Effective teams rely on effective communication. When a once co-located team is unexpectedly dispersed, the communication routines and habits usually relied on may no longer suffice. Working in a pressured environment – as we all are right now – can also put team relationships under strain.
Communicating at a distance may be challenging for a number of reasons. It can be difficult to maintain rapport and trust if you can't meet someone face-to-face. It can be difficult to interpret people's intended meanings without the non-verbal cues we take for granted in the office. And it can be difficult to communicate informally, as we might normally do when we bump into a colleague by the coffee machine.
Throw these challenges into a situation where many people are under immense stress and there's a high probability that staff may misinterpret, or overreact to, some communications.
If you're leading a team that has been forced into remote working, these tips can help smarten up your communications to get the most out of your dispersed staff:
1. Book regular meetings
By video or phone call into everyone's calendars to help you stay up to date with everybody in the team (but don't over-fill people's diaries – they still need time to get some work done!)
2. Use a shared online workspace
To store and contribute to important team documents, so you're not emailing documents back and forth all the time.
3. Check emails before you send them
To ensure they are clear and unambiguous. If you realise you have lots of questions for the recipient, book a phone or video call to discuss the issue instead.
4. Respond promptly to your team's emails
Even if it's just a quick 'thanks' or a note saying when you'll respond more thoroughly, so there's no confusion about whether a message has arrived.
5. Be clear about any communications you want to receive and how you'd like to receive them
For instance, if you want team members to update you on their progress at the end of each day (or let you know their plans at the start of each day), outline how and when they should send this information. Try to limit the demands on your team, though, so you don't all end up over-communicating.
6. Advertise your availability
Use a shared calendar so your team know when they can contact you for a quick chat. This is the online equivalent of leaving your office door open.
7. Set out a protocol for how the team should use different communication technologies
For instance, you might decide that people use WhatsApp for quick, informal messages (but not for messages that need to be saved for reference), email for longer messages that don't require instant responses, telephone for one-on-one conversations and urgent issues, and video conferencing for group meetings. The protocol could also cover detailed issues, such as who is cc-ed on which messages.
8. Agree realistic expectations for email and phone-message response times across the team
This ensures that people don't end up chasing for answers unnecessarily. If you have team members with parental or caring responsibilities, factor this into the agreed timescales. You could also agree which types of messages require a response and which may not.
9. Take swift action if you identify any team conflict
Schedule a call with the relevant staff at a mutually agreeable time and allow each team member to speak without interruption. Mediate in order to agree actions to solve the problem and close by finding common ground between the affected parties.
10. Be human
Take time during calls and emails to check-in with your team. Ask how they're doing, share a snippet of your lockdown life and let your staff know they are doing a great job in these extraordinary circumstances.
It's a good idea to run with your agreed communication approaches for a week or so, at which point you can review whether they're working well or if they need tweaking. However, while it's important to spend time discussing, agreeing and setting up protocols that enable your team to communicate remotely, you should move on from this as soon as you can. Protocols need to be in place, but you'll only be able to get things done if you move away from rules and start working on the tasks that need completing.
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