Category Archives: Virtual Teams: Work Better Together & Apart

Tools and tips for virtual team leaders and members.

The Inevitable Clarification of Written Communication

You know the phrase, “The best laid plans….”? No matter how slowly and carefully we communicate in the flat medium of the written word, misunderstanding and confusion is inevitable. Rather than being frustrated, angry, responding, EXPECT it. For example, as an instructor, I follow instructional design principles and I do my best to communicate clearly.  However last time I taught this course, 40% of my students posed the same two questions. I strive to write simply and clearly, so I was a bit deflated because I had obviously missed my mark. I thought I had been abundantly clear.

Then I chuckled, remembering that I am human, and reminded myself that taking a few minutes to clean up a confusing message is simply part of the ‘job’ of online facilitation.  Period. The course’s virtual office made it easy to communicate, both questions were easily cleared up (and hopefully won’t recur this term) and the entire class was notified of the clarification in case others were also confused.

Done. Handled. Students served. Professor made changes to course documents for future classes.

It’s harder to “read between the lines” when we don’t have voice tone or body language to help.

Processed with VSCO with 4 preset
Processed with VSCO with 4 preset

The written medium is flat. Misunderstood writing isn’t a shortcoming unless we don’t take the time to be clear in the first place, or if we won’t take responsibility for answering questions and clarifying meaning to the reader.

Virtual team communication, especially when written, is no different than an online class.

Verification of understanding and clarification of specific detail is, quite simply, normal. You might want to encourage conversation that verifies this shared understanding.

Here are 5 proactive ways to clear confusion:

  • Take as much time as needed to be sure your writing is as clear as possible before publishing or sending your written communication.
  • Use the collaboration tools to confirm communications were received, read, responded to, or any other feedback loops you need. In other words, ensure the communication has been completed and understood. Don’t assume.
  • EXPECT questions. As I said, instead of thinking the receiver of your message is dumb or didn’t read carefully, instead of judging yourself as a poor communicator, just expect some back and forth until everyone understands the intended message.
  • EXPECT newer relationships and teams to be more iterative until you get to know one another and settle into team rhythms.
  • Add protocols and efficiency aids as they are needed. (For example, in my teaching, we have consistent, predictable due dates and engagement expectations throughout the week. I teach across global time zones, so we are asynchronous and much of the course learning happens in discussion that requires regular participation.)

If you commit to this kind of clear written communication and openness, as well as get into the habit of asking and expecting clarifying questions, you will save time and frustration for yourself and all your team relationships.

~ Trina Hoefling, Transformation Change Agent, co-founders of The SMART Workplace

The Power of True Collaboration – SMART Workplace Reflections

When shared power of intention, high trust and 3 competent colleagues come together… this is what can happen. Charlie Grantham helps you peek behind our team curtain to see how a new, busy virtual team really works – our co-founder team at The Smart Workplace.
Read his observations in the full post.

Collaboration is a Team Sport
Collaboration is a Team Sport

News Flash… Oprah Needs People. So Do You.

Oprah Oprah Winfrey has long believed in community; now she’s leading a global community. She always knew that being connected makes life easier, placing high value and trust in her friends like Gayle King. They and others built Oprah’s business empire together. Now Oprah’s sharing a secret she’s found recently that helps her to more easily maintain weight loss.

She’s not doing it alone. Weight Watchers helped, but her family and friends helped more.

Friends and family aligned with her – not just in support, but in every day practice. Steadman, has supported Oprah through years of very public weight gain and loss. Recently, though, he has also joined Weight Watchers International. He is counting points, too.

Oprah noticed the difference for her when he engaged fully with the program.

“Attagirls” certainly helped but counting points together made it easy. Oprah shared in a recent interview that their shared experience reminded her of what she always knew.

A committed group can do more together than a determined individual can do alone. Oprah believes this so strongly that she has partnered with Weight Watchers to launch a new campaign. Members lose weight with friends and family. In fact, Oprah recently joined the audioconference of an Oklahoma women’s Weight Watchers group. I imagine they were motivated that day!

Says Jim Chambers, President and CEO, Weight Watchers International, “Through our conversations, it became clear that there is tremendous alignment between Oprah’s intention and our mission. We believe that her remarkable ability to connect and inspire people to realize their full potential is uniquely complementary to our powerful community, extraordinary coaches and proven approach.”

Like Oprah, I’ve always believed we can do more together than any of us can alone. I know it’s true for me. Because of my busy life and where I live, I reach out virtually for support. For example, I failed for years to remove certain food groups from my diet. In December, 2014, I begged a dear friend to be my virtual partner in a total detox. From 100 miles away (with a couple road trips to cook together and a Dropbox shared recipe folder), we did it! I lost 20 pounds in three weeks, and 18 months later I’ve maintained permanent change.

I literally could not do it alone, even though I was actually alone 98% of the time.
Professional careers are the same. If we’re virtual team members, even more so. Doing work together makes a difference, even if we do it in different places. I enjoy working with a team and I need to work alone…. I’ve been self-employed and working mostly out of a home office for well over 30 years. My business partners, when I have them, are always virtual. Clients are, by nature and planning, temporary.

I may seem to contradict myself when I say I enjoy teamwork with that work environment history. However…

I establish swift trust and maintain strong relationships with a network of trusted clients, colleagues and friends. I’ve done this for decades. (Can I just express my gratitude for how much easier technology makes this today?) As a SOHO (Small Office Home Office) business owner, I’ve depended on my professional friends in ways full-time employees often find in their employer organization and professional association.

I’m not just an extrovert who needs people socially. I need my peeps to help me see my blind spots, find quality resources, join me on teams when our competencies work well together for a client… And I need to be there for them, too. I enjoy being a connector and resource myself. Mutual relationships make me more complete and fulfilled – personally and professionally.

My network has many kinds of people in it – it grows and adjusts with me. I have a highly trusted support system of advisors, former students, team mates, bosses and clients, peers and fellow learners. I have a known pool of talent when I build project teams, and access to trusted recruiting firms when needed. Most important, my friends believe in me when I forget why I should believe in myself.

So too, teams are more powerful when members know, respect, trust and support one another. They remember they are part of a network that depends on each other. A successful team makes and keeps commitments. Team members tell the truth. They support one another’s goals personally. They have opinions about each other (we’re human). They hold one another accountable, while assuming positive intent. People are honest when they need to adjust a team commitment. Everyone cooperates and adjusts as team requirements allow.

Authentic team respect shows in team results, assuming everyone is competent. These teams become small communities of production in a network of teams.

What makes Oprah and the Weight Watcher partnership work is the same fuel that makes high performance teams work – they are aligned around a shared purpose and common goals. Everyone has to do their own work, and they commit to do it with each other. Motivation is built-in. So is support and accountability. Results show.
social network
Of course support groups and learning teams have been around for a while. LinkedIn Groups are an example of virtual professional communities that most of us include as part of our professional network outreach. Face-to-face community support is also available. I used to peer-lead a monthly management consultant case consultation group. My partners, a few colleagues and I created a forum when we were doing profoundly strategic work in organizations. We wanted qualified input to raise the quality of service we could provide. As a fairly young professional, I wanted trustworthy advice to make sure I did no harm to my clients. Even when I was sure how to proceed, I sought their expertise in case I missed something. I quickly learned peer advice is a very powerful process and fast track to mastery. Vistage and The Alternative Board are business models based on peer advice. It works.

Few of us find all the expert support we need on our team or in our organizations. Begin to thoughtfully develop and expand your trusted peer support team, if you haven’t already.

Maybe you’re wondering how…
To start, be a committed team member yourself. As you traverse career, teams, jobs and organizations, commit to the task and the team members. Expand relationships with people you want to become part of your long-term network.

Here are 3 tips that will help you find colleagues who could become members of your professional support team:

1. Find interests that motivate both of you. To do this, you have to know yourself. Know what work you’re good, enjoy, want to learn. Know what kinds of people you work best with, who pushes you to your personal best, even while they don’t always agree with you. Notice what kinds of organization mission or project purpose inspire you. If you’re already on a team, do you enjoy the work itself? Confirm alignment with your teammates about team task, communication, workflow and relationship. Learn about your teammates, even if it’s just about the kids.
Once you know yourself and what motivates you, reach out and find people who motivate and inspire you.

2. Be real. Engage people authentically. Stay in touch and take time to continuously get to know each other. Learn about differences between you; they are always there. Difference brings variety to life and adds perspective to conversations. Explore shared interests that brought you together in the first place. At work, partner with teammates based on strength and passion when you can. Teaming to strength and passion is a powerful way to up team production – everyone gets to be their ‘real’ best.

3. Support each other. Be trustworthy. Follow through on commitments. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Anticipate when a teammate needs you. Offer before being asked. Bob Burg teaches how to be Go-Givers. Simply put, seek first to help others. Be generous. Don’t be a Go-Getter. Go-getters build networks to leverage people’s networks. They don’t care to really know people or have authentic relationships. Go-Givers don’t expect people to help them first. How do you treat your network? Are you a Go-Giver or a Go-Getter?

Three simple relationship commitments will help you be a better team member, leader and influencer. Go find or reconnect with aligned folks. Feel the power of your global network.

Ready to Monkey Around Making A SMART Workplace?


It’s the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Monkey. This seems the perfect time to launch The Smart Workplace blog because, according to the ancient Chinese zodiac, 2016 is destined to be a year infused with exuberance, unconventional problem-solving, and increased communication. This blog is all about that! I’m exuberant about the 2nd edition of Working Virtually, in final edits before publication this fall, exuberant and delighted to share what I learned while writing it. I found some surprises and exciting, unconventional ways teams work today. I’m continuing many conversations and want to invite you into the conversation. So… I’m starting a blog on The SMART Workplace!

What is The SMART Workplace (TSW)?

  • TSW is an organization that is driven by its mission and vision
  • TSW builds flexible, mobile and dynamic teams – and supports them
  • TSW develops leaders, not task managers
  • TSW is agile and knows when to adopt new ways of working
  • TSW understands technology and builds systems for collaborative communication around a network of teams.

Being SMART saves companies money. The General Service Administration (GSA) has gotten really workplace smart in how they manage office space. They tackled a cost-saving challenge with smart, unconventional problem-solving that saved the Feds – and U.S. taxpayers – millions of dollars, just in real estate savings.

Not to mention how being SMART collaboratively transformed the way they work.

How easily could you go from 6 leases to 1 office space, saving almost 50% in real estate – without crowding anyone?

The U.S. Government’s GSA did, and they did it without forcing anyone to work where they didn’t want or couldn’t work productively. This gorgeous and functional office building is the result of a highly collaborative process involving everyone who would be impacted by the building’s transformation. The building is Smart, state of the art, spacious and beautiful. Watch the quick video to see for yourself! It is technically fully integrated. Collaborative technology is everywhere with team members participating digitally and around a conference table. Workspaces reflect the way people really work.

Does your organization ensure its people have access to work spaces that meet the needs of the task at hand, with collaborative tools and resources?

A Smart workplace facilitates effective communication. Work gets done through people communicating and cooperating, no matter how networked, distributed, and flexible we become. In all my years working with people from the shop floor to the executive board room, everyone usually agrees communication is a top organizational improvement area. Especially in a perennially changing work world, communication across levels and boundaries is a critical success factor, so in this Year of the Monkey, I’ll be communicating through this blog and, hopefully, in a good conversation with you about effective communication.

Returning to the big changes impacting staff of the GSA, effective communication began before the first real estate lease was released. To build a smart workspace that worked for everyone, the GSA championed a strategic and operational collaboration among IT, Facilities, HR and staff. These champions engaged managers and team members impacted by their workspace changes. “There is a lot of underlying technology,” said Torrance Houlihan of AgilQuest, overseer of the technology install for the GSA. “But it wasn’t implemented for technology’s sake. It was implemented to let people choose how and when they’re going to interact with the building, and then to give them feedback from the building when they do that.” [emphasis mine]

How did Houlihan and his team build a workplace they could be confident people would choose to interact with, using the technology, leveraging the building, and connecting with each other?

They asked…

They had iterative communication among all employees whose workspace was going to dramatically change. The way the GSA team led this hugely disruptive change process is the real story. The collaboratively built an unconventional building that works for everyone. Deep employee and stakeholder engagement ensured the good design behind the building itself. The feedback and continuous engagement enabled a powerful solution to a financially driven cost-savings need.

Is your organization Workplace Smart? How do you know?

There are many simple ways to monkey around and leverage mobile work, the digital network and office space to be a SMART workplace. We’ve been doing it for decades now. In this Year of the Monkey, I’m excited to bring together success stories, experts, current best practices, tips and resources, so please subscribe to The Smart Workplace blog.  Very important: Please watch for my next blog post that will come from and my new email,!

Join me and the SMART Workplace team in an exciting, ongoing weekly conversation.

Sign up today to be sure not to miss next Wednesday’s post, which will include a free QuickCheck SMART Workplace Readiness assessment, too, so you can get a sense of how SMART your workplace is.