I’ve Spent 2 Years And $2 Million Researching Virtual Teams: Candid Communication Is Possible

Hybrid Collaboration and Innovation
10 Minute Read
September 27, 2021

If you thought you and your coworkers had trouble expressing themselves and sharing constructively before you scattered to your home offices to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, get ready for a full-on communication breakdown.

Among some remote workers there is a tendency to work in isolation: They focus on individual contributions—not team goals. And the distance removes the opportunity for spontaneous collaboration. There are no water-cooler conversations, no coffee breaks where creative conversation and solutions can bloom.

For those of us new to remote work, the transition is downright overwhelming: My firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight, coaches teams and recently spent two years and $2 million researching virtual teams, and we found that 43% of employees say they are more confused and feel more overwhelmed when they transition to remote work—unless they follow some simple but critical guidelines.

Ironically, the sheer number of communications platforms—texting, email, instant messages, social media—are exacerbating the problem. Workers say they feel like they are constantly on a scavenger hunt (a phrase coined by Nick Sonnenberg of GetLeverage.com) for information: “Was this sent in text or email? Who sent this and when? Why can’t I find that file?”

This is deeply problematic, and not just because workers are wasting precious time trying to locate that important assignment of imprecise provenance. What teams need right now is effective collaboration and communication. Indeed: deep, inclusive, and candid collaboration is the only way to meet the pressures of a constantly changing marketplace in which all the teams we coach are competing.

This kind of truly transformative collaboration is totally achievable—even in the virtual world. I’ve led the second in a series of Fast Company webinars on creating remote teams that transcend traditional ones, hosted by editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta. (A replay of the first session may be accessed here.)

We’ll talk, in-depth, about the tools and tactics you can use to enhance communication. Here are a few of the topics the webinar will cover:

Leaders need to put a “communication contract” in place. This is a two-way obligation, wherein everyone understands the hierarchy of communications. In your organization, a text may be code for “urgent” while an email signals: “please get to this when you can.” That means the team leader can’t send a group text sharing a farfetched piece of gossip unless he or she is looking for confirmation.

Virtual miscommunication can be mitigated. When we’re all sitting in a conference room together, we can read each others’ body language. The person with her lips pursed is unconvinced, the guy doodling is uninspired. In the virtual world, you can achieve some degree of prescience by turning on the camera: Make videoconferencing mandatory whenever feasible. If you’re the leader, be real with your team: Give folks a virtual tour of your workspace, to increase empathy and understanding.

Leaders should overcommunicate. There’s a psychological phenomenon called “signal amplification bias,” where we think we send more information than we do. Be explicit, and don’t assume people know what you mean when you say “circle back.” Instead, give them tangible action items.

Once you have communication channels effectively flowing, and once you are communicating in the right way, you need to start to collaborate.

Collaboration isn’t the same as consensus building. As a leader, you need to develop a thoughtful process that brings forth innovative and broad ideas. Here are two practices you can try to get your team collaborating and speaking candidly:

1.) If you’re trying to tackle a big problem, set aside a good amount of time—90 minutes is ideal—to discuss. Craft the challenge carefully. Think about ideas you want to spark, and what value solving it brings. Then break into small groups of 3 to 4 people—small groups spark candor—reconvene and get the small teams to make recommendations. Then, whoever owns the topic gives the idea a yes, no, or maybe. They still own it, and they have accountability to deliver.

2.) For a more rapid problem-solving approach, try what I call “5x5x5.” This exercise consists of three rounds of five-minute sessions, for a total of 15 minutes. The first round is spent presenting the problem. The second round is spent on clarifying questions to reframe and spur deeper insights. The final round consists of feedback and recommendations. This simple tool in a remote meeting starts to condition your team to turn to each other for more robust solutions and not just dig in and rely on themselves.

Above all, when collaborating, Candor is King. Team members must be willing to speak courageously in service of the mission and each other. The best way to reinforce the power of candor is to reward naysayers. You’ll get more criticism, but with criticism comes critical thinking.

Last week we talked about the need for a “Yoda” in the room. Give explicit permission to team members to call for a “Yoda moment” and coax out candor. Your teams—virtual or otherwise—will be stronger for it.

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