The Rules of Digital Engagement
Issue № 252

The Rules of Digital Engagement

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.

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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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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.

Mitigate stress#section8

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#section9

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#section10

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#section11

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.

Dodging bullets#section12

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.

About the Author

Jonathan Follett

Before founding Hot Knife Design, Inc., a Boston Web development and UI firm, Jonathan Follett spent nearly a decade wrangling financial data as the lead designer for the Massachusetts pension regulatory agency. He writes a column on information design for UXmatters.

21 Reader Comments

  1. Where I work we communicate almost exclusively via chat, even though we have a shared workspace (it’s so we don’t have to take our headphones off), while with my own usually non-technical freelance clients I find that many of them end up breathing a sigh of relief when I finally get around to picking up the phone and calling them.

  2. I work daily with designers and developers across the US, and truth be told, I have a much easier time working on challenging projects when there *is* a geographic split.

    I’ve noticed a tendency of people to over-communicate (in a good way) through very concise bursts of information when there are a few states/timezones splitting up the team. When the entire group is under one roof there is a tendency to schedule excess status meetings, or make possibly false assumptions regarding who is working on which parts of a given task – e.g. _I saw the presentation deck up on Kevin’s screen, so he must be working on it._

    Since line of sight can’t be established, folks tend to send out more informal, more helpful status updates. It seems like the quantity of <3 minute iChat video conferences and the quality of SVN comments on file commits skyrocket when I am not sitting within earshot of the person I am working with. There is still certainly a time and a place for groups to huddle together in a room and slug through big projects, but through the glories of telepresence I don't think it is required quite as often as it once was. I think the requirement for a successful project is clear and open communication, not physical face-time.

  3. Maintaining contact between all team members is so important. In past projects I’ve seen team members go dark for days only to come out of their cave with either not much done or they took something in the wrong direction.

    Leverage the tools that are out there => “Campfire”:http://www.campfirenow.com , IRC, IM, or whatever.

  4. Where I work we have a combination of communication. Ichat, email, face to face, phone. It seems to me like the best is always face to face to get a point across, although raw information always works better in a text format for me. Probably because I can save it and come back to it later if needed.

  5. I don’t think that relationships in virtual team needs to be that tight (e-mails every day, VOIP all day). That sounds absolutely wrong. I work on client’s accounts every day communicating over Basecamp or Campfire approx. once a week. You don’t need to communicate that often when you keep it all logged. And as far as deliverables are met, it is OK to keep in touch once a week. It is very important to setup clear performance targets and stick to the deadlines.

  6. Depends on the project, but I don´t think that it is necessary to have contact every day. It is important to spend more time to unexperienced team members or with lower skills to meet the goal of the project.

  7. Hi All,
    Thanks for the comments so far. I find extremely interesting the varying opinions regarding staying in touch on virtual teams. While Matt talks about the possible pitfalls of team members “going dark” for a few days, Frantisek describes a situation where checking in once a week is acceptable. I think these variations are a perfect example of some of the issues I covered under the article section “Respecting Others’ Communication Styles”. And Frantisek also points out that different jobs and roles may require different levels of communication.

    I personally have had more experiences similar to Matt’s, and I tend to like to talk to team members pretty often. So, as project manager on a Web dev job, I’m likely to want to hear from people at least once a day, whether it’s via IM, e-mail, VOIP, conference call or whatever. Sometimes I multitask, holding an IM conversation while writing an e-mail or talking on Skype.

    At any rate, the whole virtual team method of working is still in its infancy, and it will be a long while before we’re able to figure out its best practices. But, it won’t be a dull ride.

  8. It is important that teams distributed along the long corridor are not virtual but real. Real people, real roles.
    I always find it good to have one or more audioconferences to establish the reality of other team members.
    Communications are then dictated by the roles. Leaders may need to contact some individual members regularly, collaborative authors may collaborate on a wiki with regular but asynchronous communication, others may prefer to work in isolation but regularly update the team leader.
    Nice article it highlights a problem we are all just feeling our way through.

  9. I find that the appropriate frequency of contact has a few variables. The first is the time line and phase of the project. Projects with a longer time line tend to need less contact, especially in the middle stages, after the initial flurry of organizing the project has died down. The contact frequency usually increases towards the end. Increased contact is often needed around project milestones, or phases that involve a lot of integration.

    The second variable is the nature of the work of the team members. This is often difficult to manage as team members who tend to need more contact such as graphic designers, sometimes have trouble relating to those writing long-form content, who seem to need much less. There is a real art to structuring communication channels so they provide useful feedback for those that need it, and space for those that don’t.

    Finally there is the communication style of the individual worker, and finding a balance between their personal comfort and that of their team members.

  10. I live and work in europe. I have spent many years working with people in the US, far-east and other parts of the world. One thing that has not been mentioned, but is critical to a team’s understanding is that people are NOT instantly available. If you’re in LA, but the time you start work on friday I have already “gone home” (metaphorically – i.e. I won’t communicate with you) for the weekend. On my monday morning I’ll pick up your “this is an emergency: I’ve got to have your input within the next hour” email or voicecomm. Similarly, if your colleague in Tel-Aviv needs to get in touch, well tough – you don’t share any common “office hours” so every communication will take a day to turn around.

    Having said that, the time differential can be leveraged. If I am working on a problem during the day, I can pass it on to someone in Calif. when I knock off. Likewise they can pass it on to someone in Islamabad after their 8 hours and I’ll get it back from pakistan when I come in. That’s 3 shifts, all following the sun.

    It takes a lot of flexibility and planning. You also have to take into account national holidays (I work on July 4 and thanksgiving, but don’t expect to hear for me on 8 other days – up to 16 if I was spanish)
    And don’t even get me started on cultural differences: siesta? Grrrrr.

  11. I agree that communication is key in any facet of life, work, home, where ever. The majority of the conflict I’ve seen has been due to a simple mis-communication. When you don’t have conversations you can disconnect from the individual and are less likely to be receptive to an idea (in my opinion).

    “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.”

    I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, when I’m working with a project manager and have a problem I don’t want to hear “I understand” or “I hear you”. I’d like to hear “What can we do about this?”.

    While venting can do a world of good, from what I’ve found, it only puts off the conflict for a little longer as it builds; which may be fine on a short project. I would especially have a problem if the project manager was placating the whole team with things like “I hear you”, really never taking a stand for anything. Maybe because I picture it being said in the midst of work with a head down, not really paying attention… that’s probably why.

    Good article though, I like the idea of having a meeting in the middle of a long project just to see how things are going and the postmortem one afterwards

    my2cents..well, maybe 3

  12. Thanks for the comments, Pete and Tim.

    Great point, Pete, about timezones and the benefits and difficulties of working on different continents. I think that, as virtual teams become more accepted as a way to do business, we’ll be seeing lots of people working this way. I imagine that the ins and outs of running a global virtual team could provide fodder for a complete article in itself. Thanks for your insights.

    Tim, when I was writing that recommendation about “simply saying ‘I hear you’ or ‘I understand'”, I was remembering a situation I encountered on a project where, as project manager, there was nothing I could do to fix it. Being a sympathetic ear to a team member who wanted to vent was really all I could offer. I wanted to show respect for the person, and let them know I would stand by them during a tense, and difficult situation with the client. So, I found myself saying those phrases quite a bit. Probably not the most elegant way to handle the problem, but it worked and we delivered the product. Sometimes there’s merit in just making it all the way through a project, especially with virtual teams.

  13. @Jonathan

    bq. Sometimes I multitask, holding an IM conversation while writing an e-mail or talking on Skype.

    You might be interested in this article, “E-mails hurt IQ more than pot”:http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/22/text.iq/index.html . The statement that shocked me was:

    bq. He found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points — the equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

    If you read the actual report you’ll find that the act of reading an email message while talking on the phone reduces your IQ. If you don’t read the email, you have a higher IQ.

    I schedule when I read email to two or three times a day. This allows me to concentrate on my work and get more done. I do use IM to contact co-workers when I need information from them, but often ignore IMs from co-workers until I have a break. I find that I can’t go a week without some contact, but I think that may be different for each person.

  14. The system has conditioned us to long wait times and music while we wait for telephone interaction. It seems as if we almost don’t know how to handle interpersonal interactions anymore especially on the telephone

  15. Enjoyed the article very much because I just started a photography company with two friends of mine who are photographers and I’m the web developer. So we decided to put our professions together to start up the company and after reading your article that a lot of what is said is things that we have implemented or that we will now start implementing. I love this type of work enviornment the virtual workspace.

  16. and designers are sometimes completely different people. They can be odd and difficult to work with, but you have to have an understanding of the tedious things they do in order to function well with them.

  17. I’ll thank you for writing the article! We got in business just a few weeks ago – a dozen of designers, web developer and marketing professionals as a team. Your aspects can be used in our daily work to organise the group and to meet with success. Every human has a different point of view and that’s the interesting thing to work with.

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