by Tiffany Robinson

With 1 in 5 people in today’s workforce working in a virtual team environment, virtual employee engagement is strong-arming its way into companies’ overall employee engagement strategies everywhere.

Over the past 3 years, I have had a prodigious experience as a member of a flourishing virtual team and in many ways my experience has cultivated more team loyalty than any other office environment I’ve worked in. So what makes my experience as a virtual worker so satisfying?

COMMUNICATION

I can trace every single success or failure that occurred in my virtual career back to either a poor or fantastic communication experience. Can you do the same in an office? Of course you can!

Communication is the single most impactful recurring event that can occur in a virtual team. In order to form the bonds needed to have a meaningful working relationship we need to know how our team members think professionally, creatively, and personally. Only then can we leverage each other effectively.

I learned quickly that communication became a direct indicator to my emotional stability on the job. If I didn’t have contact with at least one member of my team for an extended period of time (2+ days), I began to feel depressed, ostracized and self-doubting. Does this make me a bad virtual employee? Of course not, this makes me human.

HUMANITY

Communication is a vital part of humanity. We have been communicating with one another in some fashion since the beginning of time. Through grunts and growls, hand gestures, cave paintings, stories, body language, vocal language, writing, songs, movies… social media. We tend to find whatever way possible to communicate our likes and dislikes, our ideas and experiences, in order to relate to one another. In order to FEEL human.

To stifle communication in virtual teams is to remove its humanity. How often have you wondered who the person is behind the computer? Do they have a family? What are their hobbies? How do they like their coffee in the morning? Do they even drink coffee in the morning?

Or more plaguing questions: What is this person really saying in this email? Should you read between the lines? Are they angry? Happy? Indifferent? Why was that instant message sent with a short tone? Are they irritated? Stressed? Or just short on time?

How should you respond?

These and many other questions are easily answered when you work in an office space. An office worker spends more time with their co-workers than they do with their own family members. You know their tone of voice, their body language, how they work best, their professional abilities. And you bring each other coffee just the way they like it. For better or worse, you know your cube-mate inside and out.

While it’s tempting to get quick responses from IM and email conversations, it’s impossible to grasp the full version of a person through short typed interactions. In fact, not only is it impossible, it can be detrimental to the success of your working relationship. But, in a virtual world most communication takes place through computers and mobile devices.

So then the question we are faced with is how can working with someone across the country feel the same as working right next to them? As it turned out for our team, the solution was much simpler and much more obvious than we thought.

We picked up the phone.

In fact, we picked up the phone A LOT. We picked up the phone instead of email, instead of IM, instead of waiting for a scheduled meeting. Now, does this mean we didn’t do these things? No, of course not. There is a place for every one of those actions in any job.

Impromptu phone communication became the missing link to our team’s engagement with each other. We talked about projects we were working on and collaborated on problems we were having, but we also blocked out time to socialize, find out what each other was doing on the weekend, we had phone lunches together, morning coffee (and it turned out some tea as well), we told jokes and we talked about our families and our pets. Soon we were able to discern the tone of each other’s voice, how each of us communicated, how each of us related ourselves to one another.

In many ways phone time became a priority over everything else. If we were stressed we picked up the phone to talk each other through it. If we were excited we picked up the phone to celebrate. If we had an irrational, crazy, yet possibly probable idea… you guessed it, pick up the phone and let’s explore it together.

With this arsenal of information on each other, email and IM’s became easier to read, very easy in fact. We removed the concept of “reading between the lines,” as there were no longer any lines to read between. We could instantly tell the intent behind the message because we could relate to the person behind it. In many ways, the conscious efforts we made to connect created a stronger bond than any other team I have been a part of in my professional history.

Our virtual team regained its humanity through communication and good old fashioned phone calls.

Has your team regained its humanity? Share how!

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