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Virtual communication

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By Kim Jong-nam

Since January, my employees and I have been working from home. In the beginning, it was difficult to collaborate because we were no longer sharing the same physical context. Maintaining ease with and trust in each other is challenging in such cases, and so we needed to think about how to approach our virtual communication.

Here are the most common points cited by my colleagues, who are spread out over five locations in Seoul, when asked how best to manage virtual workplace relationships. The task of understanding other people without the visual cues we normally have requires us to be prepared for and deliberate in our relationship-building.

Unexpectedly, what my colleagues and I agreed on was that the most important thing in virtual communication was a sense of mutual emotional understanding. The physical distance makes it difficult to grasp what other people think and/or gauge how they feel; the camera, which is supposed to make up for this shortcomings, is no replacement for in-person communication.

Thus, explicitly asking how others have been doing and/or what they think about the topic is more necessary than before. Mutual emotional understanding is the foundation of communication in any form. Thus, taking time to understand what kind of mood each person is in or what burden they may be carrying (be it personal or professional) is crucial to success. If the entrance to a tunnel is closed, it will be impossible to reach its end. To mitigate the effects of physical distance, people need to narrow emotional distance.

Furthermore, explicit sharing of the goal each person expects to accomplish during the virtual communication session is essential to setting the tone, manner and required level of responsiveness of the communication. Communicating your goals helps you attain your desired outcome from the communication because you can accurately assess others' level of interest.

Also, listening to what other people want to gain from a virtual communication is always beneficial to me in understanding what is expected of me or how I can contribute. Virtual communication requires more active participation than normal. In addition, this purpose-sharing helps participants to look at the whole context of the work, a perspective that is invisible when people are not in the same location. How to make the invisible work visible is one of the reasons why virtual communication is valuable regardless of its limitations.

The negative side of virtual communication is that without mutually agreed-upon protocols, misunderstandings and miscommunications about goals, deliverables, deadlines and appropriate virtual etiquette can happen. Explicitly setting behavioral norms is therefore just as important as staying attuned to the emotions of others. This is because norms can help regain the shared sense of purpose that typically helps employees sail toward a common destination.

Think of setting clear norms as handing employees a sailing map. Good norms must include guidelines that help co-work processes run smoothly and effectively. Mutual emotional understanding is necessary to reboot a team, and behavioral norms help regroup the team when necessary.

It is also vital that virtual communication has clear points and payoffs. When people are not co-located, they are prone to digress from the main topic. In order to prevent this roadblock from appearing in the course of a virtual communication, people need to "pulse check" to see whether the main points have been understood and whether there is a buy-in. If the virtual communication is successful, a shared context has been created.

One of the best ways of ensuring that this shared context is being built is to check whether people understand the points you're making a number of times during the communication. It is also helpful to remind others of the purpose and payoff of the communication. Emphasizing why these conversation topics are important will help people stay engaged and encourage them to be focused.

When working virtually, it is inefficient to try to communicate before a sense of teamwork is recreated or rebuilt. Managing people is already difficult, and virtual communication management is even more so; however, there are some commonalities, as, after all, they both have to do with human behavior. The main difference is that everything about virtual communication must be much more explicit in order for it to be successful. We must show what is invisible.


Jong-nam Kim is the founding CEO of META (www.imeta.co.kr) and a global organizational development consultant who works both virtually and in person.




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