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Virtual Communications

| February 13, 2005

by Jim Bruce

One of the things that is becoming more important to all of us is

“virtual communication,” whether one-on-one or with teams.  Some of

us are old hands at this, others are still learning.  I’ve copied

below three recent columns on the subject from Point Lookout, a free

weekly email newsletter produced by Chaco Canyon Consulting.  I’ve

found the columns to be direct, usually insightful, and often quite

helpful. (Back issues of the newsletter can be found at


If you find these columns to be helpful, you may want to subscribe.







                  Virtual Communications: Part I


     Participating in or managing a virtual team presents

     special communications challenges. Here are some

     guidelines for communicating with members of virtual


Katrina picked up the pencil and punched Ed’s number. The circuit

completed and she could hear the line ring. It rang again. She

started tapping the pencil on her desk. The line rang again. ‘Still

not there,’ she thought, tapping the pencil. ‘Where _is_ he?’

Then Ed’s voice came on the line, but it was his outgoing message.

Katrina thought for a moment, and hung up. “Damn,” she said out

loud, to nobody.

Frustrated as she might be, Katrina has just done something smart.

Rather than leave Ed yet another message, she decided to just

hang up, saving both Ed aVirtual teams depend on effective telephone and email

components. Here’s Part I of some guidelines for virtual team


Have regular check-ins

     If you lead or manage the team, check in with each team member

     regularly. Depending on the nature of the work, you might

     check in daily, or two or three times a week — less often

     than that risks disconnection.

Make appointments

     Making appointments minimizes phone tag, which is expensive in

     terms of stress, frustration and time spent. When you want to

     talk with someone, make an appointment, possibly by email or

     by text message.

Keep your appointments

     Running a little late when someone is waiting outside your

     office does hurt, but not nearly as much as running late for a

     phone conversation. When you’re late for a phone appointment,

     the caller often has less idea what’s happening or when you’ll

     be available.

If you’re running late, take time out in advance — if you can

     — to advise your next appointment that you’re late.

     Rescheduling is best.

Agree on message response times

     Adopt a standard of reasonableness for the elapsed time to

     respond to email or phone messages. A rough rule of thumb:

     respond in about half the time you thought was reasonable

     outside of the remote management context.

Use meta-responses

     If you can’t return a message promptly, send a message saying

     so. If you can explain why, all the better, but at least let

     your partner know that you’re aware of the delay, and estimate

     when you can respond.

Define a three-level priority scale for messages

     Green messages (good news or bad) are non-urgent, yellow is

     possibly urgent, and red messages are urgent. Use this scale

     for email and voicemail, taking care never to inflate a

     priority just to get attention.

Agree that non-response is a performance issue

     Agree that failure to respond to (or at least to acknowledge)

     a message within a “reasonable” time could be a serious

     performance issue. Clearly define the kinds of circumstances

     that could excuse the failure to respond.





                  Virtual Communications: Part II


     Participating in or managing a virtual team presents

     special communications challenges. Here’s Part II of

     some guidelines for communicating with members of

     virtual teams.

Ed picked Katrina’s number from his cell phone menu, slid his coat

just a bit off his right shoulder, stuck the phone between his

shoulder and his ear, froze for a moment with his right arm halfway

out of his coat sleeve, and listened. “Good,” he said aloud to

himself, “Ringing. Maybe she’s in.”

He listened to the ringing as he slid his right arm out of his

coat, then his left. He threw the coat on the hard hotel bed and

sat down on the desk chair. As he began untying his left shoe,

Katrina’s voice came on the line.

It was her outgoing message. She gave her name and said, “Press

star to skip this message.” Ed pressed star, thinking, ‘Thank you,

Katrina.’ He’d heard her message thousands of times, but he could

never remember how to skip her message.

When Katrina recorded her outgoing message, she gave a gift to all

of her colleagues by telling them how to skip her message. For

repeat callers like Ed, it saves a few seconds every time. It adds

up, and it can be a wonderful thing when he’s rushed, or at the end

of a long day. Little niceties like that can make the difference

between a high-performance team and one that struggles to survive.


Here’s Part II of my guidelines for communications within virtual teams.

Use Call Waiting only with Caller ID

     Interrupting a call just to find out who else is calling is a

     destructive practice. Get a service called “Caller ID with

     Name on Call Waiting,” which lets you see who’s calling

     without interrupting the current call. Even with this service,

     interrupt a call only for emergencies or when the second

     caller calls a second time.

Think “inbox” when leaving voicemail

     For voicemail, follow the format we use for email: first give

     your name, your full phone number, the topic, and the

     priority, and then give the body of the message. It’s a

     courtesy to the listener.

Speak slowly in voicemail

     Speak clearly. If you’re calling from a noisy environment,

     such as an airport, try to find a quiet place to make your

     call. Slow down even more when you say your phone number or

     email address.

Don’t make up voicemail messages on the fly

     Be realistic — you’ll probably have to leave a message when

     you call. Be prepared to do so.

Leave only simple voicemail messages

     Complex voicemail messages are hard to follow. The recipient

     almost always has to write them down. If possible, send

     complex messages by email. Thirty seconds is the practical

     maximum, especially if the recipient gets lots of voicemail.

Say goodbye only once

     It’s amazing how many people say multiple goodbyes. One will

     do the job.

How many voicemail messages will your team send this year? Think

about how much time you can save, and how much confusion you can

avoid, if your team follows these guidelines. Just don’t try to

explain them in voicemail.





                 Virtual Communications: Part III

Participating in or managing a virtual team presents

     special communications challenges. Here’s Part III

     of some guidelines for communicating with members of

     virtual teams.


Here’s Part III of my guidelines for communications in virtual


Don’t give the time or date in voicemail

     Most systems already provide the day, date and time for

     messages. Why duplicate it? And if you’re in a different day

     and time yourself, you could just confuse the recipient.

Give your phone number twice

     For voicemail messages, supply your phone number not only near

     the beginning, but also at the end.

If using a desk or wall phone, press the button to hang up

     Replacing the handset to hang up creates a clattering sound

     that can be irritating in voicemail.

Eating, drinking and chewing gum are no-nos on the phone

     Whether live or in voicemail, avoid these activities. Even

     when you’re muted, you never know when you’ll need to speak.

Sit up straight or stand when you’re on the phone

     Slouching or lying down interferes with full use of your lungs

     and diaphragm. You need the full power and nuance of your


Learn how to use your voicemail system

     Learn how to skip, skip-with-erase, move to mailbox,

     reply-immediate, pause, repeat, transfer to email, forward,

     forward with preface, forward to list, sort by priority, and

     whatever else your system offers.

Learn the remote commands too

     If you call into your office system to pick up messages, learn

     the most useful commands. And carry them on a wallet card.

Customize your outgoing message

     If you know you’ll be returning at a specific time, record an

     outgoing message that tells callers when to call back. This

     can really cut down on your voicemail.

Consider calling someone’s voicemail directly

     Often, you don’t really need to speak to the recipient live.

     If a voicemail will do, call voicemail directly.

Suspend interpretation of silences

     If someone doesn’t respond to a message — email or voice —

     check whether the message was received. Going ballistic is

     usually a bad idea, especially when based on a

     misinterpretation of silence.

Always confirm — don’t rely on silence

     Never leave a message of the form “I’ll let you know if X

     condition is satisfied, otherwise execute Y.” Always confirm

     either way, because messages don’t always arrive.

Slow down your “offense” response

     In person, we use body language, facial expression, and tone

     of voice to adjust our communications and our interpretations,

     and this keeps us out of trouble. By email and phone, where

     these adjustments are problematic or impossible, we’re more

     likely to offend and feel offended. Slow down and ask for

     elaboration. Breathe more.

Most important, express appreciations verbally, publicly and often.

In person, we smile, we nod, we backslap, and any number of other

things that express approval non-verbally. Remotely, these gestures

are unavailable to us, so when we want to encourage each other, or

express approval, we have to say things verbally that seem

unnatural, artificial or forced. It takes practice. Get started