7 ways to wreck virtual team collaboration without really trying

by Mike Wilson via Unsplash.com

When I got my start as a technical writer, everybody worked in the same office, in the same building. Collaboration in those days was via shared network drives and eventually corporate email. I’ve been working remotely pretty much since 2012 with the exception of some on-site meetings and business trips. On a recent trip, I had a chance to speak with some other remote workers and the topic of collaboration came up. The consensus of the discussion that many organizations are still getting collaboration wrong with their virtual teams.

Here are seven ways that you are getting collaboration wrong with your project team:

1. Using email first communication

Email is the original collaboration tool making it a natural solution for virtual teams. Going email first for communication will catch up to virtual project teams eventually. Long email threads grow unwieldy. Likewise, forget document version control.

Email first communications also puts you at the mercy of the most disorganized person on the team. He or she is the person who always misses an email or asks other team members to resend their emails.

Email first communications invariably leads to follow up (even multiple follow ups) slowing down communications and collaboration.

2. Drowning out team member voices

Whether it’s differing personality types, micromanagement, or miscommunications there’s the potential to drown out team member voices. Virtual teams make it even easier by not centralizing communication, avoiding group level communications. Other ways you can drown out team member voices includes:

  • Delayed response to one-to-one online chats
  • Ignore one or more team members in chat rooms
  • Ignore real-time communications like video conferencing or the old fashioned phone call
  • No engagement with review comments in documents or presentations
  • No appreciation of team member’s preferred communication channels

Virtual teams also drown out team member voices when they don’t adjust after miscommunications.

3. Forgetting the art of the pitching new ideas to your team

New ideas for solutions, processes, and communications should be welcome on virtualteams. Team collaboration can break down when one or more members go around the team to sneak in a process or system change that may not fit the needs of every team member, or even cause more work unnecessarily.

4. Inflicting management by spreadsheet

Management by spreadsheet has been parodied by Dilbert and even has its own Urban Dictionary definition. Project tracking and reporting needs to be as effortless as possible for team members.

Even without agile development and DevOps, project reporting takes on a new importance with virtual project teams.

5. Using duplicate systems and tools

The mass proliferation of freemium cloud-based messaging and collaboration tools makes it easy for duplicate systems to crop up on a virtual team. Doubly so if the IT department back at the corporate mothership may not be attentive to the out of sight, out of mind employees and contractors.

6. Dodging questions and answers

Perhaps it’s because I’m a technical writer but I’ve become a student of how people answer questions. There’s what I call the dodge and denial method that can wreak havoc with virtual team collaboration. A team member dodges answering a question. The average corporate culture will excuse it as the person being too busy. Scratch beneath the surface, the person is often just disorganized or even dodging the question because they don’t know the answer and fear losing face to their fellow team members.

7. Distributing project documentation & @artifacts in the widest dispersal possible

If you or somebody on the team need to ask “where’s such and such document?” then you are doing something wrong. With the popularity of Google Apps for Work and Office 365, it’s possible for a team to have a wide dispersal of personal accounts and cloud space.

When a team doesn’t centralize project documentation and artifacts then virtual project teams may have members not using the more correct and up to date information.

Virtual team collaboration for the win

Industry trade publications are filled with stories about winning virtual project teams. Working on virtual teams on commercial and federal government projects, I’ve come to see that communications and collaboration can make or break such teams.

Will Kelly is a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. He has worked with commercial, federal, higher education, and publishing clients to develop technical and thought leadership content. His technology articles have been published by CNET TechRepublic, Government Computer News, Federal Computer Week, Toolbox.com, ZDNet.com and others. Follow Will on Twitter:@willkelly.


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