For contract web workers, consultants, and freelancers who work with far-flung collaborators, multiple clients, and constantly shifting teams, the rules of digital engagement—the way we interact with each other and resolve conflict in virtual space—are constantly changing. As we adapt to new ways of collaborating, we must also learn how to communicate effectively, set expectations, and build team confidence in an evolving work environment.
In a previous A List Apart, I wrote about the long hallway: the connections, methods, and culture that enable virtual work and virtual companies. The long hallway represents that space between collaborators in a virtual environment, located down the street or across the globe. However, once you commit to working down the long hallway, the question becomes, how do you successfully navigate this new and changing territory?
The challenges of working virtually
When it comes to work style and culture, virtual teams—especially groups of contractors—are inherently less formal and more flexible than traditional office-based organizations. We are, as William Gibson puts it in his novel Pattern Recognition, “post-geographic”—operating beyond physical boundaries. But when workers no longer collaborate within a particular physical space, they must adopt a disciplined devotion to process. In digital space, the physical artifacts of day-to-day business we share are gone—what remains are discussions and deliverables. The way we hold discussions and create deliverables becomes increasingly important.
Driving off a virtual cliff
Effective communication relies not just on the information conveyed, but also the information comprehended. Despite a decade of email and electronic collaboration, we don’t fully understand its effect on what we comprehend and how others comprehend us.
Managing conflict in virtual space
When I travel outside the United States, especially in countries where I do not know the language well, the information flow between myself and others can be poor and communication requires extra effort. There are a host of reasons why, including cultural differences, translation problems, and misplaced assumptions. To communicate in these circumstances, you need a profound lack of embarrassment (especially when trying out new words), a little ingenuity and, of course, a lot of patience and understanding. I try to apply these core techniques when communicating in virtual space.
Good communication technique might not completely eliminate the low-level conflict that can dominate some virtual projects, but it can help minimize the pain. Here, then, are some strategies for dealing with conflict on virtual teams.
Respect others’ communication styles
Communication style—the communication methods people use and prefer, how often they check in, how much they tell you, and how willing they are to communicate—can greatly affect project workflow. Whether you’re the project manager or a team member, it’s important to understand and adapt to the communication style of those working with you.
For instance, some web workers prefer to be constantly in touch via instant messaging or Skype. Project teams may designate a VOIP conference room as an open meeting space and leave their headsets on all day. Others may prefer to communicate during specified meeting times only, and view a constant flow of updates and questions as intrusive. It’s helpful if the project manager can bridge the gap between these types. While differences in communication styles won’t necessarily sink a project, it can cause unnecessary conflict and make the working environment tense. For instance, if someone expects an immediate response to a question, which doesn’t arrive until the next team meeting, they won’t be happy. Conversely, badgering an unresponsive colleague with messages and requests for additional meetings without considering their need for space can be equally troublesome.
Maintain real-world decorum
The virtual world often provides a shield that allows people to write things online that they would never say to someone in person. It’s difficult to stare someone in the face while you tell them you think their idea is rotten—and that’s good. In the real world, such discomfort over hurting someone’s feelings makes people think of gentler ways to express dissatisfaction with the work, and to suggest improvements, all of which leads to less conflict and better cohesion. But in the virtual world, people will often type things that are more bold—and rude—than they would ever say in real life. So it’s important that all team members work hard to maintain face-to-face standards of politeness and strive to frame criticism in as positive a manner as possible.
On longer projects, debrief regularly
You can’t make adjustments if you don’t learn from your mistakes. Simply taking notes about difficult situations can spark new solutions or reveal hidden problems. Many design teams hold a post-mortem project meeting to analyze how the work process unfolded. However, in a virtual space, you may need to adapt to changing situations mid-project.
Negative is a four-letter word
The morale of a virtual team can play a huge role in the success or failure of a project. As virtual work provides flexibility and freedom, it can also be isolating and even somewhat depressing, especially if you enjoy interacting with others regularly. This is another reason why conflict in the virtual space can be difficult to manage. If a team member already feels isolated or hasn’t really adjusted to the realities of the virtual work experience, this can spill over into the project.
In virtual space, there are also fewer ways to vent frustrations. So, once a project goes bad, it can be a lot easier to dwell on negative emotions. The benefits of keeping communication positive—encouraging people, celebrating milestones, and just saying “thank you”—can make a huge difference over the course of a project.
Above all, as the project manager, it’s vital to regularly evaluate the stress level of your team members. In virtual space, it’s too easy for hard-driving types to work all the time, never taking much needed breaks. Since there is no official office space to help dictate the time boundaries of work, that choice remains in the hands of the individual. So if you rely heavily on a developer who doesn’t know when to stop coding, encourage him to take a day off. Mitigating stress and anticipating burnout on your team is crucial to surviving a project.
Stay in touch
And, of course, everyone should stay in contact on a regular basis—weekends (hopefully) excluded. Never let anyone on the team disappear or lose touch for longer than a day. A project can quickly unravel unless team members touch base with some frequency.
Self-defense for the web worker
Ultimately, on web projects, no matter how much you anticipate, you’ll end up having tough conversations and tense moments. Some creative debate can mean that team members are fully engaged and passionate about a job. However, if conflicts are ongoing and never resolved, the tension can sap enthusiasm for a project and make meeting deadlines difficult. Not agreeing with how the project is proceeding is OK. Not being able to live with it is not.
Sometimes no reaction is the best reaction
It can be hard to separate critical words from the messenger, or to set those words aside once they’ve been said, especially if they’re related to your work or contributions. But, this is part of the challenge of keeping a virtual project on track. Both clients and team members will want to blow off steam, and they’ll need to bend your ear. Simply saying “I hear you” or “I understand” can work wonders, even if that’s all you offer, in the end, to solve the problem.
Direct confrontation with a team member or client, especially on the phone or over e-mail, can lead to a horrible conclusion. It may feel strange to dodge a direct inquiry, but sometimes it’s necessary. “Let me get back to you on that” is perhaps the greatest piece of verbal self-defense. Just as in martial arts, if you’re not there when a punch lands, you can’t be hurt by it. Deliberately inserting a pause into a tense conversation gives people the opportunity to cool off. And—while it might seem trite—sleeping on a problem can reveal possible solutions.
Flexibility and adaptability are the keys to the virtual work process and managing our digital engagements. Considering the project from perspectives other than your own and realizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts goes a long way toward achieving harmony in cyberspace. But in the end, virtual work and the methods you’ve developed to manage it are still new and without precedent. We are all still hard-wired for a world in which we work face-to-face with people, and the virtual workspace is still in its experimental stages. We must not forget this as we shape our communication strategies.