I often extol the virtues of virtual work. But no matter how much I love virtual, I’m also keenly aware that being remote isn’t always ideal. In my experience, there are four specific situations that should never be handled by phone or email. Doing so welcomes problems that can lead to disasters.
- Overcoming “hidden” conflicts. An obvious and undeniable challenge with managing an entirely virtual team is a lack of visual cues and body language when communicating that can trigger misunderstandings. But less obviously, frequent misinterpretations can chip away at someone’s confidence or comfort level, creating tensions that are hard to name and even harder to address. In one virtual work situation I’ve experienced, all the team members were only privy to what they read in emails or heard on the phone for nearly a year before the company brought everyone to the same location for a retreat. Just sharing moments in a physical space melted away much of the negative energy that was damaging the remote interactions. At this gathering, one person even said to me that just seeing my eyes showed them more kindness than my terse email messages conveyed. Ouch! What an important lesson to learn about e-communications and the human touch.
- Building stronger bonds. Nothing can strengthen the bonds between team members in the same way as physical presence. I will never deny the incredible power of online communications and online community, but the bottom line is that we are social creatures. We crave belonging, being near others, not being alone. Virtual work can thrust even the heartiest of us into isolation, and the only real way to solve that isolation with lasting effects is a face-to-face meeting. It may not be feasible to bring an entire company to a single place due to the number of people involved or budget constraints. But maybe it is realistic to arrange gatherings of smaller teams or to put together a schedule of in-person meetings over the course of a year — even a series of one-on-one meetings. Another possible solution is to have team members meet up at industry events, several at a time, for both bonding and learning.
- Delivering really bad news. If your company is in crisis, it is not the time to send out a short email that can be misconstrued or a long email that is confusing and triggers panic. Find a way to get everyone together in one place to drop the bomb. If getting everyone in a single physical space isn’t doable, you should have smaller groups meeting physically or management meeting team members individually. And if those options aren’t possible either, use the best virtual workplace solution you can find, be it a virtual world or virtual meeting space with video. An audio conference call? Barely a step above an email. Be a more solid presence to cushion the blow.
- Delivering really good news. If you’ve got something big to report, do it when everyone is together on that big client pitch or the company retreat. Small wins can be shared well in email or on weekly calls, but the huge wins deserve more presence to infuse the team with the power of the accomplishment. When you’re managing a team of remote workers, the wins somehow seem a lot smaller than the losses, and over time that dynamic can drain morale and affect productivity. Surround good news with as much “physical” fanfare as possible. People often need something tangible to hold onto. Provide mementos of the big wins that they can take back to their remote workplaces to remind them of being a part of something real and positive.
In our everyday work, far from our team members, face-to-face and in-person may simply not be affordable. Invest in a quality virtual meeting space or conference tool, whether it’s iMeet, Google Talk (s goog), Skype, Second Life or any of the myriad solutions out there. Let your team test several of those solutions with you, and get their feedback before making a final purchase and rolling out the technology. Let your workers be just as invested in being present as you are.
What other situations warrant face-to-face and what do you do when you can’t be there?