This post is second of two on virtual communications.
The virtual world offers us two great conveniences; indeed, you can make a reasonable claim that the virtual world depends for its success on these twin pillars: freedom from friction, and freedom from simultaneity.
But those freedoms create new problems. How can you solve the problems created by the digital release from simultaneity?
You can’t, except by getting together in person. But you can mitigate them. Follow these straightforward rules and you’ll go a long way toward fixing the problem.
First, don’t use virtual channels when the relationship is at stake. Don’t try to hire, fire, heal, even criticize when the stakes are high, or indeed do anything when emotions are important, via the digital channel. The way humans interpret emotions is through body language, and none of the existing virtual channels convey that well enough yet to be relied upon. Even video. Perhaps even especially video, because we’re more apt to think that it’s a full, rich channel. It’s not.
Reserve the most important human stuff for face-to-face meetings.
Further, try to use a channel that’s appropriate for a particular message when you need to convey something. Use a text message to say, “running 10 minutes late.” Use an email to say, “Attached is the first draft of the report for your consideration.” Use an audio conference to update the team in brief weekly sessions, complete with emotional channels deliberately built back in (see second point.) Use a video session for deeper discussions, rehearsals, and so on.
Second, if you must communicate delicate, emotional, or otherwise fraught matters via virtual channels, create an additional virtual space for the inclusion and consideration of emotions.
Emoticons are a crude first attempt for people to put back into text messaging and social media the emotions that too often get misinterpreted or left out. So make sure you include a section of your communication where, at the minimum, emotions can be exchanged, with emoticons or in some other way. Make it an emotional safe space if at all possible. And make it a requirement. So the sender needs to indicate how she meant the communication to be seen emotionally, both in what emotional state it was sent and how it’s meant to be received. And the receiver needs a space to show how the message was indeed received.
It may seem clunky at first to force yourself to do this, but when you think about the time, money, and human desperation involved in sending, receiving and untangling unintentionally hurtful messages, for example, it’s clearly work worth doing.
You have to deliberately, and imperfectly, put the body language channel back in where the virtual world has removed it.
Finally, regularly reinforce important virtual relationships with face-to-face meetings. Don’t rely on the virtual channel alone to keep a cross-functional, matrixed, organizationally vital sales team working together. Especially when the cultures, the skills, and even the personalities are different. We need close human contact to bridge those differences and create real teams. So bring the Americans to Singapore and take them out to dinner. Have the London group host the New York design contingent at a pub lunch. Send the French team to Saudi Arabia to meet with the consultants there.
Yes, you’ll spend money and time on the travel. But the increased efficiency in team production will make up for it.
And if you fail to do it, your team will surely, over time, become less and less productive as little perceived issues gradually build up and cause the group to harbor resentments, misunderstandings, and crippling political problems.