How to achieve effective communication as a virtual leader


  • Author Daniel Cerone
  • Published June 6, 2020
  • Word count 1,134

Regardless if we are working remotely during these challenging times or in the office face to face with our colleagues, stakeholder and the business. The ability to communicate effectively is an integral part in being able to get your point understood. It’s just that communicating, even with technologies like Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype, Webex and others, is a challenge when done virtually. Given even factors, there is a greater chance of successful communications when we’re together. Many of us, though, are working from home, so we need to maximize tools and techniques that will enhance communications during these uncertain times.

The following are some keys to be understood for the virtual leader, which should be used to promote effective communications. The power of community should never be underestimated, teams usually function better when they are together, when they belong to a group whose purpose is to complete a common objective. When there is more focus on what both the team and the organization need to accomplish than our own individual needs, we tend to have less conflict and greater productivity.

It’s easier to establish sense of community when the team is located in the same building or within the same campus than being spread across a city or worse, across regions or a country. If the team is international, it becomes even more difficult, dealing with time zones, for example, make it harder to get the team together frequently. Cultural and language differences can make getting the point across a real challenge. The further apart team members are from each other, the more difficult it is to establish that sense of unity.

However, this difficulty can be mitigated by conducting daily stand-ups, frequently meeting and not only discussing the tasks for the day, but to ask how they are feeling and generally the opportunity to say hello within a community environment. It’s even more important to have frequent virtual team meetings than when the team is together. Team members working from home can find themselves feeling isolated and unproductive.

The purpose of this is getting to know something about each member personally and to ensure everyone understands the project objectives and constraints. It is important to take a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting for small talk about family, vacations, activities, entertainment, etc. However, it’s also extremely important to ensure the project is on track. Sharing status, tasks planned for the day and issues helps reinforce the sense that the team is working together to meet objectives and solve problems. In this instance the leader or other team members will help them move forward should assistance be required.

Solving problems together creates a sense of unity. When a leader steps in to solve all the problems, the benefits are short-term. And not all problems require the involvement of all the team members. Having subgroups solve problems and report back to the larger group is also effective. This can be achieved via meetings with individual team members, during initiation to learn about their individual wants, needs, concerns, issues, etc. Resolve individual issues and conflicts, rather than trying to do so in a group meeting when trying to assess level of commitment. As virtual leaders, we need to emphasize and reinforce this sense of community, keeping in mind that the team itself is part of a larger group.

Being able to establish normal protocols for how we want to engage with each other is important. This should be obligatory for the success of virtual teams, as it helps ensure that the team becomes and stays cohesive and productive. All projects are subject to unproductive time related to resolving conflict among team members. In projects this averages to about 5% of the project total being spent on HR-related issues. Having more communication protocols may not prevent conflict, it would certainly have helped to bring these issues to light sooner.

Ideally, when the team is in the process of being formed during initiation, these norms can be established within organizational and technical constraints. Where possible, the team meets to recommend appropriate protocols. Virtual leaders need to take these recommendations seriously without formalising them. Effective leaders ask questions about the reasoning behind the protocol recommendations to ensure the team’s goals are adhered. If they do not, then the virtual leader will need to provide direction and guidance without being too forceful.

Communications protocols can include some of the following factors, such as types of meetings. These might include status, celebrations, milestone checkpoints and decisions, and issues newly identified and/or resolved. As for each meeting, it must be clear on how often to meet, keeping in mind that more frequent check-ins are necessary when leading virtual teams. The meeting duration, time and venue, whose input is required, desired, and format. Ensure an agenda is followed, conference video’s and muting to minimise distractions, ensure clarity of point.

It is important to have frequent breaks, when in the office there is an aspect of socialisation, this is not the case when working in isolation. Also how to handle questions and interruptions and the preferred technology to use if there are choices. The response time, that is the maximum wait time to respond to other team members and stakeholders.

The virtual leader should discuss and clarify communication preferences with the team, stakeholders and the business. It should be understood that stakeholder and team member stated preferences may not always be practical. If the preferences result in risk or will have a negative impact to the project, they should be discussed and negotiated. Priority, urgency, and importance of resolving issues. An issue, for example, might become urgent if not dealt with by some future date, but the urgency is not immediate.

How to deal with the very nature of conflict, interpersonal conflict requires one-on-one interaction, which can only be dealt with through video or teleconferencing. There are impacts to the project and risks of delayed communications. Being able to effectively communicate is an important aspect to all teams. There are inherent difficulties communicating virtually. As a virtual leader be careful to plan how the team will communicate not just within the team, but with key stakeholders as well. The three factors mentioned above are only but a few ways to establish effective communication during this uncertain period. There was no mention of listening, or note taking which are also other aspects of communication. By focusing on these items the virtual leader can minimize the confusion, contention, and feelings of isolation that often prevent virtual teams from being successful.

If you have a mechanism to establish effective communication as a virtual leader, or someone who has an idea on what effective communication should be administered by a leader, then it would be great to hear from you.

Part of the IT industry for over 30 years, working in many varied and challenging organisations. The last 24 years have been directly working as a Project Manager, complemented with certifications.

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