Recently, a colleague lamented the omni-presence of video calls. He was considering the fact that so many virtual interactions at work needed a Zoom link. “Doesn’t anyone ever just pick up the phone and give someone a call?” he asked. It’s an important question, and it sparks another: how do effective leaders communicate in virtual teams?
The question reminded me of a team I ran in the early 2000’s. It was an anomaly – a virtual team before virtual teams became the norm. Though our technology was rudimentary at best and laughable at worst, we were able to create a successful collaboration full of camaraderie. Technology, when used in service of effective communication strategies, can be a bonus rather than an annoyance. Now that 70% of companies are projected to use remote teams by 2028, the issue is timely.
Just in case you don’t have a clear picture of remote work tools in the early aughts, here are some details. At one point, I led eight project managers from all across the country, crossing multiple time zones, with no camera or video options. Cell phone plans were restrictive, data was expensive, and texting was limited. We used Instant Messenger as our immediate digital communication tool. When we needed to communicate live, as a whole group, we used 800 conference call numbers. These also had to be used sparingly, since they came with a cost.
In spite of this, great rapport was a hallmark of this group. Even though we only saw each other once a year at most, we relied on one another, communicated clearly, and supported each other to accomplish our goals. Remote work doesn’t have to mean siloed employees, but it also doesn’t mean that everyone must be at the mercy of Slack or Teams notifications 24 hours a day.
There were four solid strategies I learned from this prehistoric virtual team. Those things are foundational to virtual teams even today. There’s nothing revolutionary in this list, but it serves as a reminder that technology, when it occupies a specific and defined role, can be incredibly effective in helping leaders communicate in virtual teams.
- Team building
In our early 2000’s group, I used Instant Messenger as our water cooler. Every morning, we’d all log on and engage in some light chatting before the work day began. Sometimes people shared funny links or interesting articles. It was a great way to build the intangible sense of team rapport that can be difficult to achieve in a remote setting. The messaging tool became effective because we knew exactly how it was used – for quick communication that made team members feel proximately more accessible.
- Role of tech
Everyone on our team understood the role of each of our tech tools, and when the tools should be used. One of our favorite team tools was OneNote – since it felt so beneficial for all, it was universally adopted. We were early adopters of it, and we built out a great project management methodology to leverage it. Not only was there consistency and clarity around which technology was used in which setting – we also geeked out over figuring cool new features to make our collective lives easier.
- Training (peer to peer)
We relied on a standing weekly team meeting, when a colleague would share a cool tip or tech trick that they had learned, in the hope that everyone could use it too. It was a great way to build our tech base but also increase buy-in. Thinking of ways for the entire team to increase convenience and productivity also helped build rapport.
- Setting dedicated meeting times (drop in times)
In an in-person setting, conversations often happen during “drop-ins,” when one person heads to another’s office for a brainstorming session or a quick question. The same flow can be achieved on a remote basis. I made sure my team knew when everyone had “drop-in” hours – these would be times where busy work got accomplished, but interruptions could happen without stress. My team was welcome to send an IM or give me a call during those times, and it would fit seamlessly within the flow of my work day.
Virtual Teams Then and Now
In some ways, my current role gives me deja vu to my team from the 2000’s. In my current company, we’ve incorporated many of these techniques into our culture.
We still have a virtual “water cooler” moment, and I try to share something entertaining with the team each week. We have more tech (though we are still using OneNote), but it’s just as well defined — my team knows when to use which tool…and we still encourage folks to geek out on new tools and tips. I also still have a dedicated “drop-in” time slot each week, and my team knows I’m available to them during that period. Sometimes, I drop in during their flexible hours just to say “Hi.”
No matter how technology changes in the future, it needs to be used thoughtfully to create effective communication. That’s a principle that will never go out of date.
Tiffany Rosik, founder and chief executive officer of TGR Management Consulting, advises Fortune 1000 companies on aligning business and technology initiatives to achieve growth. Tiffany goes beyond project best practices by coaching Project Team Leaders on team dynamics and techniques to establish a self-sustaining model that creates a consistent experience and produces results. Connect or follow Tiffany Rosik on LinkedIn.