Phone conversations with prospective clients include long pauses when they find out I’ll be working pretty much from home. There’s some awkward emailing of contracts and statement-of-work revisions. Somewhere along the way to agreement, there’s an introductory long-distance conversation with key stakeholders. Usually, I must prove my stuff in this one virtual meeting. That’s just to get to the point where we start working together at a distance.
I’m making some small headway, and I’m encouraged when Karl Wiegers tells me he’s operated remotely for years. When I moved here a few years ago, my location forced a transition completely away from traditional on-site consulting. Since then, my work as a virtual business analyst and facilitator has had its ups and downs. There’s a certain expectation in my field that workshops will be facilitated from the front of a roomful of people. Maybe in your consulting work, you encounter the same resistance about performing your activities off-site and away from the clients.
I’ve adapted my face-to-face consulting approach and now specialize in virtual collaboration. Whether you work remotely or you’re partnered on-site with a distributed team, these practices could improve your virtual collaboration efforts.
Facing the Challenges
You face a special blend of risks when you’re working off-site. The challenges have to do with assumptions about the critical nature of face time for the consulting partnership.
Relationship building. Working at a distance prohibits coffee breaks together or meeting up socially after work, so how will you build those important alliances?
Communication strategy. As an outpost worker, you must make sure you don’t fall off the grid, out of sight and out of touch. How will you ensure you’re in the loop? How will you share information without deluging each other’s inbox?
Common understanding. One of your greatest attributes as a consultant is sensing the client’s reactions and being able to read between the lines. Without the benefit of body language and other visual cues, how will you ensure clarity on all sides?
Team engagement. With your team members in multiple locations, what steps will you take to ensure there is a rich, continuous, and conversational collaboration on the work that matters the most to success?
Five Strategies for Mastering Remote Engagement
The virtual collaboration message I give my customers is one of large-group innovation and cost savings. To forge my way in this professional space, I’ve had to transform the way I interact with clients and project teams. Following are five strategies I use to address the challenges of virtual collaboration.
Open communication channels: adding a personal touch
I found that some amazing bonds originate with actions as small as initiating a one-on-one call or a video chat. Arrange time with each of your co-workers just to get to know them better. You’ll be rewarded with fresh insights and with someone new in your corner, a tremendous asset for the virtual worker.
Once you’ve connected personally, finding the right tactics to stay in touch is important to the health of your working relationships. Respect schedules and communication preferences, while being responsive to changing needs. When dealing with global communications, give additional consideration to differences in technology access, culture, and time zones.
My consulting engagements are now guided by a virtual communications strategy that my distributed team derives collectively. It frames how we will conduct our key project interactions: exchange of critical information, reporting of autonomous activities, and timely notification of changes. For instance, I like to share my work-in-progress regularly. With the inherent lag time of asynchronous communications, I allow more time for a review cycle and seek feedback earlier than I did when working on-site. I prefer a pull rather than a push model for my stakeholders to stay informed, posting information updates to an online workspace rather than emailing status updates.
Asynchronous thinking: individual inputs and agreements over time
I tend to use live meetings as the hub of all collaborative activity. The groundwork of “inputs” is well established before the synchronous (live) part of the collaboration. Time together should not be wasted on sharing information that could have been done in advance. Asynchronous methods—Wikis, discussion threads, surveys, and the like—work well for collecting feedback and comments. With 95 percent of the groundwork already done before the meeting, my virtual collaborators can focus on the one or two key issues that are best resolved through real-time interaction. When we exit the live meeting, a new asynchronous round begins.
Facilitated discussions: leading and listening
As I work virtually with the team on more structured tasks, I consider my role to be a facilitator of distributed dialogue. It doesn’t matter if there are two people or fifty in the conversation. Listening is an integral part of being a consultant, whether face-to-face or virtual. However, as a virtual team leader you must promote active listening: prompting, rephrasing and using open-ended questions to ensure understanding.
When you are all working in the same physical room, you might use flip charts to record ideas and sticky notes to organize consensus-building activities. Consider how you will hold ideas in the light for discussion with a distributed group. You have many options to draw or take notes online, so your live collaborators all can see.
Uniform experience: activities balanced for local and remote participants
It’s perhaps most difficult to strike a balance with hybrid meetings when some participants are in the same room while you and people in other outposts are participating remotely. To encourage everyone to participate from their desks, I set up the meeting process to require keyboard interactions that will keep them engaged with the group activities. If that’s not possible and some participants will be face-to-face, just be sure to facilitate for the people who are remote, emphasizing verbal descriptions and calling on people by name.
Breakout sessions: live small-group work sandwiched by large-group dialogue
In a virtual meeting with larger groups, I rely on audio breakout sessions to ensure that everyone is engaged. Some teleconferencing tools enable private subgroup conversations with hosting features to customize groupings, drop in on conversations, and time the session. Set the stage for the full group of remote attendees to gain a sense of common purpose. Then charge subsets of participants with either the same or different tasks, as appropriate, and off to work they go.
At the designated time reconvene the full group to share their results. Posing problems for small groups to solve encourages everyone to interact, and regrouping the small teams creates an environment for building trust among distributed participants.
I have compiled a downloadable list at http://www.processimpact.com/blog/blog_supplement.html#collab_tools of of many of the available tools that I’ve found helpful for virtual consulting and other forms of long-distance collaboration. The tools are grouped into categories by the goal you’re attempting to accomplish:
- Co-authoring a shared document
- Anonymous text-based input collection
- Virtual team online community platform
- Scheduling across time zones
- Phone and web conferencing
- Virtual breakout sessions
- Online whiteboard for live drawing
Tools and vendors come and go regularly, so use this list as a starting point to find the right tool for you. With the help of tools like these, you and your clients might be surprised at how effective remote consulting can be.