Four Ways to Improve Communication for Virtual Teams
With remote work becoming standard practice, team leaders need to rethink their communication strategies. Virtual teams tend to be culturally diverse and studies show they have the advantage of being more innovative and able to easily move quickly out of their comfort zones; but bringing them together to collaborate can be challenging. As globalization increasingly requires people to work across borders, innovation relies more on cross-boundary collaboration and cooperation, therefore instilling a need for organizations to break down silos and improve communication. These are key for virtual teams to succeed.
There are, however, many factors to consider when bringing together virtual teams – technology barriers, time zones, and different cultures, languages and values, to name a few. So, what does it take to have a fast, flexible, and creative team in the age of digital transformation? With over ten years of experience managing a diverse team – the majority of which is spread across Europe – Speexx’ Beate Gallist tells us more about her experiences working with virtual teams, and shares some tips for improving communication.
‘’Looking back at our history, at first, we were all working from the same location. But over the years the development team grew and spread around between Munich, Madrid and Paris. We knew from the beginning that a constant flow of communication would be vital to our team’s success – because if you don’t see each other at the coffee machine every day, there might be things that you are missing. It’s often the unplanned, face-to-face interactions – like lunch with a colleague – that result in tremendous value, like unprompted creative sparring or sharing important information that might not have been effectively communicated at a structured ‘official’ meeting.’’
Below are four best practices to consider when working to improve communication for virtual teams:
Keep an open mindset and be flexible
This is especially important for teams needing to develop a product or complete a project quickly. All team members must also be open to the creative process. The team should feel comfortable expressing themselves, whether it be over video call or an instant messaging app, feel empowered to ask questions, and be open to the ideas of their peers. Team leads need to be approachable and accessible – for questions, guidance and feedback or suggestions on how to do things differently.
‘’I think what makes our team so successful is having very different mindsets and different skills on the team,” says Beate. “I think you should always question your own mindset and stay open, and then you can further develop your skills. I think in our digital age, things are moving along and changing so quickly that you cannot stay where you currently are and stick with the skills you have. You also have to question the way you approach things and the way you do your daily work, because it may not be the same after several months due to surrounding factors changing so frequently.’’
Use the right technology for your team
For remote team members, the right technology must be in place to effectively communicate across different locations. In some countries, cross-collaborative communication for teams located in different countries can be tricky due to a specific channel of communication being unavailable. ‘’Because we are a virtual team, we are located in and working across three different locations. So we need to have communication tools in place that we can use for meetings and have a good quality of sound so that it almost feels like you’re sitting in the same room,” asserts Beate. “It’s also important to meet in person from time to time when possible. For our team, virtual meetings work well to discuss different scenarios and solutions, but we do like to have some face time when it comes to creative work. Nothing quite compares to face time and you feel much more connected to your colleagues after having spent some time together in real life.’’
At Speexx, we use Microsoft Teams and a few other communication and project management tools to collaborate and communicate with each other. ‘’For our product development team, it’s important to have ongoing communication via virtual tools and to know what each team member is working on. We like to use video conferencing and messaging tools to maintain constant communication. We also like to add humor and enjoy using emojis and gifs to express our feelings. I think this keeps our communication interesting and fun as well and helps us stick together.’’
Establish specific channels for communication
An established process for communication, and mutual understanding from all team members, must be in place for everyone to communicate well. Understanding the different communication tools and when to use which tool is important.
‘’Everything we do must be specified well in advance – before we start working, we need to agree how to implement what we want to achieve; this is very important when you have many different perspectives on a team,” says Beate. “I think it’s important to have a constant flow of communication which is a bit more casual, but a formalized way as well. We have our daily meetings where each team member says what they are working on today, what they did yesterday and what may be preventing them from achieving their goals for the day or if any tasks are on hold from the day before. During this meeting they are also encouraged to ask for help or support from other team members so that nobody falls behind on their goals.’’
Nurture soft skills
Having a well-rounded set of soft skills is especially important for teams unable to communicate face-to-face. The inability to pick up on social cues, expressions or gestures while communicating online can really hinder conversation. Good soft skills help team members to empathize with one another and gain better understanding of each other’s perspectives and preferred styles of communication. Team members should also feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback with one another, which can sometimes become a bit more challenging when not communicating face-to-face or with someone who might have a different native tongue. For us at Speexx it proved valuable to have a clear strategy on using our own digital language learning platform to improve communication skills across all our international offices from Shanghai over Europe to the Americas.
‘’None of us on the team communicate with each other in our native language, so this can be a challenge because sometimes you might say something too harsh or friendly without meaning to. Things might be interpreted or received in a different way than you intended,” Beate cautions. “When working with a multicultural and virtual team, you always need to be very aware of what you say, and how you say it. One of our core team values is respect. We believe that everyone should be treated with respect and given their fair chance to express their ideas. We also understand that the way we express ourselves may sometimes translate a bit differently compared to our native language and culture – we are all very aware of this and know that we are all doing our very best.’’
Building a fast, flexible and creative team in the digital age
‘’Working in an agile team that is spread across different locations requires a constant flow of communication – both formal and informal. In our scrum process, we have formal events that help us to plan, prioritize, and discuss feedback according to the inspect and adapt principle. These formal meetings combined with informal communications via chat help us to adapt quickly and to keep stakeholders in the loop,’’ says Beate.
Diverse, virtual teams can deliver better outcomes for business, but to achieve these outcomes, these teams must communicate effectively, respectfully and efficiently. Good soft skills, established channels of communication and processes, keeping an open mind and having the right technology can help virtual teams remain fast, flexible and creative in the digital age.