We talk together to collaborate (or co-labor) and we use language when we write, email, tweet, and hang out in social spaces. Our words build relationships and connect us so we can accomplish things, from nailing down project details or creating strategies to designing systems or resolving complex challenges.
We meet together to make sure everyone is aligned and committed to the work and, in organizational life, it is always about the work. And, it is our relationships that accomplish the work. When we meet face-to-face, we have visual and auditory clues that help us understand each other. We attune to each other as we notice body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, energy, and hand gestures.
When we’re geographically distributed, we lose all of those clues and we have to work against our habits of thought if we want to include people who are not physically present. Whether we are in the same room, across the state, or across the globe, there are some basic guidelines that enhance effective collaboration. These guidelines work for virtual relationships, but I have added three tips for enhancing virtual relationships below.
Basic Guidelines for Collaboration
- Create an agenda that has enough space in it for people to be invited to participate. Rushing through a packed agenda can be a waste of time. Share reports and information outside the meeting, and when together use the time wisely to deal with tough issues to build alignment and commitment
- Invite multiple perspectives. Whatever decisions or plans we make will be more comprehensive when we include divergent opinions. Seeing issues from different vantage points helps us understand it more fully.
- Listen carefully. Pay attention to what is said, reducing as best we can our inner chatter so we really hear. Mindful awareness to what is being said helps the message be clear and understood.
- Clarify anything that is not clear. Don't assume you or anyone else understands and check out the meaning of things. Misunderstanding is as common as understanding. Check for understanding and clarify to create agreement.
- Gain collective commitment to crucial decisions and important agreements. This builds on the previous step. When agreements and decisions are reached, make sure there is a collaborative understanding and commitment to action.
- Include silence so that people who are far away or shy have an opportunity to speak. Without their voices we miss important input, data, information, perspective. Silence creates space and thinking time, enabling good ideas to float to the surface. Silence helps us sense into what is emerging.
- Make explicit working agreements that are understood. Agreements about how to deal with conflict and how to follow up if a deadline is missed are very helpful for effective teamwork. Meeting agendas, facilitation roles, project management guidelines and team protocols need to be known, understood, and practiced.
To reach across virtual space, we have to overcome the gap that occurs from not seeing each other. We can't sense others’ emotions through facial expressions or the energy of their body language. We can’t intuitively grasp what people are thinking and feeling. We must deepen our listening so we grasp the nuances and meaning of what is being said by how we talk together.
The Good News
We have a desire to connect and befriend that helps humans work collaboratively. This desire to befriend helps us commit to inclusion. Our language, skill, and creativity help us connect and understand each other.
Our assumptions and biases limit our effectiveness when we are working across distance and difference, so we have to know them and not allow our limited habits of thought to derail collaborative efforts. Easier said than done. Giving every voice an opportunity to speak plus mindful listening are needed steps that reduce the negative bias that is a natural human tendency.
When we work virtually, we need to commit to collaborative practices and work to overcome the gaps that arise from not seeing each other's expressions and sensing each other's emotions.
The 3 Step Recipe for Virtual Collaboration
- Have everyone check-in at the beginning of the meeting. Ask a big question that invites a thoughtful entry. “What do you want out of this meeting? or “What do you want to contribute?” are useful starting points.
- Open the space up for people who are not in the room to answer. Just ask, “Anyone on the phone want to add something? How do those of you who are not in the room see this?”
- Leave some silence so that people who are less assertive can say something, especially wait until someone on the phone says something. Don’t rush to fill in every pause in the conversation. Let people think and take in information and give them room to respond.
Cross Cultural Issues
Sheri Mackey talks about virtual meetings in a recent post on her blog. Her understanding of cultural issues is quite interesting and relevant. When we include diversity of thought, heritage, culture, and orientation, we create better ideas and solutions.
Different cultures express things differently and expressions mean different things to different people. Jokes are one of the hardest things to pull off in diverse groups. Yet, when we are self-effacing, everyone understands our humility and the humor that we invite at our own expense seems to be one way to cut across cultural differences.
Creating Cultures of Collaboration
Working with people around the world is a wonderful opportunity to create new ideas and bring them to life. Multiple perspectives are crucial for success in the unpredictable world we live in. No one can see the whole system anymore. When we draw upon the best thinking of our colleagues around the building, down the street, across the state, nation, or world, we have a better chance of succeeding. It's just a different skill set that's needed, one that is constantly evolving.
Learning to create cultures of collaboration that include virtual team members takes everyone's commitment and some effort, but it is well worth the effort when we attain our visions and achieve our aims by working together, hearts and minds synchronized and pulling together. When we work in this way, our differences actually fuel our successes and deepen our collaboration.