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Better Ways for Virtual Teams to Communicate




Photography: cajie

It all used to be so easy. If you were a team leader and you wanted one of your team members to do something on your project – change the icons on the interface, for example, or completely rewrite the code so that it works – all you’d have to do is tap them on the shoulder in their cubicle or hunt them down in the photocopy room and tell them what you needed. The whole conversation would last about five minutes. You’d have to suffer the behind-your-back eye-roll at the end of it but you could be sure you got the message across and that they’d be getting on with the work. Just as soon as they’d finished reading The Onion or chatting up the secretary.

These days, when team members can be scattered from Kentucky to Kazakhstan, it’s not so easy. If you want your team member to change the design of the home page so that it looks like a news site rather than a MySpace page, you have to describe exactly what sort of layout you need. You have to put it all into an email, send it off and wait until they read it.

And if you don’t explain it clearly enough – or if you use the sort of vocabulary not easily understood by a native of Almaty – you’ll have to wait another day or two to receive their questions. The whole process can drag on for days, adding a whole new meaning to “virtual working.”

See You on VOIP

There are ways around the problem, and most of them involve skipping the email and adopting a more direct approach. Merav Knafo, for example, co-founder LookBetterOnline and founder of iJoomla, two companies whose staff are based in Russia, Romania, India and California, opts for Skype, preferring voice communications to written instructions. She even finds that the distance makes these sorts of meetings briefer than they might have been in real life. And less fattening too.

“Usually these are very short conversations and very straight to the point,” she told us. “While in corporations meetings can take hours, in the virtual world it’s only a few minutes. And no need to bring donuts.”

Skype is certainly faster than email, and privacy issues aside, it’s going to be a lot cheaper (especially when you don’t have to pay for a box of sugary buns) than dialing direct. But it still means passing on messages and requests verbally, a system than can leave room for misunderstanding, especially when at least one of the team members isn’t a native speaker of the language being used. Merav’s first language is Hebrew which means that both she and her programmer are using a foreign language, so gets around the problem by using detailed diagrams decorated with big red arrows to indicate exactly what she wants.

“The communication is very good,” she says.

Clearly though, all of this requires a greater investment of time and effort than simply bringing up a Web page on a monitor, pointing at the navigation bar and saying, “That’s horrible. Make it prettier please.”

What’s the Time in Astana?

It also means paying attention to the timing. One of the disadvantages of virtual working is that each member might be operating in a different time zone. And one of the advantages of virtual working is that each team member can also set their own schedule. The result is that you can never quite know when a team member is working, when they’re working for you and when they’re off picking up their kid from pre-school, training for a triathlon or out on a date with the secretary at their last company.  Merav makes her Skype calls at a set time rather than when a problem arises. For her that usually means first thing in the morning, but that’s also the end of her programmers’ workday so she has to wait until the next day before she sees the results.

Presumably, it also makes it harder to be spontaneous but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Ask any cubicle worker what they find the most annoying about working in an office and after considering the commute, office politics, paper jams in the photocopier and the limited salary, they’re likely to say the team leader poking his head around the cubicle wall every five minutes with a bunch of new instructions that contradict the last set of instructions.

When a team member is easily available, he’s also easy to bother, a tendency that doesn’t lend itself to maximum efficiency. And besides, when you’re constantly tapping him on the shoulder and pulling up Web pages, how is he supposed to get The Onion read?


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