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.

3 things nobody tells you about remote writing projects

Image by freeimages user: vclare

I’ve become sort of a student of remote working because for years now. A special area of interest is the changes (both good and bad) in dynamics and project management that sometimes occur when a remote technical writer joins the team.
 While this post speaks more about remote technical writing, you may find that you’ve bumped up against one or more of these things while working as a remote writer:

1. Microsoft Office is your frenemy

While some accuse me of being a Microsoft Office fanboy, Microsoft Office is all over in my local marketplace, so I’ve had to make it work to get my job done.

As a remote writer, you may have to contend with file corruptions, template issues and various document format and versioning issues all on your own.

A couple of document versions put together with bad habits may mean your remote writing project becomes more of a font fondling exercise in (re)formatting the document.

My advice is to do your best to own all facets of the document you are writing including the template and document management.

2. Offsite shouldn’t be out of mind

Technical writing projects usually lowest on the project manager’s list of priorities but still rank as a line item on a project schedule. It’s important to keep your writing project from falling off the project manager’s radar.
You can do this by actively participating in team status calls; making your presence known through IM sessions, and doing what you can so you and your writing project(s) achieve project milestones and get the attention and resources they need to complete successfully.

3. Remote writer equals project manager

Whether you are an employee, contractor or freelancer working remotely, project management is part of your responsibilities whether explicitly or not. Too often, writing projects can be ignored, and you have to implement your project management and communications strategy. Then again, if your experience has been anything like mine, you’ve found that there are a lot of managers who don’t understand what it takes to deliver a writing project. If you find yourself strapped with a manager like this, expect an education exercise at best and at worst keep a paper trail of your communications with management.
What lessons have you learned from remote writing projects? Share your tips and advice below.

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.

7 wickedly simple ways to improve virtual team communications

I’ve been interested in remote working since I first worked remotely as a computer book technical reviewer back in the nineties. I’ve put my stake in the ground about the importance of culture for collaboration. Fast forward to today, I’ve had the opportunity to write about some of the platforms and mobile apps that power today’s virtual teams.

Recently, I’ve gotten back to thinking about virtual team communications. Something so simple as communications, can be made so difficult or so it seems.

1. Write emails in bullet points

Email is a cause of so many miscommunications or so it seems in my experience. When communicating amongst virtual team members via email, you should:

  • Make your emails scannable
  • Avoid long winded email threads
  • Remember clarity is your co-pilot

When I was a computer book technical editor, I was taught that a person’s emails and comments needed to stand on their own. That rule should apply to email communications in virtual team environments too. While I’m not without my personal communication hiccups, I try to make sure my emails are scannable.

2. Keep chat system logs “on the record”

I’m certainly a proponent of chat systems in moderation. In the past year or so, I’ve used Slack, HipChat, Lync, and Google Chat or various client projects. I’ve come to see it as important to turn on the logs so you can refer to a conversation later.

Part of being “on the record” is also to know the natural ebbs and flows of a coworker’s day. Chat sessions can be very distracting to some people.

3. Don’t fear the phone

I have one client who reaches for the phone first and I give them lots of credit for it. While we do use Slack and email to communicate, they are my one client that prefers the phone. Needless to say, I rarely experience miscommunications with this client. To them, the phone represents:

  • Team relationship building
  • Real-time decision-making
  • Less back and forth

When I returned to freelancing after a layoff in 2012, I may have gone three months without speaking to any client. I still have some clients I’ve yet to communicate with in real-time. However, I’m the first to say that virtual teams shouldn’t fear the phones for communicating with each other.

4. Use calendars to combat crisis

It’s romantic to some personality types always to be going from crisis to crisis. It makes these people feel needed. The nature of virtual teams can only magnify the drama of real or imagined crises.

My recommendation is to use a central calendar to communicate minor to major project milestones and events. In a virtual working environment, one way a crisis can snowball is an urgent project appearing from nowhere disrupting the flow.

5. Respect team member personalities and communications styles

Respective team member personalities and communications styles can make working remotely challenging for some people. Give other team members space and yourself time to learn how to communicate best with the various personality types on your team. Providing a critique to another team member after they send an email to another team member or client is ultimately counter-productive except in extreme circumstances.

There are merits in being straight to the point in written communications just as there is to being overly friendly.

The thing is, there’s no merit in trying to change one of those communications styles to the other. Trying to bend entrenched personality and communications styles may only get you tuned out the next time you communicate with that team member.

I never understood the terse communications I would get from some editors. It all became clear to me when my email box began to fill up with PR pitches why I got such emails.

6. Think first, Write second

There’s the long-standing advice of never sending an email in the heat of the moment. My advice is to “think first, write second” to ensure that your communications with other team members are clear, on point, and can stand on their own.

7. Democratize project management

Project management factors into the quality of virtual team communications in my experience. The current generation of cloud project management platforms is ideal for virtual project teams because they enhance communications around project tasks with online discussions and social tools. The convergence of project management and collaboration in the cloud enable easy and clear communications around project tasks and scheduling.

Final thoughts

Looking back to my first virtual working experience back in the mid-nineties (dial-up Internet, email, and FTP sites, baby!), I’m excited to see the practice become more the norm now. Unfortunately, some of the same communications challenges remain despite the latest technology improvements.

Image by Luis Llerena via Unsplash.com

Will Kelly is a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. His writing experience includes writing technology articles for CNET TechRepublic and other sites. Will’s technology interests include collaboration platforms, enterprise mobility, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), project management applications, and big data. Follow him on Twitter: @willkelly.