It may seem trite to say that communication is crucial for remote teams not only to succeed but to remain confident in their daily progress. But when spontaneous interaction is not a possibility, several issues can arise that are easily preventable. The many appeals of working remotely can sometimes override the frustrations that can come from the communication blunders we make without even noticing. That’s not to say there is any malintent, but collaborative technologies can easily blur the line between team member and human being. Performance and morale go hand in hand, and just because you’re rapidly shooting messages to each other all day, that doesn’t mean everyone is on the same page. 

These five communication mistakes virtual teams experience may seem basic at first glance, but they are the most often overlooked. 

Not having enough face-to-face contact

Long before COVID-19 struck the world, businesses have been using intra office communication tools such as the popular collaboration hub, Slack, to quickly shoot over project details, check up on progress, or simply to see how a team member’s day is going. Truth be told, most of our communication is nonverbal. 

In fact, 60-80% of communication happens via body language and visual cues. This form of communication is extremely important and often overlooked on a day-to-day basis. Sure, we have our busy days where videoconferencing doesn’t seem possible. The reality is that with remote teams, face-to-face contact is vital not only for team success but for company morale. It helps team members bond and feel more comfortable with each other, which allows for important conversations to happen more fluidly. It also helps us see when someone is not understanding an important issue or when they’re clearly overwhelmed and not asking for help when they should. 

Create frequent opportunities for your teams to see each other, especially since in-person meetups aren’t recommended right now for health reasons, and for many teams, meetups aren’t even possible under normal circumstances due to location of the team members. 

Not defining goals and priorities

Project management systems are great; they help us track due dates and allow the team to see where everyone is progressing on a project. That said, timeline and priority are two very different things, although it can be easy to confuse the two. For example, a team member may not be able to move forward on her goal if another team member has not prioritized something vital she can’t progress without. While they are both progressing fine on their own separate projects, if priorities and goals are not clear, projects can quickly become backlogged and important deadlines missed. 

This can create unnecessary tension among team members even though with a quick glance at the project management system, everyone is doing what they believed they needed to be doing. 

Clearly define goals and priorities, what needs to be done in order for other team members to move forward, and be sure everyone is clear on their own individual projects as well as the projects of their team members. 

Not having a clear understanding of cultural or language differences

With an all-remote team, companies can rapidly hire top contractors in their field and expand since location is not a factor. And with that luxury comes quite a bit of responsibility to make sure your team understands the cultural differences between virtual team members from other countries or even regions within the same country. 

Cultural differences can cause confusion since accents, idioms, syntax, and jargon vary all around the world. The first step you need to take as a global leader is to do your research, understand what will set a team member apart, acknowledge these cultural differences, and set your team up in a way that keeps those differences respected.

Create rules and norms for your team so everyone feels respected, over-communicate (you can never over-communicate!), nurture your relationships and earn trust. 

Not understanding the stress and difficulties different time zones can present

Meeting times and project deadlines can be challenging with teams that span the globe or even just across the country. It can be frustrating for someone multiple time zones away from the rest of the team to have to always compromise on meeting times or wait until evening to start on a project that another member has only just begun since they started their day hours before. 

Virtual teams can overcome this by rotating meeting times so everyone at some point makes the compromise rather than the same few members again and again. Be sure goals and priorities (as mentioned above) are clear so that team members in later time zones can get their projects done on time and don’t have to wait for the rest of the team to finally wake up. 

Not communicating when something is unclear and making assumptions instead

This is the biggest and most common mistake virtual teams often make. As mentioned above, face-to-face contact, although necessary, can’t always happen as frequently as we need it to. Virtual messaging is often how we communicate daily as it’s the most convenient for everyone due to various time zones and the need to keep up productivity to meet deadlines. 

A message may be the fastest way to communicate, but when we assume understanding based on limited virtual messages, we can quickly find ourselves running into major problems and confusion. 

If unclear, instead of jumping to conclusions, when in doubt, use the 5W1H method:

  • What: What are the tasks and responsibilities of this project?
  • Why: What is the goal? Why are we doing this or why is this important?
  • Who: Who else is involved or needs to be utilized in order for this project to meet its goal? Who can I contact if I need help or clarity?
  • When: When are the final deadlines and what are the benchmarks along the way? Is this a hard deadline or is it flexible?
  • Where: Where are we tracking the progress and information for this? How are we sharing important updates?
  • How: Is there a process in place we need to follow? Are there specific tools we need to use to complete this correctly?

Virtual teams may present unique challenges, but when managed with respect for all involved, these teams can absolutely thrive. In short, when it comes to communication within remote teams, less is not more. You really cannot over communicate when it comes to making sure everyone is feeling respected and understood. No, this does not mean every aspect of your team needs to be micromanaged. After all, when you’ve contracted the right people, you can trust they know what they’re doing. 

Even though you don’t have the benefit of meeting in person, you can still make sure your team is on the same page and prepared for success.  

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