• Vernon Roberts

Information Can Kill Virtual Teams

You can't over communicate. I've said this numerous times to technology leaders that I coach as they manage large scale change projects. My point is that in the absence of information people begin to make up their own story and nine times out of 10, it isn't pretty. On the other hand, too much information does the same thing. Massive amounts of information can overwhelm people to the point that they don't read anything. Some leaders send a weekly newsletter to their entire team that is packed full of information.

The challenge here is that it's difficult for individuals to pick out what pertains to them. As a result, it's like sitting in the shallow water facing the ocean when the tide is coming in. It's manageable at first. Then the waves relentlessly pound you, one after another, until you are under water. A sea of information isn't helpful.

Don't get me wrong here. Your team needs information. But are you giving them the information that they need? When I was teaching a session at an Intel sales conference, I asked a global sales manager what her biggest challenge was in leading a global team. "Communicating" was the first word out of her mouth. She said the key was looking at the information and determining who on the team needs to know this information, then getting it to them. Further investigating, I talked to a number of leaders of large virtual teams. I'm going to share the story of a Regional Vice President from a global health care company. She leads approximately 1,400 people that are geographically disbursed. She was nice enough to come to my home office for this conversation. OK, this RVP is my wife and she came downstairs from her home office where she works when she's not visiting her teams. Her region is one of seven for her boss who is responsible for sharing information that's critical to their business in the ever-changing regulated world of health care. If her boss sent out a weekly newsletter to approximately 6,600 on her broader team, it would be like that wave crashing on the beach. She might be able to say, “YES! I regularly communicate to my team.” But would she know if the proper information was getting to those who needed it down the line?

Here are (my wife's) 6 tips for staying connected on a virtual team:

1. Dam information (not damn!). A dam, with flood gates, regulates the amount of water that flows downstream. The general idea is to protect the lower areas from being overwhelmed and flooded. Just as flood gates strategically open and close, her boss gets the information from executive leadership and strategically sends a portion of it downstream (weekly meeting) to my wife and her seven peers. Think of them as the next flood gates downstream. Then my wife strategically determines what information her teams need and opens her gates and shares that information with her directs at their weekly meeting. You get the picture. The same thing happens at each level downstream with each group getting only the information that they need, when they need it. I really like this strategy and it works because this non co-located organization is diligent about the regularity of their touch points.

2. Have regular meetings. You might be saying, “Ahhh, not another meeting!” I have the same feeling but in an organization where frequent changes can effect revenue and customer satisfaction, coordination is critical. In their system, it's the responsibility of each leader to assess the information and provide specific information to those that need it and in a time frame that is applicable to their use of that information. That's why leaders are leaders. Information dumps don't work.

3. Go out of your way to communicate. It's obviously not as easy as sticking your head in somebody's office. When something needs to be communicated, you have to be intentional about writing that email, setting up a virtual/online meeting or simply picking up the phone. People can't read your mind! Sometimes we act like we expect them to.

4. Decide when emailing stops and conversation begins. You can do only so much in an email. When topics are nuanced or might take long explanations, just pick up the phone. The spoken word carries more context than the written word. I've seen five emails back and forth over a three-day span in a situation where a two-minute phone call could have handled it. Also, sensitive information that has emotional overtones should always be handled by voice.

5. Get your team at an offsite a couple times per year. Virtual is great but so much more can be conveyed in person. I'm a huge believer in the power of virtual platforms to assist in managing virtual teams. What we know is that a few human (in-person) interactions per year are very helpful in giving individual the feeling of being part of the whole. A couple of cocktails don't hurt either.

6. Communicate weekly with new teammates for up to 6 months. The goal in leading virtual teams is to create a relationship that shrinks the geographic and cultural distances. Relationships are created only through knowing and understanding someone. If you have a new direct report, you should meet with them weekly for five to six months. After that, depending on how it's going, you can decrease the frequency. Nothing takes the place of a good discussion.

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