Are you collaborating virtually more often these days? How are you finding it? Are you able to have just as interesting, innovative, in-depth discussions as if you were in person? Are you getting the job done but lacking the quality dynamic of face-to-face? Or maybe you’re finding it downright awful. Whether you’ve had it with withering webinars, equivocal emails, or tedious Teams calls, it’s worth trying some of these techniques to make your virtual collaboration more effective, more efficient, and more enjoyable.
Characteristics of Communications
Before we can talk about the techniques that will facilitate better collaboration, you need to consider a couple of essential dimensions on which communications differ. The key to revitalizing your virtual collaboration is knowing what type of communication your particular effort requires.
Rich Versus Lean Communication
One dimension on which communications vary is how much context and nuance they convey. Information richness is “the ability of information to change understanding within a time interval.” This ability to change one’s understanding comes from the capacity of the communication medium to transfer cues that help you interpret meaning. For example, rich communication gives you access to gestures, pitch and tone, facial expressions, and body language that help you interpret the person’s words.
Face-to-face interactions provide many contextual cues to help you interpret the meaning of a message, whereas a text message contains few. (One reason that emojis have become popular is that they add emotional tenor otherwise missing from text-only communications.)
When to Use Rich Versus Lean Media
Although it might seem like having richer communications is always preferable, they are often more time-consuming and costly than leaner forms, and therefore you should use them sparingly.
Invest the time and energy in rich communications if:
- Your message is novel, complex, or equivocal (and might be misunderstood)
- There is more uncertainty and greater ambiguity
- The parties to the communication don’t share context, language, or jargon
- Conflict is likely
Suppose you’re dealing with a simple message where the protocols and terms are well-established, and the path forward is relatively certain. In that case, that’s the place to economize by using lean communication methods.
Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Communication
A second dimension on which communications vary is the timescale of the interaction. Synchronous communication is when the sender and receiver interact with each other simultaneously, whether that is through written text, images, audio, or video. Asynchronous communication is when there is a lag between when the message is sent and when it’s received.
A phone call is a synchronous interaction, whereas a voicemail is asynchronous, as are emails, Slack or Teams threads, and intranet boards.
Advantages of Synchronous
- Creates a sense of urgency
- Promotes interaction and idea-sharing
- Allows immediate response and feedback
- Creates accountability in the moment
- Increases social presence
Disadvantages of Synchronous
- Interrupts focus and flow on other tasks
- Reduces time for reflection
- Imposes a uniform commitment of time
- Often lacks documentation
- Challenging with time differences
Advantages of Asynchronous
- Allows anytime, anywhere access
- Facilitates the creation of threads
- Documents that collaboration process
- Provides time for reflection
- Reduces social anxiety and increases participation and diversity of ideas
Disadvantages of Asynchronous
- Slows progress on immediate priorities
- Leaves room for misinterpretations to fester
- Creates an overwhelming volume of information
- Becomes impersonal and isolating
- Reduces the sense of accountability to contribute
When to Use Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Approaches
Depending on where in the world your teammates are, it might be easier or harder to coordinate synchronous communication. (I’ve been doing a project with a client in Sydney, and it’s a serious challenge to find times that work with Toronto.)
Invest in synchronous communications when:
- The content requires immediate attention
- You want to promote personal connection and rapport
- The topic is sensitive and would benefit from everyone hearing it together
On the other hand, if the task doesn’t require immediate action and would benefit from more reflection or research time, stick with asynchronous methods.
Picking the Right Collaboration Technology
If you combine the two dimensions, you can create a 2×2 of collaboration approaches. (Click to download.) Each of the four categories has its purpose and its advantages. Within each category, there’s a range of technologies you can use to maximize the benefits and limit the downsides of the category.
I’ve noticed that many teams I work with have settled into a pattern where they’re using predominantly two collaboration approaches—Zoom calls (or Webex, or Teams) and emails (or Slack, or Teams). In addition, they default to either Rich/Synchronous or Lean/Asynchronous approaches. I hope you’ll consider using a comprehensive range of options to suit your task better.
Take these three examples.
Onboarding—A Case for Screen Capture Video
Imagine you’ve hired a new team member in Cleveland, and you’re trying to bring them up to speed on all the software you use to do business. For example, you might schedule a Zoom call and walk them through how to add a new client to Salesforce.com. That would be easy, you could share your screen, and they could watch you and ask questions. The only problem is that we know there’s a lot at stake for the new employee, and because they want to appear competent and make efficient use of your time, they might not be forthcoming if they don’t feel confident. And now imagine when they try to enter a new client independently and can’t remember exactly what you did—ugh.
What if you switched to an asynchronous method instead of using a synchronous method? You could do a screen recording with a voice-over that would give them the warmth and welcome of your voice (and the chance for casual comments like, “I know it makes ZERO sense that we call it that, but we do!”). The difference is that now they have the recording, and they can watch it five times without feeling sheepish. They can go back to it over and over. And better yet, when the next recruit joins, you’ve already got the recording.
Training is a perfect situation for using this relatively rich asynchronous approach.
Connecting—A Case for a Phone Call
What if you want to check in on a colleague who’s been quiet on your virtual meetings recently? It seems intuitive that if you’re trying to show that you care and you value the person, you should do a video call so they can see your face and feel the connection. Interestingly, research by Michael Kraus of Yale University suggests that empathy is stronger (and more accurate) when you forego the video and instead opt for a phone call. There’s something magic in how we attune to someone when we hear only their voice. Plus, you benefit from reducing the stress of intense eye contact that comes with face-to-face interactions. I’ve long advocated for situations where you sit or walk in parallel to reduce the intensity of an exchange. Now we have the virtual team equivalent.
If you think there might be strong emotions involved, friction, or guilt, skip the Zoom pick up the phone.
Co-creating—A Case for Audio and Screen Sharing
When your virtual team needs to co-create something, you might tend to jump on a video call and start brainstorming. Maybe one person takes control of the screen and documents what you’re coming up with. (This is how I facilitate virtually.) It seems like a decent approach, right?!? Maybe not. It takes considerable brainpower to process all the visual cues you’re getting from monitoring your teammate’s faces. You’re trying to figure out how your boss is feeling, whether your colleague is bought in, and what just annoyed Bruce, all based on tiny digital renderings of their faces. It’s not great for keeping your attention focused on contributing. Research by Tomprou et al. suggests that the team’s collective intelligence is higher when you turn off the cameras and instead use audio and screen sharing. It seems to be better synchronization with one another, that’s to thank for the enhanced effectiveness.
If your goal is to be task-focused, productive, or innovative, try turning the cameras off and allowing everyone to focus on the shared screen and the emerging output.
If your virtual collaboration could use a little revamping and revitalization, share the map with your team and discuss how you might shift some of your interactions to a different format better suited to what you’re trying to accomplish. Let me know what you think. Is there a new mode of virtual collaboration you’re going to try?
Kraus, M. W.. (2017). Voice-only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy. American Psychologist, 72 (7), 644-654.
Tomprou, Maria & Kim, Young Ji & Chikersal, Prerna & Woolley, Anita & Dabbish, Laura. (2021). Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. PLOS ONE. 16. e0247655. 10.1371/journal.pone.0247655.
Hill, N. S., & Bartol, K. M. (2018). Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams: New research reveals simple strategies that boost performance. MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall Issue.