology correctly: “Technology - comprehending and using it in the right way at the right time is critical to achieving great results. It's rarely possible to regularly be in the same place as the majority of workers, and a lack of technical understanding can undermine a leader's reputation as well as team building and morale.”

Are you communicating effectively with your virtual teams? It’s not about shifting the skills you have in face to face leadership to the virtual environment – it’s about learning and adopting the new skills that work in the virtual environment.

Here are 6 ways for virtual leaders to communicate more effectively:

1. Choose the right technology for the team’s communications. Having too many channels creates information silos, replicating the old silo problem in the office to one caused by too many different technologies—IM, Slack, email, web conferencing, etc. The leader needs to choose the best means of communication for the team, be sure it works in all locations, consider how the channel fits the work being done, consider the language being used and retiring old channels when they are no longer useful.

2. Select the structure for meetings that work virtually. They need to be frequent, short, focused on the task at hand. Make sure everyone speaks. Publish notes to all so that everyone is up to date. Be punctual and don’t go over time. An example of one leader’s approach: “The team which I'm currently leading, which has very recently become more virtualized, I am in the process of reorganizing our meeting structure. Some of the changes include shorter, more frequent meetings held at alternating timeslots (to accommodate time zones); a shift to decentralized 2- or 3-person sub-teams for individual work packages and an increase in the use of cloud-hosted "living documents" (e.g., dashboards, summary risk registers) to which all team members are encouraged to contribute at their convenience.”

3. Show respect. This might seem like a given, but respect is different in the virtual environment: are you respecting the time zones of those in the meeting? Are you bringing content that is relevant to them, not more, not less? Are you setting the conversation to be sure everyone speaks? Are you checking that the communications fit into their busy work lives?

4. Build trust virtually. Are you taking time for team members to get to know one another? Do you set time aside for conversation on how (and whether)the team is understanding each other’s approach to the work? Most importantly, do you walk your talk? Is each team member clear that they are accountable to do what they say?

5. Develop clear rules of engagement. Are the rules for communication clear? Statements like “we don’t expect responses during the weekend,” “please use Slack for ongoing work, use phone calls when the information is sensitive or too complex for online written communication,” “everyone listens to each person until the end, no interruptions.”

6. Be concise. Pretty much everyone in the program emphasizes in virtual communication, you need to be concise. There is simply too much unnecessary content virtually, cut to the chase—write only what is needed, not more, not less.

There’s much more to leading virtual teams, such as using agile processes, eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy, learning to fail fast, etc.

Contact Us to find out how your employees can access transformational leadership development.

More on this topic - How to Run High Performing Virtual Teams

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