- By Michael Sampson
Giving Others Insight into What’s Happening
When you work with other people in person, you get to see what is going on in their work and life. And that means everything that is going on, not just the project work that you are jointly involved with. For example:
The meetings they attend and the issues that they get particularly fired up about, in good and bad ways!
The people who come by to speak with them, both about current and future work. And sometimes you even get to hear the totality of the conversation, because while you are working away at your desk, they are standing just over there and having a good-old talk.
The magazines and books they’re reading—you can see them on their desk, or they discuss them at morning break.
The trips that they have planned, for business and pleasure, because you hear them talking about upcoming travel and see the dates marked on their calendar.
When you share a work life with others, you get all of this extra information as a natural consequence. It is an implicit thing that happens, rather than something that you need to search out. But it often helps you understand better the people who you are working with, and the range of skills that they have to offer.
When you work with people who are not in the same place as you, the sharing of this contextual information is much more of a challenge. It is actually one of the hardest things to get done. It’s not hard because it is difficult, but rather is hard because your contextual information is so self-evident to you because you are in the midst of it. It’s almost invisible to you, and you can’t imagine that others could be interested in it. Resolving the sharing of contextual information is completely within the control of team members, and SharePoint provides a great way to do it: the team blog.
Writing on the Team Blog
The key to making the team blog work is that everyone on the team should regularly post an update on their work. Everyone should post at least once a week, and many people on the team should post every day or every other day. Here are some topics that team members should write about on a frequent basis.
The first topic is what’s happening with the project at your location. For example, the scraps of information about who came to the office to discuss the project today may seem like “scraps” to you, but can be very interesting to others. Ditto the project meetings that you were a part of, and how the various pieces of the work that you are responsible for are going. Each day, or after each meeting that has relevance to the project, post a short summation of who attended and what was discussed, and what decisions and next actions were determined.
A second topic is a summary of any in-person meetings you had with others on the core project team. Talking about in-person meetings that you were able to arrange gives others on the team something of a sense that they were there too and that they therefore didn’t miss out. Writing out in short terms or in long detail about the sorts of topics that you discussed during the meeting helps other people form a sense of how the project is going for you, and what you are currently doing.
A third topic is your work plans for the coming day or week. It’s really helpful to others to have a sense of the current work activities that you are undertaking, because it helps them to know what to expect from you in relation to their work and the overall progress of the project. If your list of work activities changes daily, then make a three-line or four-line blog post updating everyone on the team about what you will be working on today. If a week is a better planning horizon for you, make a blog post once a week about your plans for the next week. If it’s the same as last week, make another post anyway, noting what you did achieve and what specifically you will be doing this week.
A fourth topic is any upcoming vacation time that you have planned, as well as any upcoming public holidays that happen in your country. With respect to the vacation time, knowing that others on the team will be away “next week” or “in a fortnight” helps everyone else set expectations about what to expect from you. It also sends the signal that if they have things they want to discuss with you, that they should talk to you sooner rather than later.
After you get to know the other people on the team a bit better, you may even write about the movies you watched out of work time, because you know that others on the team like the same movies that you do. Or they like the same sports team. Or whatever—the point is that it celebrates the commonalities that do exist and goes some way toward covering over the huge number of differences that team members who are not together have to overcome.
Letting Everyone Post Without Approval
When a new blog site is added to a team site in SharePoint, the default setting is that the person who created the blog is able to publish new blog posts directly, and everyone else has to have their blog posts approved first. We don’t want that in the Inner Team site—everyone needs to be able to post directly. It’s really easy to make the change.
Open the team blog, and click Manage Posts on the right side of the page, under Admin Links (see Figure 4-26).
Figure 4-26. Click the Manage Posts link to set posting permissions.
This opens the team blog in a list view, much like we have seen already with other types of SharePoint lists. Click Settings, and then click List Settings to open the Posts page (see Figure 4-27).
Figure 4-27. Open List Settings for the blog posts list.
Click Versioning Settings under the General Settings heading, and change the Content Approval option at the top from Yes to No (see Figure 4-28). Then click OK to exit the settings page.
Figure 4-28. Turn off content approval for blog posts.
With this change, any team member will be able to post directly on the team blog, without having to wait for their blog posts to be approved by the blog owner.
Creating a Blog Post
Creating a blog post in the team blog is super-easy. Click into the Team Blog on the Quick Launch bar, and then click Create A Post on the right side of the page (see Figure 4-29).
Figure 4-29. Team members can create blog posts.
When the new blog post page opens, enter a title, type what you are going to say, and assign your blog post to one of the categories. For example, you are going to interview a number of prospective channel partners for your project in the coming week, and that will take you out of the office. Although you will have your mobile phone with you, you will have Internet access at the hotel each night. Because it is really helpful for the others on the team to know what’s happening with you in the coming week, make a blog post saying what’s going on. And because the post relates to upcoming travel, include your name in the title, so others can see at a glance who the post is about (see Figure 4-30).
Figure 4-30. Write a blog post about what’s happening in your life and work.
Now when others on the team visit the Team Blog, they’ll be able to see what’s up with Laura, and why she is so quiet this week!
Winning Trust Through Blogging
Being diligent about keeping others on the team appraised of your work through the team blog greatly assists with the building of trust. When we develop trust in another person when working with them face to face, we formulate our trust quotient in them over time through repeated observation on work and react in the hurly-burly of moment-by-moment work. When we work with others who are at a distance, we form our trust based on the things that are shared between us, and on whether they do the things that they say they will do and therefore that we expect from them. If they do what they say when they say, that signals to us that they are worthy of our trust—we can trust them: they are trustworthy. When they don’t do what they say or what we expect of them (based either on job description or mutually agreed task or project division), we say that they are not worthy of our trust.
Tracking the Team Blog Through RSS
Your fellow team members can read what you write, directly within SharePoint or by subscribing to the RSS feed for the team blog and reading it within a news reader. If you say something that they are particularly interested in, hopefully they’ll leave a comment, either thanking you for what you shared, or asking you for more information. And the same applies to you; others have taken the effort to write and share what’s going on in their work world, so make the effort to thank them for doing so, or to ask a question.
To subscribe to the RSS feed for the blog, click the RSS Feed link at the bottom of the Quick Launch bar for the team blog. As with the RSS feed to the announcements list that we looked at earlier, doing so will give you the option of reviewing the RSS feed that you are about to subscribe to. Click Subscribe To This RSS Feed to confirm your subscription, and be sure to put the RSS feed for the team blog into the same folder as the other RSS feeds for your project—thus keeping them all together.
Finally, if you would prefer to receive e-mail alerts about new blog posts, you can set that up too, by clicking Alert Me from the Actions menu on the team blog. Follow the same approach that you did when you set up the e-mail alert for the announcements list.
Overcoming Silence Through Blogging
Regular blogging about your work is an antidote to another major challenge of working on a virtual team: how to interpret silence. Your team members are already invisible to your eyes, and if they are not talking to you, they also become inaudible to your ears. What do we make of this?
Silence can mean many things. It can mean that people are schedule-slammed, and have so much on their task list that they just cannot get a few spare minutes to respond to your question. Or it can mean that they are ignoring you, that they don’t want to engage with you on the work that you are jointly involved with. Or it can mean that they are working away diligently on the next thing that they are supposed to be working on, and don’t think it worthwhile saying that that’s what they’re doing, because that’s what they are supposed to be doing. Or it can mean that they are angry with you, and they never want to speak to you again. Although the fact of silence is just one message (they are silent or they are not), it has many different interpretations! It’s no wonder that unexplained silence can be such a challenge to the efficacy of team relationships.
When each team member writes a regular update on the team blog in SharePoint, the interpretation of silence is a lot easier. If people are schedule-slammed, a post at the beginning of the week to say that they have a super-busy week coming up, and that they’ll be pretty much out of the loop goes a long way to allay fears and make it clear what’s actually going on. If they are busily working away on the next deliverable that they are accountable for, they can say that. Thus the team blog can adequately deal with two of the good reasons for silence, and a well-timed comment from others on the team can remind a person that it’s time to write more, or that they should keep on with what they’re doing. By setting out in advance what is coming up, and what is likely to happen over the next week, the team members provide a strong basis of trust for what’s coming up.
But how do you use a project blog if you’re struggling with one of the other reasons? You have a grievance against one of the other team members, and it’s festering away. Or you’re really, really angry with what someone said to you on the last conference call, and you just want to avoid that person as much as possible. Is the project blog the place to air this?
No. It’s not blog content.
You need to approach the person privately, and request a meeting. If they are in another location, as is likely to be the case, it will have to be a phone call. When you talk to the person, outline your view of what’s happened, and ask how he or she sees things. Hopefully, you can come to a place of agreement or resolution. If you can’t and you feel that the other person hasn’t listened, you need to request the presence of another person in a second conversation, perhaps the team leader (Roger, in the case of Project Delta). If the team leader isn’t the right person and you want someone external to the team, approach the right person and request his or her help. If a second conversation with someone else present (on the phone or in person) still doesn’t resolve it, take it to the wider team for an all-hands-on-deck discussion. Others may be able to force a resolution that you cannot do on your own, or may drive the removal of the troublesome team member with someone better suited to the task at hand.
A powerful strategy to overcome the possibility of silence being attributable to avoidance behaviors or anger with another is for the team to have a frank conversation at the beginning of the project and agree to keep a short account with each other. For example, during one of the initial teleconferences—and definitely in the team’s written working protocol—a senior member of the team should say that it is very likely that disagreements will arise during the course of this work, and that these items aren’t personal but are reflective of different interpretations of what is right according to a certain frame of reference, and that when this happens the people involved agree to resolve the issues quickly. This sets the ground rules so that when each person signs up to the team, they equally give their word of honor to be honest with their colleagues, to speak quickly about what is going on and what they are finding difficult, and to agree that they will resolve disagreements to a point that everyone can accept. Such an agreement will need to be kept alive by practice and goodwill during the course of the work, but having it in place from the beginning is a powerful counteracting strategy to something that is bound to happen.
Remember, when we work in virtual teams, all of our interaction is much more difficult than when we are together in person. In person, it somehow seems a lot easier to hash the problem out, to draw things on the board to explain our position, or to speak frankly about the problems we are experiencing than when we have to do these things remotely. But the reality is that much of our interaction with others is at a distance, and we need to get better at dealing with silence and coming to mutually agreeable resolutions when silence signals a breakdown in interpersonal relationship capability.