The biggest complaints virtual teams have revolve around communication: how much, when and how do we talk amongst ourselves? So you'd think more team leaders would put together communication plans and stick to them. It's amazing that so few teams have explicit, well-thought-out communication plans, and even fewer actually stick to them ... wait, you mean you don't have one? Well, it's time to develop one. Here are four tips for creating a plan -- and then working that plan until it's second nature:
- Create the plan as a team. The team needs to tell you (and each other) how they want to keep information flowing. Don't just impose order on the chaos -- let them work it out with each other. It's important that they create rules about issues like response time to emails, who needs to be CCed on communication and the like, so they (and you) can hold each other responsible. If a team member misses a conference call, for example, they need to know they're responsible for reading the notes or listening to the recording, or at the very least find out what happened -- no excuses. If there is explicit commitment, it's easier to hold people accountable -- after all, it was their idea. And be explicit about your assumptions. Concepts like "stay in touch daily" or "return emails as soon as possible" are too vague and open to individual interpretation.
- Decide together which tools to use, and for what. The team should decide which technology tools they'll use for which purposes. During these discussions, you'll hear whether there are concerns about effectiveness, whether anyone needs training on the tools and who is likely to be an early adopter -- all critical information for you as a leader and coach.
- Recognize those who follow the plan, gently nudge those who don't. A plan is only going to be effective if everyone sticks to it. Once the plan is in place, don't be afraid to coach people who stray. if the goal is one all-hands teleconference a week, find out why people are scheduling other activities for that time and then make sure they know they're needed on that call. If they're posting questions and answers to the forums on your intranet, thank them and encourage others to participate. If they're not, ask them why not. This is the surest way for people to learn that their teammates can be depended on -- or not. Be especially clear about catching up on anything a teammate might have missed by checking meeting minutes, recordings of conference calls and other ways to stay current so that you're not constantly going over old ground.
- Model, reinforce and constantly refer to the plan. An effective communication plan can't be put in place once and never referred to again. If team members are constantly reminded about expectations and are coached to meet them, and you as the leader model them, they're out of excuses for not stepping up themselves. If, on the other hand, you are constantly rescheduling one-on-one conversations, spending the first half of your meetings filling in those who missed previous calls, and privately answering questions from individuals that should be shared with the team, your team will do the same.