Virtual best practices are different, but the end goal to deliver results is the same. In a virtual team, the focus is on how to interact with the team, the process of communication itself. Being virtual removes the physical proximity, which in turn takes away everyday unconscious interactions, behaviors, and habits. Studies show that understanding can be improved by 55% or more when face to face. Many teams use video meeting tools to allow their communication to be more effective during meetings.

How team members interact on a collocated team is often considered a given, and it’s assumed that competent team members will be able to communicate effectively. While they can be used for face-to-face teams, two best practices that are even more critical for virtual teams to improve understanding are a communication plan and team operating agreements.  

These tools detail how the team will interact. The team operating agreements explicitly contains norms that establish acceptable behaviors for working virtually. One example might be to agree in advance to mute when not talking.

The communication plan establishes the process of communication. It outlines who will say what to whom and how frequently. It clarifies the intention of the communication and where it comes from. It also indicates which media is to be used under differing circumstances. A good communication plan can be reused for many teams and adapted as needed.

Communication planning templates exist in abundance and are part of the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Book of Knowledge. The team operating agreements can be stand-alone or developed as an extension of the communication plan. 

A good team operating agreement is a living document. It includes statements on how the team has agreed to work together every day; it includes how the team will resolve conflicts, how individuals will report the status of their work, how work will be assigned. It may also include timelines, how the team will deal with upcoming holidays or vacations, how and where team members will show up for meetings.

Operating agreements allow virtual team members to take off the virtual blindfolded and interact with each other more effectively. They create channels for communicating, not just when an issue arises or informal team meetings, but during the regular working process. One way to keep the operating agreements as a living document and to make it real is to review the agreements and ask for any adjustments at the start of formal meetings. Questions that can be asked are: 

  • What agreements are working well, and why?
  • Which agreements are not working?
  • Do we need some new agreements, or to adjust some existing ones?

The communication plan and team operating agreements increase understanding and improve how the team interacts. In-person teams create working cultures organically as the members spend time together, which creates norms and shared understandings about how to solve challenges. For virtual teams, communication plans and team operating agreements create a shortcut to a virtual culture that supports results and takes the emotion and guesswork out of solving disagreements between team members. To work, they must become living documents that are understood, realistic, used, updated, and shared by all team members.     

Practical Tip: A spreadsheet keep in a place the whole team can access is the simplest form of a communication plan. It should contain: Meeting Name/Purpose, Who, Date/Time/Frequency, Where (phone, skype, zoom), Expected Results, Notes. The team should also have contact and roles list.

This was excerpted from the article, Virtual Teams Best Practices