Email is still one of the most common communication channels within virtual teams – and it can cause friction. Proactively tackling potential problems is key to successfully launching a virtual team – so during our face-to-face and online seminars with virtual team leaders we discuss expectations. Naturally communication comes into this and time spent constructing a communication plan is always time well spent. As Jochen, a German project manager shared “It sounds so obvious we didn’t think about doing it – and now that we have I can already tell that we solved some real obstacles”.
Building a communication plan when you kick off your virtual team
A communication plan outlines which communication tools you’ll use and how you’ll use them. For example “we’ll use Webex for our brainstorming and problem solving, we’ll use Hipster for chatting and sharing links, and we’ll use email for …”
Building the plan involves discussing approaches and expectations – and by talking through these expectations you can uncover and deal with different attitudes. An example we often run into when working with multicultural virtual teams is whereas one team member may expect people to write back a polite “thank you for the mail” another may find this a waste of time – and even annoying! And because email is still so pervasive we’ve seen that the majority of frustrations come from how people use (or don’t use) email. To get you started with your discussions, we’re sharing below a list of email commitments one of our clients agreed to (with their permission of course).
Email commitments from a software development team working virtually across 3 countries
- We’ll check our email at least every 3 hours.
- We don’t check emails when we are in meetings.
- We’ll use the phone and leave a message if something is truly time critical.
- We’ll write email subject lines that immediately explain what the email is about.
- We’ll use keywords like Action by XX or FYI in the titles
- We assume that if somebody is copied (cc) into an email they don’t need to respond.
- We will avoid using the “reply to all” unless everyone absolutely needs the information
- We’ll pick up the phone after 3 emails on one topic.
- We accept that emails sent from phones occasionally have typos.
- We expect that larger emails are well written.
- We don’t use CAPITALS and we don’t normally use colours unless something is critically important.
- We use bold to help people scan key information
- We always give people the benefit of the doubt if something can be understood in two ways.
- When we write an email in an emotional state we all agree we will save it – and come back to it the next day. And anyway a phone call is preferred by everyone.
- If we’re having interpersonal problems, we don’t use email – we’ll pick up the phone or use Skype for Business.
- We will review this list every 4th Skype meeting and remind ourselves that we all want to follow it.
The above list is strong and clear. It was built over the course of a facilitated 30 minute discussion and it works. We’re not advocating that you take it word for word – but why not use this a as springboard for discussing your own team’s behaviours? Building common understanding up front will help your virtual team communicate smoothly and confidently.
And if you want to read more
Here’s a useful document with tips and language for effective communication across cultures.