Most advice about how to have difficult conversations in virtual teams starts too late in the process: at the point when we’re obliged to have the conversation because disagreement, or even conflict, has surfaced.
Avoiding conflict altogether is also not the answer. Disagreements and some types of conflict are often beneficial to a team. They bring different points of view into the decision-making process, remind us that we are accountable to each other, and often they are a sign that people care about the work.
But conflict is intrinsically uncomfortable. We’ve all experienced those occasions where we can’t wait for a meeting to be over because someone else is driving us crazy, when we’re going round and round in circles without finding common ground, and when silence makes us uncomfortable. We know these things will happen in any group relationship, so it makes sense to be prepared. And being prepared means working hard at building strong relationships with our teammates long before we get to that point. All the time. Not just when things become difficult.
It all starts with regular communication
And I really wish I could give you some other, groundbreaking advice.
Too often, and especially in hybrid teams (where some team members work together in the office, while others are remote), communication with remote employees only takes place when we need something specific from them or when something goes wrong. We only get in touch with them when we need something. We see interacting with our colleagues as having a cost in some way, as requiring more effort than with someone sat in the same room,so we tend to get in touch with them more sparingly and less casually.
Even at a team level, unless we have a culture of meeting regularly and “working out loud” online, our conversations will be very task-focused. This is great to get the work done efficiently, but it doesn’t help us to build our relationships. It doesn’t help us learn about what motivates, inspires or annoys our colleagues either, which are all things that ultimately facilitate the work.
Online meetings which focus only on “getting through the agenda” miss out on providing the space for people to express their values, their fears and aspirations. Focusing too rigidly on “getting straight to the point” can mean we miss out on an opportunity to find out a little bit more about each other - not necessarily through insights like what you had for lunch or dinner (although some people find that to be an important point of connection), but through making space for laughter to emerge, for us to express our doubts and our struggles, and to share those moments we are proud of in a space where we feel psychologically safe to do so.
Building an environment where spontaneous interactions can take place also goes a long way towards building strong relationships. In the online space we shouldn’t be wary of having a ten minute chat with someone about very little in particular, just the same as you might hang around in a corridor talking to someone for a few minutes to catch up. In the same way, we should feel comfortable letting people know when an interruption is unwelcome.
The road to open conversations
The core idea behind Kim Scott’s book ‘Radical Candor’ is that we are better able to challenge our team members when they already know that we care deeply about them.
In order to build that kind of relationship, we need to work at it: By regularly checking in with each other; by having conversations about our values; by sharing our work (and other things about ourselves); and showing interest in the work and lives of others.
The personal touch
As my blog posts and Fickle Friday episodes are often triggered by a personal experience, I’ll now share what triggered this article.
I have been working with an organisation for almost a year now. My engagement started with a coaching requirement for the project manager, and before I knew it, I was pulled into the virtual team in charge of piloting a new way of working in the company.
I now work very closely with the project manager and we understand each other incredibly well. She has been working and growing her personal capacity in the online space and knows the importance of checking in with people regularly, moving from text-based to voice communication when conversations get tricky, and creating the space for team members to get to know each other as people, not just colleagues.
We share similar values, we share the vision for the project and company, and we’ve spent many hours talking about the world of work and in particular about the concept of virtual teamwork.
We are now at the point in the project where everything is changing. We are trying out many, many different things in the pilot and on top of that, we’re working in an organisation where things keep changing with very little warning. We’re right in the middle of an almost chaotic change process.
In our conversation yesterday, the project manager and myself simply didn’t understand each other. I was having trouble pinpointing how we should adapt our strategy, and she couldn’t see a reason to change our plans.
At one point she said, “I’m getting really frustrated with you.”
As difficult as it was to hear, I welcomed it as a very important piece of information. Prior to that, we’d gone through long silences in our conversation, long monologues, clicking away at files trying to make a point… so for someone to articulate what was going on emotionally for us was very useful.
She named how we were both feeling, and that meant we could adjust our conversation accordingly.
But she was only able to be candid because she knew her words would land well. Because in the past, we’d both had many conversations and moments when we’d disagreed, then reflected on what was going on, came back to each other, understood each other and moved forward.
Without all those earlier moments when we’d laughed about things that frustrated us in general, when we’ve complained about other people that were driving us mad, when we’d celebrated our small achievements, when we’d shared reflections that although not about our personal lives were actually quite personal, we wouldn’t have been able to have had that candid conversation. We’ve learned together, from experience, that a good working relationship will always bring with it difficult moments.
Over to You
It’s worth being prepared for those times when our happy, remote team is hit by difficult situations. It’s way too easy to deal with an emotional situation by switching off our computers, so in the remote space, we have to work twice as hard.
Think through the types of conversations you have with your team members. Are there plenty of opportunities to show them you care? To take an interest in their work, even when you’re not following up their progress or need anything from them?
As a team, how often do you and your team members check in with each other, even if you don’t have a work-related question or need to give each other feedback?
This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.