Teams, communicate productively from home

31 March 2020

Video Credit: Harvard Business Review.

Currently, an estimated 20% of the world population is under COVID-19 lockdown, and this number is growing. Large numbers of the world’s workforce are now working from home or find themselves part of a virtual team.  

Do you find yourself sharing in the common challenge – feeling overwhelmed, frustrated with technology or your home-bound circumstances and short on time to finish work? Without policies or best practice guidelines on digital communication, a wave of distractions – from chats, emails, video conferences and virtual meetings – has the potential to significantly dilute employee productivity. During this time of change management, organisations find themselves mitigating potential risks and losses over the coming months. Organisations are counting on employees who are able to work remotely to be as productive as possible.

Here are five guidelines on how virtual and remote teams should approach digital communication:

1. Standardise the use of communication platforms. Which platform do we use and when? 

  • When to use email: Try to use email communication for external parties (such as suppliers and clients). Internal instructions or formal confirmations are also appropriate for email. Avoid the temptation to use email to start an ongoing internal conversation – channel these into an Instant Message or virtual communication platforms. 

  • When to use Instant Messaging (IM) or virtual communication platforms: Structure these platforms according to what the team actually needs – IT decisionmakers should avoid structuring department or team channels and groups in isolation and imposing this onto employees. Change management works best when the input from the team is given from the start.  Set a policy that if a team member’s input or response requires more than five messages (for example) or inputs in a thread to instead propose a quick virtual meeting or catchup.

  • Video conferencing or virtual meetings: A recommended best practice is to schedule a daily work in progress (WIP) call, or more if needed. As the day proceeds, team members make notes on the virtual communication platform of input, questions, and approvals they need to add to the agenda. Managers should spot these in conversation threads and facilitate accordingly.

2. Remove tech barriers before meetings start.

Be sure to create enough opportunities to remove technological barriers and hurdles that will inevitably pop-up at the start of most virtual meetings. Technical challenges dilute the productivity of a meeting as team members sit idle whilst a technical issue is being sorted out. We will go as far as to say that in 2020, common or simple tech problems should in fact no longer be excuses for wasting the time of other meeting attendees. Be respectful and budget 15 minutes before the start of each meeting to check the following: 

  • Sign into the system or platform. If you are a guest or external party accessing another organisation’s system, be sure to budget for even more time should an application download or additional plug-in be required.  

  • Check that your tech is working. Ensure your camera and sound quality is good, and check that you have a decent Internet connection. As standard practice, always use headphones to avoid a potential sound reverb from speakers.  

  • Offer dedicated assistance to guests or external parties. If you are hosting external guests or attendees, offer the assistance of a dedicated team member or IT Support to be on standby ahead of the official start-time to help external parties log on successfully. As the host, you might not be the most effective resource to address tech problems. Delegate this to the best person for the job. 

  • Recommended policy to communicate at the start of the meeting: Keep the camera on and mute your microphone if you are not speaking. Don’t use virtual meetings as a license to multi-task, ‘tune out’, do other work or check your phone. It is disrespectful. Large virtual meetings are furthermore plagued by distracting background noises, in particular now that many people are working from home – keep your microphone off if you are not speaking. Some platforms also offer the ability to ‘blur’ your background image whilst the camera is on.  

3. Don’t make assumptions. Promote clarity.

According to Harvard Business Review, clarity and consistency are both key to avoid confusion in digital communication. Setting a standard set of norms, acronyms or a short-hand protocol avoids diluting productive time with follow-ups, questions and additional confirmations. You can never be too clear. Leaders and managers should not assume that their team will simply ‘understand’ their brevity. During challenging times, teams seek clear guidance and instructions from leadership. By establishing clear communication protocols, teams not only work more effectively but also feel re-assured.  

4. Practice empathy. Reduce your digital volume. 

Avoid the temptation of bombarding your colleagues with messages. If we consider the psychology that motivates this behaviour, it is often seen as a lack of trust. An organisation’s culture must align with best practices around working remotely. Cultures that enforce a top-down and authoritarian leadership approach brings fear and a need for micro-management - numerous follow-up messages and calls asking, ‘Did you get my email?’ Organisations that foster a collaborative leadership approach empower and trust team members with the required autonomy, flexibility and associated accountability to meet their deadlines. Leadership need to be mindful that many parents might need to cope with additional challenges such as a lack of child-care and other tasks. Offering a degree of flexibility paired with accountability supports remote working teams.

5. Set internal formulas for virtual meetings and conference calls. Stick to the point.   

The same rules of running a productive meeting applies regardless whether you are in an in-person or digital meeting. So often meeting facilitators are less meticulous and focused on meeting agendas and facilitation when the meeting is virtual. Use the following ways to keep virtual engagements productive: 

  • Use the platform’s screen share feature to replace the whiteboard or meeting room monitor. A good meeting facilitator applies a framework with desired outcomes at the start of the meeting. As the meeting proceeds, use your virtual platform’s screen share feature to display the agenda, meeting notes or action points in real time to all participants to keep them engaged.

  • Use the ‘raise hand’ feature. Virtual meetings with a large number of participants run the risk of more extraverted team members dominating discussions that sometimes turn into monologues. If your platform or system allows, use the ‘raise hand’ feature to indicate that you want to contribute.

  • Stick to the point. With many people practicing social distancing or isolation measures, meetings should ideally not be used as an opportunity for teams to share their experiences or to seek support from one another which often happens at the start of the meeting. Instead, build into the team’s calendar a non-compulsory virtual coffee break or virtual lunch where these conversations can take place. These conversations are important – just channel them into the appropriate time and format and keep the meeting agenda on point.