Business Writing Tips for Communicating as a Virtual Worker

By Natalie Canavor

Business writing becomes even more important as more people work from home. Working from home and virtual teaming trend upward every year. In addition to the escalating numbers of people who work on a project or hourly basis, more employees than ever work from their home base part of the week. Many others do their jobs away from headquarters, and may be continents and time zones away, or crosstown. Teaming with people you never see has become a commonplace experience for many of us.

Communication technology opens up all these possibilities with ever-easier ways to work virtually. But few of us are trained to function well in a virtual environment. Strategic writing gives you a key advantage as a virtual team member or project leader.

Except for occasions when you see our virtual coworkers on screen, interaction between virtual coworkers is generally by written messages and phone calls. This brings a host of drawbacks. You must collaborate without being able to read people’s facial expression, body language, and perhaps, intonation. It can take much longer to understand people’s perspective, establish trust, and know what to expect from each one so you can interact effectively. If you participate in short-term projects with new teams every time, developing a set of practices is especially important.

If you have a choice, try to start the collaboration off in person, or close to it. Meeting face to face with the team is best because spending some time getting to know each other pays many dividends. Video conferencing is choice two, or use Skype or a cloud video meeting ground like Zoom. The telephone is third choice.

However accomplished, your initial meeting should address good practice and set agreed-to guidelines for distribution in writing to everyone involved. This document should spell out the group’s goal; individual responsibilities; mutual obligations; milestones toward the goal and timelines; and each person’s availability, taking locations and time zones into account, as well as working preferences (for example, are folks reachable at night? On weekends?). Include a checklist to denote progress. Decide on sharing mechanisms, such as Google Drive, Google Docs, or Dropbox.

It’s preferable to plan for periodic group meetings online if not in person to maintain momentum, address personality issues, and solve the inevitable roadblocks — all are handled much better face to face.

It’s important to know who’s in charge. If there’s a designated project leader, his role should be fully spelled out. If “everyone is equal” and no one is centrally responsible, it’s a good idea for the group to agree that a specific person will coordinate, keep everyone on track, and hold team members accountable.

A notetaker or communicator-in-chief should for designated for meetings. If this unpopular task is up for grabs, volunteer! In notetaking lies power. You’ll know more: Everyone shares information with you. And when you’re the reporter, you create the perspective.

Here are some ways to help you be a good virtual collaborator and a good team member in general:

  • Communicate always in a positive, upbeat way that promotes relationship building. Express appreciation for other people’s good work or contributions in written notes, which are especially valued.
  • Contribute appropriate personal notes. Until you know people better, you can ask about mundane matters like the weather or someone’s weekend away. Note that research on teaming finds that the “small talk” and good listening that build comfort and trust level characterize the most successful teams.
  • Write considerate messages. Respect your teammates by making all your writing clear, concise, to the point, and complete.
  • Introduce a written repeat-it-back technique to confirm everyone is on the same page. Doing so prevents misinterpretations, especially if there is a shift in direction. For example, confirm your own actions with notes such as, “To follow up on our conversation on Tuesday, I plan the following … .”