I work for a global firm on a geographically distributed team. With core team members in Europe and the US, we work with an 8 hour total time difference in our schedules. And the vast majority of our work happens over web and teleconference. In fact, I worked on a daily basis with one team member for over three years before I met her face to face.
There’s definitely an art to working this way. Working virtually, with no face-to-face interaction requires a tremendous amount of focus and attention – and patience. Simple things take longer because approval rounds are extended by a working day – at least. “Why is this taking so long” becomes a common refrain, so management of stakeholder expectations is important.
This is how people work now. Whether you telecommute or work for a virtual team, people have less face-time with their colleagues, even when in the same country or even city.
I’ve learned a lot about working this way. f I had to write a primer for anyone joining a virtual team – which would be everyone pretty much, right? – I would include the following few essentials. It’s a long list, but I’ve kept it mercifully scannable. They don’t train you on this stuff.
- Learn the technology. You MUST be self-serve when it comes to setting up, moderating and participating in web meetings and teleconferences, no matter what your level. It has to be seamless for all involved.
- Use social media and connect. Best case scenario is that your company supports enterprise social media, but barring that LinkedIn, Twitter and even Facebook can warm-up team relationships.
- Use collaboration tools. Sure, eRooms are great, but have you tried Google documents? Amazing. My colleague and I can edit the same document at the same time. This is way more exciting than it sounds. Basecamp is pretty cool too.
- Use video as much as possible. It’s nice to see team members, but in my case, it can help keep me on task during teleconferences.
- Pick one for meetings: all in person or all virtual. This can be tough, but if you have a large group in a meeting room, face to face, and one or two dialing in, the virtual attendees can be at a real disadvantage. If this situation is unavoidable, leave plenty of space for them to contribute and have a follow up, one-on-one call to review room dynamics and body language.
- Keep your outlook calendar up to date. Don’t get precious about your overlap times. This can be particularly challenging for people on the West coast of the US who work with European teams. Start times of 7 am and earlier are not uncommon.
- Mind your date formats. Format dates like this: 2 FEB 2013 – the vast majority of the world puts the month after the date. Do that, but spell out the month so as not to confuse US audiences. And remember, Christmas is a summer holiday in some parts of the world.
- Mind your “z’s.” As a rule, try to keep your writing “agnostic” – avoiding words that are spelled differently in US versus British English. This can be a challenge when you’re project involves “localization,” “personalization,” and “optimization” but do your best and come to an agreement on these tough words (we opted for “z’s”)
- Use page numbers on everything. Makes it easier to compare notes in virtual meetings.
- Memorize the time differences or use “World Meeting Planner.” Nothing looks less cosmopolitan than futzing around with time zones.
- Get a headset. Everything sounds better on a headset. And I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t use your cell phone for meetings. If you must, mute.
- Get a map and hang it over your desk. Get familiar with where your colleagues are sitting. It’s also fun to use Google Maps and Google Earth to check out their cities and even blocks. Read wikipedia about their cities and countries. Read their local papers – or a non-US paper at the least. Have some context and something to talk about.
And finally – the most important tip that transcends all else: PAUSE and wait and listen. All communication technology is not created equal. And in spite of your best efforts to keep everyone on handsets and high quality connections, there will be quality gaps. So when you’re presenting, leave plenty of room for people to talk. You can either say “I’m going to present a bunch of stuff and save your questions for the end,” or if the conversation is more informal, state your content in chunks so that people can contribute. Pause between major thoughts and LISTEN for the small sounds that indicate someone wants to talk. Make it an uncomfortable pause. Push past the point where you would have ordinarily filled space. You’ll be surprised at what you draw out and the trust you’ll gain from your team members.