One of the great paradoxes of leading remote project and functional teams is that members understand the need to keep in touch and share as much information in as many ways as possible. Yet they often resist or ignore the technology that allows them to do exactly that. What gives?
If you've been alive and walking this earth long enough to be reading this, the irrationality and conflicted behavior of your fellow homo sapiens shouldn't be that big a surprise. Yes, people don't like the way they are asked to communicate now. Yes, there are tools that could help accomplish that, and yes, we can't be bothered to learn them. All are true, but don't seem to help.
In talking to companies about preparing their managers to lead in a virtual or remote environment the one thing I hear lately is "We've given them (place product here – be it Sharepoint, Basecamp, HyperOffice, GoogleDocs, MicroSoft Lync) and they aren't using it".
People adopt technology (or not) based on a number of factors: what it does (function), how easy it is to learn (ease of use) and if everyone else is doing it the same way (culture and systems). The problem is that many companies and team leaders try to mandate tools in a way that works against these factors.
Rolling out software of technology of any kind encounters more resistance than expected. Always. It just does. Deal with it. I'm reminded of what an old sales manager of mine once told me. "Selling is hard work- helping someone buy is a whole lot easier". We need to quit selling to our team and let them buy in.
Ask them what they need to do to get the job done. This means having a group discussion (and it should be done over time on a conference call or webmeeting, online discussion boards or email and subject to review) about how they see their work, what information they need and in what form.
Forget brand names (" Our webmeeting platform stinks. You know what we need? WebEx!") at this point. You want to hear things like "I need access to Rajit's brain when I can't get hold of him" or " I need to find the latest version of our documents, I can never find them in my email when I need them".
Identify what they would like to have happen in a perfect world. Mapping out communication flow so everyone can see it helps.
Ask what they've used in the past that has helped. Odds are, your team is comprised of people with varied experiences. Some people have used very cool tools in the past and seen them work successfully. Some have never used technology and wouldn't even know where to start. Plus (and this is hard on a manager's ego) when it comes to recommending something that will make their job easier, your team will always believe a peer before someone in leadership.
Start with functionality, then product. Instead of saying - as an example--"Okay, we have Sharepoint, let's use that" (people will automatically groan. Mac snobs will hate it just because it's Microsoft, others haven't seen it used lately or don't know how it integrates with everything else they're using - and it's from Microsoft).
Start with what you need to do ("We need to be able to share information and links that we find elsewhere with each other and find them when we need them") and then tie it to a solution ("if only there were some way to do that….oh how about Sharepoint?")
Have the team set expectations and accountability. Peer pressure works insanely well. If all the cool kids are using something, people will be more likely to use it. Additionally, people instinctively want to avoid disappointing their peers. If the team agrees to the communication plan, it's much easier to hold people accountable. You didn't set the rules about version control, they did.
Rather than impose a communication plan - even a good one - on your team, work with them to craft one tailored to their needs. Odds are it will look strikingly similar to what you had in mind (after all, a good idea is a good idea) but they are far more likely to buy in and get on with the task at hand.