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Communicating Effectively in Virtual Teams: Part 4 of 4

emailIn this final part of my series on communications in virtual teams, I will discuss the most important medium to evolve so far during the computer revolution: e-mail.  Pretty much everyone has an e-mail address these days, and many of us have several.  E-mail is the primary information channel in corporations across the globe.  It allows us to send everything from short text messages to  detailed project proposals with product specifications to anyone, anywhere on the planet, at any time. It is a non-real-time mode of communication as messages are queued up in one’s inbox for reading when convenient.

As it has matured, IM has become more e-mail-like, with distribution lists, message logs, and file transfer capabilities.  At the same time, e-mail has become more IM-like with pop-up notices as soon as messages arrive. But, e-mail still prevails as the medium of choice for lengthy, detailed information exchange.  For virtual teams, e-mail is critical as the members of these teams can reside in widely separated time zones and thus have few overlapping work hours for phone meetings.

E-mail is also probably the most misused medium of communications.  Since virtual teams rely so much on e-mail, it is vital that everyone connected with the virtual team use it properly.  Here are a few guidelines to help improve the effectiveness of e-mail in virtual teams:

  • Keep messages as short and concise as possible.  With everyone dealing with hundreds of messages per day, we cannot afford to waste anyone’s time with superfluous material.  Take the time to edit down your message to just the barest of essentials.  State what you need, by when, and include only the supporting information that is critical.  People are much more likely to read and reply quickly to your request if they only have a sentence or two to read.  If they open your message and see chapter one of your next novel, they will put it down and move to another message, forgetting to get back to you until your next reminder.
  • Only send your messages to people who really need to receive them.  Keep your CC list as short as possible and never use BCC unless you are sending a newsletter to a large distribution list.
  • Use action words to begin your subject heading to let people know what you expect them to do with your message.  Examples include, “ACTION NEEDED:”, “URGENT, ACTION REQ’D:”, ” REPLY BY {date}:”, etc.
  • Include links directly to documents to which you refer, not to the root of the folder where the document is located, nor worse still, saving yourself time with the ever-popular, “The document is on the share.”  Most people won’t take the time to look for it, or may retrieve the wrong one, wasting their time and yours.  It is best, if possible, to simply include the document in question as an attachment.
  • If you’re only referencing a document and don’t need extensive editing by the recipient(s), then copy-paste the appropriate parts of the document in question directly into the body of your message.  This takes less storage on the e-mail system and speeds things up considerably for the recipient.
  • Do not, and I emphasize DO NOT, create an e-mail where the message body contains, “Please read the attachment” when the attachment is a short, text-only message. This is a pet peeve of mine!  It is a terrible waste of time to have to double-click on an attachment and wait for Word to load just to read a paragraph of text that could have easily been in the message body itself in place of the “see attachment” phrase. Keep in mind that every second you save the reader is multiplied by the number of recipients. Also, it is a terrible waste of e-mail storage space as a Word document will bloat an otherwise tiny message by 10 to 100 times.  I have seen many a 50KB message drop to 5KB or less in size by simply coying the text of the Word document into the message body and deleting the attachment.
  • Reply to message thread with comments in front or embedded, leaving all previous comments intact.  This makes it easy for people to only keep the most recent copy of a discussion thread.
  • Don’t use e-mail for communications that could better be handled some other way.  For example, a phone call is a far better way to handle sensitive issues, and IM is much better for short, real-time questions.  Also, consider a phone call if you have a lot to say and you don’t need to document it.
  • Never say anything in e-mail you wouldn’t mind everyone in the department reading.  Be professional and keep your negative comments about someone to yourself.
  • Don’t use stationery.  It makes the text hard to read and it wastes e-mail storage space.
  • Keep your signature block for internal company communications simple.  Forego those fancy HTML blocks with embedded pictures as they distract from the message and, again, waste valuable storage space.
  • Don’t get stuck in an e-mail war when a phone call could clear up a disagreement or misunderstanding. The subtleties of intention are lost in the flat inflection of an e-mail message. In fact, in the absence of your personal voice inflections behind your carefully crafted e-mail, the reader is forced to substitute his/her own idea of your intentions, and quite often gets it wrong.

If you have any comments or questions about any of the material in this series, please do not hesitate to comment on the blog entries here or write to me directly at loyal@commutezero.com.


Loyal has more than 25 years of engineering and management experience in high-tech R&D, manufacturing, and information technology. He has worked as a design engineer, project manager, section manager and manufacturing engineering manager and has led teams that included virtual and telecommuting contributors from all over the world. He is an expert in the use of collaborative technologies for virtual teams and has led advanced technology research teams chartered with improving the effectiveness of virtual workers. He is currently building a virtual work support site at http://commutezero.com/. Feel free to visit and contribute to the effort.

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About the Author

Loyal has more than 28 years of project engineering and management experience in R&D, manufacturing, and information technology. He has worked in the high-tech industry as a design engineer, R&D section manager and manufacturing engineering manager, and has led teams that included virtual and telecommuting contributors from all over the world. He is an expert in the use of collaborative technologies for virtual teams and has led advanced technology development efforts to improve the effectiveness of virtual workers. He is founder of calendarism.com and leads a blog site for virtual teams and collaboration tools at commutezero.com. He has a degree in Electronics and Computer Science and lives in California's Silicon Valley. Loyal can be contacted at loyal@commutezero.com
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One Response to “Communicating Effectively in Virtual Teams: Part 4 of 4”

  1. I agree that email is an area where everyone could do better. I especially liked the part about email wars. It reminded me of a post I wrote about communication styles among different age groups.

    I have a rule that if it’s more than 2 replies and still needs clarification, it’s time to walk over or pick up the phone. This is regardless of whether the issue is heated or not.

    Josh Nankivel
    pmStudent.com
    The Art of Project Management

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