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COVID-19: Using digital platforms for team communication

Gregory Swanson

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April 19, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis forced companies to open remote management to many more workers. Daily active users of Zoom increased from 10 million to 200 million in three months. We have learned a lot about remote team communication over the years. Different platforms fit better for certain purposes. We have developed a reference to used to determine the right platform to fit the goal.


Some Learnings in Remote Team Communication


Have some empathy

Although employees will value working at home, they begin to feel isolated. Empathy is vital to keep them engaged and feeling connected to the company.

An empathetic leader knows that team communication is not a one-way street. Engagement and interaction are vital parts of online communication. Sharing a screen is not engagement. Death by PowerPoint is not empathetic. When it comes to remote team communication:

Engagement = participation = contribution = belonging

The meeting owner can only engage a handful of people during an online meeting. The more people in that meeting, the less interaction for each participant. It is not that people do not watch or listen, they do. For example, webinars serve their purpose. Recorded video is also an effective tool for communication. But how can you ensure audience engagement unless they are participating and contributing? They want to feel that they belong. Get them involved.

We recommend not thinking about technology first. Think about the outcome and your team first. Be empathetic.

Plan your communications

There are tendencies to try to communicate complex topics to many people at once. Although this can work (depending on your audience), the communication will often fall short of the goal. You can consider breaking the message down into smaller groups. This allows for more interaction with the audience.

Considering the emotional reaction of complex issues. Recognize that remote people likely feel left out of the loop. Topics that you may believe are common knowledge may be unknown. In cases where the communication is complex or emotional, consider a process of communication. Loading a lot in a single communication may have unwanted consequences.

Turn on the Cameras

Being visual does not mean sharing your screen. People working in home offices (especially now) have limited human exposure. If possible, use “camera-on” meetings. It does wonders for people who feel isolated. It also helps the team’s communication quality. Using cameras also provides the audience with the ability to read body language.

Determine the level and type of interaction needed

The wrong technology combined with too many people will suppress interaction. You can have a lot of interaction in a normal online meeting. But the more people, the less that everyone can interact. There are ways of boosting that, that we cover below. For each online meeting, rank the level of interaction that you need from the participants from 1 to 10. If you need to deliver a message (one way), the required interaction is low. If you need a lot of feedback, your interaction level is high.

Online meeting platform guide

Technology Platforms

The interaction level and the size of the audience helps determine the right platform.  We use a guideline to help determine the appropriate platform. We split the different technologies into two. The solid colors are platforms. The striped areas are either features or "boosters".

Email

Email is (still) useful when the message is one-way. Avoid long email conversations. For longer conversations, call a meeting or take it to another media. The acceptance of email for internal communication has dropped. The internal email has given in to chat boards and messengers for internal communication.

Video

Video provides both visual and emotional communication. But, video communication is still one-way. If used too often, it loses its charm. As a leader, your team needs to see you.

Some leaders prefer highly produced videos, while others will pull out their iPhone and start recording. This is a question of style. Both can be effective.

Remote staff wants to see and hear their leadership. Video is a great way of doing it.

Chat Boards

Chat groups are great for exchanging documents and files.

Chat rooms also provide a way to have a quick, informal conversation with small groups. But we have noticed that larger chat boards can lose effectiveness. Like in social media, there is a tendency for miscommunication in larger chat boards.

In some cases, poor communication in chat boards can lead to conflicts. Don’t let a conflict develop and linger over a chat board. Chat is a quick and easy way of sharing information. But it is not a replacement for a needed phone call.

Online meeting

An online meeting is more than a phone replacement or a PowerPoint platform.  

Some platforms have functions that can be useful for different tasks. Some have online event functions, like polling or host control. Breakout rooms are a useful feature to increase interaction.

Most managers do not take the time to review the features of their platform. We recommend that companies assess the feature and possibilities in the individual platform.

Online Event (or Webinar)

Online events target semi-one-way communication. But, they can also be engaging.

The most significant difference between an event and a meeting is the ability to control a larger audience. Some more features include; polling, hands raised, voting, moderation features, and more.

Consider using a moderator to manage the meeting.

Virtual Conferences

Virtual conferences are an effort to mimic a real conference or event. The user can move from one location to another and remains in full control of their interaction.

Without endorsing this or not, planning and executing this is a large project. An alternative to a virtual conference would be to break down the objectives is smaller bites and use the other technologies.

Communication Boosters

Boosters can help you to increase the audience engagement level with larger groups. Here are some ideas that we have experienced.

Booster: Get a Flip chart

The simplest booster to team communication is for the presenter to have a flip chart or a whiteboard. If you have room for it, using flip charts has the same advantages as in a live meeting. Flip charts are great for both live meetings and videos that you distribute.

Booster: Online Meeting breakout rooms

Breakout rooms enable you to increase both the audience size and interaction level. It is a standard feature on some platforms, like Zoom.

The audience can break up into smaller groups. They can discuss a certain topic in smaller numbers, then return to the larger group.

This feature is fantastic for classrooms. Managing breakout rooms involves a certain amount of orchestration skill. The usage of the function can be difficult at first.

Booster: Online collaboration tools

You can achieve a high degree of engagement with various collaboration tools.

I am amazed at being able to put on an ideation brainstorming workshop over Miro. MS Teams has a similar function, though not as easy.  There are collaboration tools for all types of different functions. Teams can collaborate and brainstorm with applications like Trello, Asana, Basecamp, and Monday.

There are many others. Combining these tools with online meetings can drive high engagement with complex topics. The key is that you have several people looking at and working on the same topic. Everyone has the same amount of information. The topic anchors everyone together. It can be as engaging as a live workshop.

Collaboration tools can give a big boost to online engagement.

Booster: Interviews

Interviewing a few people before an event does a lot to provide insight before a large event. But through good use of interviewing, participants will feel involved. The topic is not unilateral, top-down, and ignoring the troops on the front.

Interviewing participants adds credibility while it informs you about how to communicate. Listening to the troops is a great leadership skill. Beyond that, it can engage your audience more to know that you have spoken to someone on the front-line.

Booster: Surveys

Like interviews, surveys help you democratize the meeting. Generally, remote people want to feel involved with the initiative at hand. If they think that they have had a voice in the meeting, they will feel more involved with the meeting. Usage of surveys can be potent, but do not overdo it. Too many surveys cause each survey to mean less.

We wish you health and send our best wishes for you to succeed in this challenging time.    


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