It’s a miracle that I get work at all. When my neighbors in Maine learn that I conduct virtual meetings for a living they look at me quizzically and then look away. Phone conversations with prospective clients include long pauses when they find out I’ll be working pretty much from home. There’s some awkward e-mailing of contracts and statement of work revisions. Somewhere along the way to agreement, there’s an introductory long-distance conversation with key stakeholders; usually I must prove my stuff in this one virtual meeting. That’s just to get to the point where we start working together at a distance.
Yet I’m making some small headway, and I’m encouraged when Karl tells me he’s operated remotely for years. When I moved here a few years ago, my location forced a transition completely away from traditional on-site consulting. Since then, my work as a virtual business analyst and facilitator has had its ups and downs. There’s a certain expectation in my field that workshops will be facilitated from the front of a roomful of people. Maybe in your own consulting work you feel the same resistance about your activities being done off-site and away from the clients. I’ve adapted my face-to-face consulting approach and now specialize in virtual collaboration. I welcome this opportunity to share what I’m learning along the way. Whether you work remotely or you’re on-site partnered with a distributed team, these practices could improve your virtual collaboration efforts.
Facing the Challenges
Working off-site you face a special blend of risks. The challenges have to do with assumptions about the critical nature of face time for the consulting partnership:
Relationship Building. Working at a distance prohibits coffee breaks together or meeting up socially after work, so how do you build those important alliances?
Communication Strategy. As an outpost worker you must make sure you don’t fall off the grid, out of sight and out of touch. How will you ensure you’re in the loop? How will you share information without deluging each other’s inbox?
Common Understanding. One of your greatest attributes as a consultant is sensing the client’s reactions and being able to read between the lines. Without the benefit of body language and other visual cues, how will you ensure clarity on all sides?
Team Engagement. With your team members in multiple locations, what steps can you take to ensure there is a rich, conversational, and continuous collaboration on the work that matters the most?
Five Strategies for Mastering Remote Engagement
The virtual collaboration message I give my customers is one of large group innovation and cost savings. To forge my way in this professional space, I’ve had to transform the way I interact with clients and project teams. Here are five strategies I use to address the challenges of virtual collaboration.
1. Open Communication Channels: Adding a personal touch
I found that some amazing bonds originate with actions as small as initiating a one-on-one call or a Skype video chat. Arrange time with each of your co-workers just to get to know them better. You’ll be rewarded with fresh insights and with someone new in your corner, a tremendous asset for the virtual worker.
Once you’ve connected personally, finding the right tactic to stay in touch is important to the health of your working relationships. Respect schedules and communication preferences, while being responsive to changing needs. When dealing with global communications, give additional consideration to differences in technology access, culture, and time zones.
My consulting engagements are now guided by a virtual communications strategy that my distributed team carves out together. It frames how we will conduct our key project interactions: exchange of critical information; reporting of autonomous activities; and timely awareness of changes. For example I like to share my work-in-progress regularly. With the inherent lag time of asynchronous communications, I allow more time for a review cycle and seek feedback earlier than I did when working on-site. I prefer a pull rather than a push model for my stakeholders to stay informed, posting information updates to an on-line workspace rather than e-mailing a status update.
2. Asynchronous Thinking: Individual inputs and agreements over time
My tendency is to use live meetings as the hub of all collaborative activity. The groundwork of “inputs” is well established before the synchronous (live) part of the collaboration. Time together should not be wasted on sharing information that could have been done in advance. Asynchronous methods—Wikis, discussion threads, surveys, etc.—work well for collecting feedback and comments. With 95% of the groundwork already done going into a meeting, my virtual collaborators can focus on the one or two key issues that are best resolved through real-time interaction. When we exit the live meeting a new asynchronous round begins.
3. Facilitated Discussions: Leading and listening
As I work virtually with the team on more structured tasks, I consider my role to be facilitator of distributed dialogue—it doesn’t matter if there are two people or fifty in the conversation. Listening is an integral part of being a consultant, whether face-to-face or virtual. However, as a virtual team leader you must promote active listening: prompting, rephrasing, and using open-ended questions to ensure understanding. In the same physical room you might use a flipchart to track ideas and sticky notes to organize consensus-building activities. Consider how you will hold ideas in the light for discussion with a distributed group. You have many options to draw or take notes on-line in view of your live collaborators.
4. Uniform Experience: Activities balanced for local and remote participants
It’s perhaps most difficult to strike a balance with hybrid meetings, when some participants are sharing the same room while you and other outposts are participating remotely. To encourage everyone to participate from their own desks, I set up the meeting process to require keyboard interaction that will keep them engaged with the group activities. If that’s not possible and some participants will be face-to-face, just be sure to facilitate for the people that are remote, emphasizing verbal descriptions and calling on people by name.
5. Breakout Sessions: Live small group work sandwiched by large group dialogue
In a virtual meeting with larger groups, I rely on audio breakout sessions to ensure that everyone is engaged. Some teleconferencing tools enable private subgroup conversations with hosting features to customize groupings, drop in on conversations, and time the session. Set the stage with the full group of remote attendees to gain a sense of common purpose. Then charge subsets of participants with either the same or different tasks as appropriate, and off to work they go. At the designated time reconvene the full group to share results. By posing problems for small groups to solve, you get everyone to interact, and the pairing up creates an environment for building trust amongst distributed participants.
I’ve compiled a list of many of the available tools that I’ve found helpful for virtual consulting and other forms of long-distance collaboration. The tools are grouped into categories by the goal you’re attempting to accomplish: co-authoring a shared document; anonymous text-based input collection; virtual team on-line community platform; scheduling across time zones; phone and web conferencing; virtual breakout sessions; and on-line whiteboard for live drawing. You can download this tool list from the supplemental content page for this blog.
Fulfilling the Consulting Promise
Virtual collaboration can bring success to widely dispersed groups who need to share ideas, knowledge, or project work, tapping into a global network of brainpower. My consulting portfolio now includes many communication techniques that help to engage and move virtual teams through a project. The way I influence change is to help the distributed team to reach agreement on actionable responses. Soon my clients come to accept that we really don’t have to be in the same room to work together, because facilitated virtual dialogue solidifies my effectiveness from afar. Hallelujah!
Questions for Readers
Gaining Rapport from Afar: It is the slow, giving process of relationship-building that may be the most elusive as you strive to work remotely. But it’s important, so you make the extra effort. When there’s an understanding of individual values and concerns you’re better able to address those drivers and reach consensus. Think about those times you’ve had to build trust and cooperation with co-workers who were in a different location. How did you get to know each other’s personalities?
Collaborating Effectively: With a distributed project you’re likely to have some people working in the same place, others in pods working as an off-site team, individuals operating from their telecommute home office, or any combination of these configurations. Is the collaborative experience the same in each of these settings?
(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)