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Virtual teams: 5 ways to ensure communication works well

Published 23rd August 2017 by Investors in People
Virtual team communication across globe

Good communication is an essential characteristic of high-performing teams. Without clear and regular communication, team cohesion and performance can suffer.

When it comes to virtual teams - which are becoming more commonplace in the modern workforce - clear and regular communication can be more difficult to achieve than in the real world.

To move virtual teams towards high performance, therefore, HR and organisations must take steps to proactively drive better communication.

Virtual teams: at a distinct communication disadvantage

Palmer & Speier (1998) say that "teams with greater virtualness are associated with less trust, less cooperation and more conflict-management problems."

Strong communication can address these interpersonal challenges, but unfortunately the communication methods that naturally empower and are used by virtual teams may themselves predispose the team to issues. Kankanhalli et al (2006) found that "large volumes of electronic communication and lack of immediacy of feedback in asynchronous media can contribute to task conflict."

Virtual teams may also experience what’s called ‘swift trust:’ this is trust not based on interpersonal effort, but on things like task necessity and expected role-based behaviour. It can be fragile and particularly susceptible to damage from communication (or lack thereof) outside of expected norms.

Virtual teams: 5 ways to ensure communication works well

Set clear and broad expectations

Trust is an essential feature of successful teams and, unfortunately, can be negatively impacted when communications are not forthcoming when we expect them. In virtual teams, people are pulling in different directions at different times, particularly if they’re in different timezones, which makes it less likely our expectations around communications will be met.

When we communicate non-verbally using technology, we lose much of the context we get when speaking to someone on the phone or face-to-face.

In an office, you can walk up to a colleague and get an immediate response, but in virtual teams responses - which may be required urgently - could be delayed by several hours.

Teams must set expectations around response times. When is it appropriate to wake a colleague up? How do you get across that a request is urgent? If a request is identified as urgent, by when should the recipient respond?

By setting clear expectations, which cover different needs and can scale as and when required, everyone is on the same page. This reduces the cognitive stress that communication places on individuals and turns communication from a potential trust destroyer to a trust builder.

The ultimate aim is to create a shared sense that responding to communication is a powerful team-oriented action. As Jarvenpaa & Leidner (1999) point out, “a response is an endorsement that another person is willing to take the risk of interpreting the first person’s message.” This is, naturally, a big builder of trust.

Create a common language

When we communicate non-verbally using technology, we lose much of the context we get when speaking to someone on the phone or face-to-face. Urgency, for example, can be hard to get across without changing your tone.

Creating a common language in virtual teams helps mitigate against this and, when combined with setting expectations as above, reduces the potential for uncertainty and negative interpretations of others’ communication.

What do we mean by a common language? This could include a shared vocabulary, use of active and passive voice, use of punctuation to express urgency and the use of prosocial words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

Select communication channels appropriately

Effective implementation does not equal effective employee uptake, as many organisations have found out when implementing new HR technology. Staff have to see the benefit to them and to their work.

When it comes to communication channels, it’s easy to regress towards the status quo (which in many cases is email) or use one communication channel for everything. But most tools are suited to specific forms of communication based on variables like length of message required or the type of message being communicated (highly technical, for example).

Bug tracking via email, for example, is nothing short of a nightmare. Jira would be a better choice for bug tracking, while Trello would be a good choice for project management. But whatever the channels selected, everyone must understand how to use them, how they make their lives easier and how they contribute to team success.

Post re-orienting and sense-making messages

Communications from leaders focused on sensemaking [PDF] has been shown to help teams develop shared mental models, which improve performance over time by keeping everyone on the same page. At a more strategic level, this activity is visioning.

Communication between virtual teams comes in two flavours: task-focused (work-related) and social (non-work related).

Because virtual team members aren’t co-located and thus don’t experience prosocial and trust-building behaviours that reinforce shared goals and visions, leaders must prioritise regular sensemaking and reorientation communication.

Encourage both task and social-oriented communication

Communication between virtual teams comes in two flavours: task-focused (work-related) and social (non-work related).

Jarvenpaa & Leidner (1999) found that teams that did not evolve strong task-focused communication reported lower levels of trust at the end of the project, so strong task-focused communication is essential for performance in virtual teams.

However, the researchers also backed up a previous finding by Adler (1995) that social exchanges in virtual groups can improve team cohesion as long as they don’t come at the expense of task-focused communication. Efficient channel selection, as above, can help prevent this.

How can leaders encourage social-oriented communication? Powell et al (2004) suggest using “regular chat sessions with all team members present” and incorporating humour to lighten the mood. These are a good opportunity for team members to let off steam and share news.