A little background on how this particular set came together. Readers (or as I now think of you, thanks to Julie Powell, bleaders) know that Jeff Stamps and I have been collecting best practices in Virtual Teams since "we wrote the book." Earlier in this decade, we did structured research on such best practices with Ann Majchrzak and Arvind Malhotra that resulted in our collectively publishing "Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?" in Harvard Business Review. And throughout the whole period, we've been collecting anecdoctal information from our client work and refining it into simple can-dos that are intuitively obvious and that can make an immediate difference.
So that's how we came up with this list, which I invite you, dear bleaders, to enhance, argue with, and suchnot. These items bear explanation, which follows after the list.
And, at the bottom of this post, please enjoy how Assurant, an insurance company, decided to burn these points into its staff. Instead of handing out another mug or T-shirt following a presentation we did on virtual teams, the company gave everyone a mousepad with the best practices for conference calls on it. Their thinking was that at least if people were multitasking on conference calls, they'd be passing their mouse(s) over all the "rules" about how they should be behaving.
And...why did I title this post the way I did? Surefire way to know if someone isn't paying attention on a call: When asked to comment, they have no idea what they're commenting on, thus, they say, "[see title]."
- No agenda, no meeting.
- Avoid status reporting
- Use screen sharing
- Rotate facilitator, note taker, timekeeper, "break" buddies
- Keep notes, display them, distribute immediately
- Check-in: go around face clock
- Get voices in room with "ice breaker" question
- Say your name each time you speak
- Generate heat: Discuss, disagree, decide
- Check-out around clock
1. No agenda, no meeting. Does this require much explanation? You can have a free-form conference call, of course, but then be very clear that that's what you're doing. Agendas, with clear timing, turn a ho-hum into a productive session.
2. Avoid status reporting? Because in the digital age, there are much better ways to pass along basic information than drone-ishly going over lists. Post the status, have people read before the meeting, then use the "precious real time" to discuss the truly problematic areas.
3. Use screen sharing because when people have something visual to focus on, they pay more attention.
4. Rotate roles so that everyone learns how to lead conference calls. Don't expect one person to do everything, thus splitting up the responsibilities. And, when most people are in one location but a few are remote, those distant souls feel very left out during breaks. Call them during breaks. Take them along when you go to get your coffee. Gossip, I mean, discuss highly imporant mission-critical things with them. If you take a group lunch break, then take them along to that too, passing the phone around so they get to talk to several people.
5. Keep notes. Being explicit is mandatory for virtual teams. There's no reason not to use the technology during the call to review what's decided, then send the notes out immediately. It's truly passe to take time to type up the flip charts. So 20th century, pals.
6. Check in. Face clock? I better post that right here. One of the graphics that is useful for keeping people aware of one another has each person's face at a particular hour on the clock. (Thanks, Tom Kunz, for inventing this idea and for allowing us to continue to use this graphic.)
7. Get voices in the room. Ice breakers are SOP for all teams. Start a call with something that requires everyone to say something. Nothing sophisticated - "What did you have for dinner?" does the trick. Use your imagination but remember to be culturally aware. Not everyone wants to say what they did over the weekend but food is relatively noncontroversial and, shall we say, universal.
8. Say your name each time you speak ("Jessica at 4 o'clock") helps everyone identify voices, especially when there are people with differing first languages. It's really not much of a burden and you can stop it when everyone agrees that they know one another's voices well enough. BUT if a new person joins the team, reset this practice as a matter of courtesy.
9. Generate heat: Discuss, disagree, decide. Real time is very rare for virtual teams. It's the time to do the tough stuff. How many controversies have you resolved in email? 'Nuf said?
10. Check out around the clock. When you leave a meeting, you generally say goodbye, yes? Often people don't observe this common courtesy on conference calls. You can use a check-out question here too, like, "Did this meeting serve its purpose?" Keep it simple then over and out.