As we all know, good communication is the crux of a virtual team’s success—so it can be helpful to have a few short and sweet rules to keep yourself on track.

By building this foundation, your team will have some basics and structure worked out from the start, necessitating only that you clarify more context-specific issues as they arise. Setting this foundation improves productivity and may ease tensions down the line. To get you started, here are some edicts to live by.

1. More Than Three Emails = Phone Call

This rule forces you to evaluate your communications. It also forces you to evaluate your relationships, because while email is sweet and convenient, taking the time to actually check in with your coworkers instead of just firing off words at them is sweeter. If your meaning can’t be conveyed in three emails—it’s on you to use a different avenue of communication to connect with your coworkers.

2. Define a Default Time Zone

If you have a virtual team strewn across time zones, eliminate the guesswork of “Which ten o’clock?”. Set the time zone where the majority of the team is located as a default for everything.

3. Set Appropriate Hours for Video Chats

Set appropriate guidelines for each mode of communication. If it’s before or after a certain hour in someone’s time zone, video chat should be optional, even if the rest of the team is video chatting. Your retainer hasn’t been seen in public in over ten years, and it should remain that way.

4. Define Best Uses for Each Mode of Communication

If you’re finding that your emails are taking up multiple paragraphs, you probably should be calling your recipients. Inversely, if your email looks more like a haiku poem, maybe instant messaging should be your friend. Use common sense when choosing how to contact a coworker.

5. Over-Communication is Expected

You hear this a lot, I know. But it cannot be emphasized enough. (In fact it probably can be, but for the sake of remaining consistent with the point, I am going to over-communicate the significance of over-communicating with your coworkers.)

Everyone has busy lives. Just as you don’t have time to keep track of your coworker’s schedule, neither do they to keep track of yours. So communicate too much. Assume they will forget because they will. They’re human.

Over-communication also keeps everyone on the same page, ensuring that no one is misunderstanding something. (We’ve all had that experience when we leave a meeting feeling super awesome and then return the next week to realize that Dana thought you were just asking rhetorical questions about the project’s mission.)

Don’t be Dana. Ask questions. Risk being too communicative.

6. Ask, Don’t Assume

Make it a habit to catch mistakes and miscommunications before they happen. We’ve all done the thing where we don’t totally understand something, but figure we can figure it out later. Then when later comes, it’s way too late and foolish to go back and ask for clarification.

Be proactive. Be on your front foot. Act as if every instruction you are given requires you to do it now. Do you know enough to go off on your own and do this project right now? If not, you need to figure out what you don’t know.

7. Use Formatting to Make Emails Digestible and Readable

When emailing a large group of people, you really want to use people’s’ names. This isn’t in a “new-age-let-everyone-feel-seen” kind of way, but more of a “come-on-let’s-not-have-anyone-drop-the-ball-here” kind of way.

When assigning tasks or just confirming some part of a project with a particular member of the team; use their name, and offset action items from the rest of your email. You could even put names in bold for clear emphasis!

Here’s an example of how to structure emails for ideal clarity of action steps:

Hi Team!

This portion of my email will hopefully be read by all the recipients, but some may choose to skim if they are busy or reading from a mobile device. If I put important action items here, they may be missed by the intended recipients. Instead, I’ll set my action items apart and use the name of the specific individual responsible, like this:

  • Maxine, could you send me the report on that?

Do you notice how your eye easily catches that bold, offset text? Even if Maxine reads this email from her smartphone while making spaghetti and checking her ten year old’s math homework, she’s sure to catch exactly the portion of the email that applies to her.

-Virtual Victoria

8. Shoot for One Hour Response Time During Business Hours

We all have lives and they’re busy and interesting and important; that’s why we’re working on remote teams. It isn’t always possible or prudent to be on call for your team 24/7. However, it is prudent to establish trust and to be available within a reasonable time should an issue arise.

This doesn’t mean having your phone or tablet glued to you, but keep it within hearing or seeing distance, when possible. Your team wants to feel like they can depend on you. We all hate the experience of sending an email and not hearing back for hours or days. Don’t leave your coworkers hanging. Let them know they can lean on you.

After all, that’s part of what makes a virtual team so great. You’re connected to all of these interesting people in disparate places, working towards a common goal. What could be better? In fact, knowing that you all have an agreement in place to respond promptly, help each other out, be proactive, and communicate efficiently could be better. So, set some guidelines from the start. Your team will be grateful for it!

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