The current COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives in more ways than one, and some of its long-term effects are still unknown. But we do know for sure that it has forever changed the way people view remote work. And as the world tries to keep and update themselves with already available collaborative technologies, we can see that many still have a lot more to learn when it comes to improving how they communicate across these platforms.
Collaborative technologies have been proliferating for years now, especially in companies that have a worldwide reach. For sure, we can expect even more sophisticated tools in the future. However, an MIT study done on globally dispersed teams in a major multinational organization revealed that performance depends on how people use these technologies, not on the technologies themselves.
Although the extensive research focused on dispersed teams, MIT Sloan believes that the same strategies they have gathered from the study can be applied to collocated teams that depend highly on collaboration tools. The behaviors they observed might be simple at a first glance, but they have been easily overlooked. If teams implement these five strategies into their work, they will outperform the teams that don’t.
1. Choose the right technology
With the overwhelming number of communication technologies already available and with even more popping up, teams should choose the tools that are better suited for their tasks. People usually choose the default platforms they are most comfortable with but might end up choosing the wrong ones that might be detrimental to their productivity.
Each communication tool has different features, which include its ability to transfer nonverbal and other cues that help people interpret meaning. When a company has employees in different locations, time differences already add to the complexity of day-to-day communication. Email and text-based communication are unable to convey as much meaning as in-person physical gestures, vocal tone, and facial expressions.
Each team’s tools vary in complexity, which depends on the need to sort out through different viewpoints, send and receive feedback, and basically avoid any misunderstanding. Text-based media such as email and chat should be used only for giving out information in one direction – plans, ideas, or collecting data. Web conferencing should be for more complex tasks like discussions and negotiations. For more sensitive topics like personal performances, it should be in-person or face-to-face if possible.
2. Make intentions crystal clear
As mentioned, text-based tools leave too much space for misinterpretation and might lead to misunderstandings and unhealthy conflict that could affect team performance.
A reason why intentions could get lost in translation is the way things are written through text – people tend to be less guarded and more negative in writing. As we see how people can be more upfront online than in real life, people are emboldened to complain and insult one another. Team members can be more negative in writing.
The same goes for the people on the receiving end of the written communication: they tend to interpret it more negatively than the intention of the sender. Studies suggest that emails that intend to convey positive emotions tend to be interpreted as neutral while emails with a slightly negative tone get interpreted as intensely negative.
It is also important to note that people come from all walks of life and read things with different lenses. People can easily misread the priorities of a sender in an email and won’t get to grasp the focus of the message that the sender intended to highlight.
To prevent all those above from happening, make sure that intentions are crystal clear, and review important messages before sending them. Emphasize important information and ask for an immediate response or separate requests into multiple emails to add urgency.
3. Stay in sync
Without face to face interaction, contact can be lost, and communication failures can happen that can lead to an uneven distribution of information. Some team members might get excluded from announcements or meetings by mistake, which will leave them guessing and make them question their roles.
Leaders should prioritize keeping every member of their team in the loop. Maintain regular communication and avoid long radio silences. Acknowledge messages and give people the benefit of the doubt before jumping to conclusions. Perhaps that person had an emergency or the messages haven’t been received.
4. Be responsive and supportive
Trust is more difficult to believe through remote work, so trustworthiness must be presented by how a person works with others on a task. As they say, teamwork makes the dream work – teammates should respond well to each other’s suggestions and give suggestions and solutions to problems. It is also important to maintain a positive and supportive tone when communicating.
5. Keep an open mind and be inclusive
Teams are composed of people who come from different cultures, backgrounds, and upbringing. Diversity should not be a problem, because with it comes the possibility of having a variety of ideas that can boost team productivity and performance.
The hardships that come with virtual communication include the fact that some team members might not be heard, so it might be harder for them to bond. Leaders are also often criticized for giving more attention to local team members.
To reap the benefits of having a diverse team, leaders should focus on being inclusive as much as possible – involve the whole team in important communications and solicit perspectives from all members to demonstrate being open to ideas and different approaches to a project.
Final Thoughts: On Leadership
When creating a team, do not immediately assume everyone has the qualities to navigate virtual communication smoothly. One suggestion would be to create a team charter that will be a guide to how the team will work together. Address technologies that a team is required to use, email and text formats, and general etiquette. Share plans for keeping everyone in sync and convey them clearly.
MIT Sloan’s research will help collaborators to have a higher level of virtual communication. Leaders can always rely on helpful models to raise their teams to a higher standard.