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Communication in Virtual Organizations

Hey there!

In this post I’d like to talk about a topic that everyone has been in touch with: communication. More specifically I would like to focus on communication in virtual organizations.

Communication today vs. in the past:

In 2008 according to a study from Germanys’s digital association BITKOM only 1% of the interviewees worked remote from home, in 2016 that number had risen up to 30% remote workers. Today teams with members spread all over the world – video calls, chats, mails, … are daily grind for most of us.

But where’s the difference and what do we need to consider when communicating only virtually?

   

Structures & rules:

If we communicate face to face, there are some things which we do naturally. For example smiling at your colleagues when walking into a room or shaking someone’s hand at the beginning and ending of a meeting,…
So it really all comes down to these small gestures. When communicating virtually we obviously can’t just shake someone’s hand. According to a 2-year study from Googles Innovation Lab structures and rules can definitely help to improve virtual communication.

For instance, by…

  • Calling your colleague instead of writing the 100th mail that day for important information -> avoids misunderstandings
  • Making all information available for everyone (e.g. in MS Teams) -> prevents building silos

Turned on webcams:  

These “rules” or guidelines can be defined individually by every team. Alexandra Altmann founder of Virtuu,* an agency that supports companies working in virtual teams, recommends making webcams a clear rule for virtual meetings.
The difference/importance of seeing your colleagues in a meeting, often is underestimated. The ability to see and hear one another in real time simulates the experience of a physical visit. Especially if someone has never met the team before, turning on the camera button can make a huge difference. Another great example for the impact that web cams can make are team calls. Seeing the colleagues you are talking to immediately increases attentiveness and even makes it easier to remember what that person said. Since the problem we face quite often is that everyone is joining virtually but many of us tend to multitask (or at least try to) by doing emails or whatever else simultaneously and as a result miss out on important information.

Collaboration tools:

In the course of digitalization by now there are far more options than just email, Skype and co. In the past few years the demand for collaboration tools has significantly grown. These types of tools are getting more and more part of everyday life in all fields of work, promising to ease collaboration and communication across location borders.
But often these new tools come with challenges: for example to tell your colleague about a recent development you can’t just walk to his office and tell him right away. It therefore is not surprising that many are overwhelmed by the flood of possibilities just to contact someone.

All in one platforms:

Extensive All-In-One-Platforms just like MS Teams often seem to be the best choice. Sadly, not seldom these tools are accessible, but many don’t yet know how to exploit them fully. Due to a lack of guidelines how proper communication should work in those virtual rooms many tools are often seen as complicated and chaotic. But if used correctly they can simplify our work life significantly, e.g. through quick chatting functions or easy file-sharing. But of course, too many of these super tools can easily become confusing as no one knows when to use which tool, especially if they provide similar features like e.g. Slack and MS Teams. Thus focusing on one tool to use for calls, video conferences, file-sharing, etc. …. really facilitates the process of communication. In addition to having certain rules or structures within a team this can make communication by far more productive.

Harvard study: Climate within the team

Yet a study from Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson called: Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams found out, that the most important factor for good collaboration & communication is the climate within the team. She describes how in a safe space, people feel confident that they won’t be embarrassed or rejected for being themselves or giving honest feedback. A good atmosphere within the team is essential for good collaboration and high performance.
In-office we connect almost naturally with one another through daily interactions and microinteractions.
E.g. stopping by your colleague’s desks to chat or even by socializing outside of work.

But how do we create this positive atmosphere virtually?

Some ideas might be to…

  • have a quick small talk part at the beginning of every meeting which you would normally not have communicating only via email, chat
  • weekly check-ups (video call)
  • giving everyone a finite time frame in the weekly check-up sessions so they can share ideas openly

Finally, besides all these suggestions, there is simply no replacement for in-person interaction. So, (if possible) arrange opportunities to bring the full team together in one location as often as you can.

In a nutshell:

  • Communication today has changed significantly compared to only 10 years ago
  • There are some things we need to consider when communicating virtually:
    • Guidelines are important in order to structure virtual communication
    • The impact of video in calls is often underestimated -> simulates the experience of a physical visit
    • A quick small talk part at the beginning of a meeting and weekly check-ups can help improve the climate within your team in order to create a “safe space”
    • After all there are still some aspects that can’t be covered by virtual meetings so every now and then meeting in person is still recommended
    • Broad use of one all-in-one-tool can simplify the process of communication extremely

Lastly I want to share with you one motivating result of a two year study from Googles People Innovation Lab Team about remote work:

They found out that there is  “(…) no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office,” (Veronica Gilrane, manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab.)

Now, aren’t that great news? 🙂


Sources:

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