Today’s workforce increasingly operates from anywhere at any time. During the past few years, teams have gotten plenty of practice with virtual communication, including video meetings. But just because we communicate virtually doesn’t mean we’re as effective as we could be.
Improving communication in virtual teams isn’t optional. Remote employees have 60% more virtual meetings than they did just a few years ago, while 51% of U.S. knowledge workers will work hybrid schedules by the end of 2023, according to Gartner. That means teams must be agile in their interactions whether they’re on-site, at home, or traveling.
Learn more about how virtual communication in the workplace can be improved for teams of all shapes and sizes. We’ll share advice for leaders who want to help their teams become more effective at virtual communication — and explain how Whole Brain® Thinking can help.
What Is Virtual Communication?
Virtual communication is any electronic interaction between two or more people that’s not in person. While many people think immediately of video calls, that’s only one form of virtual communication. Email, messaging apps, enterprise communication platforms, and videoconferencing are some of the most popular ways business teams can interact without being in person.
Email is among the oldest and most ubiquitous forms of virtual communication. It’s a simple and effective way to communicate with colleagues, clients, and other contacts. It allows for a quick and easy exchange of information, including documents.
Instant messaging is a longstanding form of virtual communication, with workplaces using platforms like Slack, Google Chat, and Microsoft Teams. Chat platforms are helpful for quick conversations, project or team updates, and other situations for which email is too cumbersome and other communication methods too slow.
Videoconferencing is a great way to get face time with co-workers, clients, and other stakeholders even when you can’t gather in person. Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet are just a few of the popular tools used for videoconferencing, and they offer a host of other capabilities, including screen-sharing and session recording.
Virtual communication is also seen in various platforms that encourage asynchronous communication. Message boards, help desk tickets, notes and comments on documents, and knowledge bases are just a few ways employees can virtually give input, get tasks done, and collaborate.
How Is Communication Evolving in Today's Workplace?
From fully remote teams to hybrid workforces, many businesses are figuring out how to organize communication best when employee locations are fluid. Many companies moved almost entirely to remote work, video calls, and chat when the pandemic struck in March 2020. Years later, they’re trying to determine what worked best from that era and what they could improve with the benefit of hindsight.
Even proponents of virtual communication recognize the challenges facing leaders who want to build a collaborative culture. Managers must establish clear guidelines for virtual communication usage, set expectations for availability, and consider employees’ communication preferences and needs.
This exploration occurs as many companies try to push employees back to the office. Many employees are questioning this shift, creating an extra challenge for leaders seeking to establish communication norms in a virtual workplace.
Benefits of Virtual Communication
Team leaders need to understand how virtual communication can improve their employees’ communication, collaboration, and thinking while also recognizing the potential downsides. Here are a few of the high-level benefits.
Increased Flexibility for Remote and International Employees
In a global economy, companies need to be able to communicate, collaborate, and act across time zones and geographies. But the more distributed your team or client base is, the harder it is to align everyone’s working hours, much less their in-person availability.
Virtual communication increases flexibility for remote and international employees by empowering them to use asynchronous communication. Employees can work on their steps during local working hours, for example, while providing an update for their co-workers before signing off. If they have a question they don’t need an immediate answer to, they can send an email, leave a comment, or schedule a message instead of calling their co-worker or walking over to their workstation.
Some tasks still need to happen together in real-time. But for many tasks, virtual communication creates flexibility for team members while still holding them accountable for meeting deadlines and delivering results.
Increased Connection and Diversity
The internet, cloud computing, and virtual communication tools are just a few examples of technologies that let businesses hire a wider variety of employees. When you’re not restricted to a specific geography, you also can enhance the diversity of your hiring pool.
Companies that are more diverse in terms of race, gender, culture, thinking, and other characteristics likely will enjoy a great range of ideas and perspectives. When leaders embrace diversity — including cognitive diversity — in their teams, their people naturally think outside the box and spur innovation.
Virtual communication also helps companies connect more with customers. Through email, online chat, social media, and other means, they can instantly interact with customers to resolve problems, solicit feedback, and offer various products and services.
Virtual communication makes it easier for teams to collaborate regardless of where everyone is located — and to share information and documents quickly and securely.
Instead of information getting siloed inside teams or business units, employees can seek help and insight from anyone in the organization with expertise, regardless of the physical distance between them.
Virtual communication also makes it easier to track progress and stay organized. Tools such as shared calendars, checklists, and project management systems can keep everyone on the same page. These tools can streamline assignments, track progress automatically, and send reminders so people can meet deadlines.
Challenges of Virtual Communication
As leaders help their teams communicate better in various mediums, here are some of the pitfalls they’ll face when overcoming communication challenges.
Lack of Face-To-Face Interaction
Video calls can be a powerful tool to bring employees together, especially for projects and other collaborative tasks. Yet, people don’t necessarily pick up the same cues in a video call as they do in person, which can lead to misunderstandings. For example, face-to-face conversations generate cues related to body language, eye contact, and vocal intonation. However, a video call won’t generate those cues in the same way, especially when you can only see a person’s head. The result is that people might misinterpret their colleagues’ words, expressions, and intentions.
Other forms of virtual communication, such as email and texting, lack any facial expressions. For instance, if a manager and employee converse on a chat platform, they likely won't pick up on subtle cues. Worse still, they might imagine cues that don’t exist, such as misinterpreting a message as sarcastic. This can lead to miscommunication, confusion, and loss of trust in a virtual team.
Asynchronous work is a powerful tool for companies, especially multinational organizations. But when teams lack clarity on communication norms, you can wind up with delayed responses — or no response at all — on critical questions.
For example, a U.S.-based team regularly works with a European-based team on external communications. Much of this work is done asynchronously as people work on documents, leave notes, or ask questions via email or chat. But imagine that the U.S. team has a deadline-sensitive issue but no protocol for escalating the concern with its European colleagues. The U.S. team’s urgent message might sit in an inbox or chat window until the next morning, causing a missed deadline.
Difficulty Creating Team Cohesion
Teamwide virtual meetings are a great way to bring people together, especially in large groups. But they don’t necessarily provide the connection that an in-person meeting would, and some people might not feel comfortable speaking up during these sessions.
Without the ability to interact in person, some team members will struggle to develop relationships, understand their colleagues’ thinking preferences, and collaborate effectively. This can result in lower levels of trust, which can further hinder productivity and innovation.
4 Tips for Better Virtual Communication
At Herrmann, we’re a 100% remote work organization. We know virtual communication can be effective, although getting there takes commitment. To ensure your team stays connected and productive, here are four tips for better virtual communication:
Explore Your Options
Evaluate the tools you currently use. Are they effective? What don’t you use well or to its full potential? What can you consolidate? Many enterprises find themselves paying for various videoconferencing tools, project management systems, and file-sharing software, for example.
This can create challenges for employees, who might ask questions or put key information in one system while their colleague misses those communications because they use different systems.
Also, consider how well these tools integrate. Virtual communication is easier when one or two systems can help employees track every project stage in one view — messages, comments, files, and more.
If your team lacks key tools, like a dedicated platform for video calls or online collaboration, you’ll need to evaluate what tools best fit your business needs.
Leaders already set rules and norms for how they expect their teams to behave, and it’s no different with virtual communication. Be clear about working hours, expected response times, when to communicate in which channel, and how to escalate urgent matters.
Some businesses will need to tailor this further — for example, what language to communicate in based on location.
Promote Dialogue and Experimentation
Communication can be difficult, and there will always be new challenges, such as when you onboard new employees or form new teams. Employees who don’t feel psychologically safe will be wary of making mistakes and will communicate less overall, especially when they aren’t on-site.
Encourage an atmosphere of openness, active listening, feedback without judgment, mutual respect, and a willingness to experiment. If people know they can communicate respectfully and openly without punishment, they’re more likely to make an effort.
Explore and Respect Individual Preferences
Not everyone is comfortable with the same type of virtual communication tools or styles of dialogue. Take time to get to know each person’s preference for collaboration (whether that’s video calls or emails) so everyone feels heard throughout the process.
Learning about your team members’ communication preferences is easier when you’ve built a trusting, collaborative relationship with tools such as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI®) and Whole Brain® Thinking.
How to Apply Whole Brain® Thinking to Virtual Communication
Herrmann’s Whole Brain® Thinking framework is backed by over 40 years of research, helping leaders identify cognitive diversity within their teams and leverage it as a strategic advantage. Whole Brain® Thinking helps individuals, teams, and organizations understand their thinking preferences and that of their colleagues.
With this knowledge, people can see how they process information and engage with ideas and other people. They can collaborate better by embracing these differences and building on each other’s unique preferences and abilities. These benefits can be especially powerful with virtual communication, where visual and verbal cues often are absent.
The Whole Brain® Thinking model groups people’s thinking preferences into four quadrants: Analytical (A or Blue), Structural (B or Green), Relational (C or Red), and Experimental (D or Yellow). The HBDI® assessment reveals your thinking preferences in the context of everyday situations and when you’re under pressure.
There’s no ideal HBDI® profile; everybody uses all four thinking preferences daily. The assessment measures where your preferences lie, not which quadrants are better.
Incorporating Whole Brain® Thinking into virtual communication gives you another way to help employees understand each other, even when they can’t see or hear them. Employees can know each other better and embrace each other’s cognitive differences and incorporate them into their work for better thinking and results.
As a leader, here are four ways to use Whole Brain® Thinking for more effective virtual communication that connects with people of different backgrounds and thinking styles.
You develop your virtual communications with a specific frame of reference, but your team doesn’t necessarily have the same mindset. This is why email or chat messages can be so prone to misunderstandings. The context isn’t there, so the receiver feels surprised and misinterprets your intention.
Preempt the problem by informing them about what’s going on, why you’re communicating, and the big picture. This especially benefits Experimental (Yellow) thinkers who want to understand the “Why?” and enjoy synthesizing and integrating information.
Leaders should model this behavior. If a message confuses or momentarily alarms you, give the sender the benefit of the doubt or ask for clarification. Assuming positive intent is a simple but effective way to improve communication, especially with remote workers.
Share the Agenda
Structural (Green) thinkers especially like to see agendas and checklists so they know what’s happening next — and their role in it. But clear communication can help all types of thinkers, especially virtually.
Don’t wing it. Give people a high-level agenda or plan that sets expectations about what you’re trying to accomplish in a way that’s appropriate for the format or communication vehicle. You'll find this is an appreciated touch regardless of whether someone has a high preference for Structural thinking.
Explain the What
Context and planning are essential to good leadership communication, and so is explaining the expected results. Encourage the sharing of key facts and data so people understand what they’re working toward and how progress will be measured.
This type of information is especially important for people whose preference leans toward Analytical (Blue) thinking. When you lay out a clear path (Green) with measurable benchmarks (Blue), you help your teams avoid confusion so they can focus on their work.
Create Space for Engagement
Communication is much more than giving orders, sharing agendas, or declaring goals. Stories and interaction allow people to quickly connect with what you’re talking about — meaning that what you communicate is more likely to stick with them.
We do this naturally in our heads, trying to make connections to what we hear. When you can facilitate that process through relevant stories, you’ll create a greater impact, and people will understand what you mean. This is important for all employees but especially for Relational (Red) thinkers who care deeply about the people affected and the relationships they form.
Because these steps hit all of the quadrants of the Whole Brain® Model, you’ll be able to connect with every employee’s primary needs in your virtual communication — whether via phone, text, email, chat, or video.
Communicate Effectively in Any Setting
Virtual communication is something you and your employees do daily, so don’t leave it to chance. Examine your tools and processes to ensure your people aren’t facing roadblocks to effective communication. Then, apply Whole Brain® Thinking principles to help your teams build trust, collaborate more effectively, and maximize their communication to drive business results.
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