Communication failures in organisations expose the business to many risks including; rework, high rejection rates of output, schedule blowouts, cost over runs and higher than normal involuntary turnover of personnel.
All of these issues result in a drain on the bottom line and unnecessary distractions for senior management in addressing the symptoms of the communication failures.
This article works through the issues associated with communication failures in distributed teams, suggesting ways to address issues to build a more collaborative and robust organisation.
The Need For Robust Communication
Good communication is at the heart of any group endeavor, whether the group is a small, co-located team or a large, distributed virtual team the need is the same. Maintaining a robust level of communication in a virtual team is a constant challenge faced by all members of the team.
- Business leaders must have an open and collaborative communication channel with their colleagues. Having this will ensure the organisation is coordinated and openly sharing ideas and issues.
- Project managers need to have solid oversight of their projects and the issues and challenges being faced by their personnel regardless of their location. With this, they should be able to predict issues before they occur and facilitate solutions in a timely way.
- Project team members need to be able to communicate freely to ensure work is performed in a coordinated and structured way, avoiding overlaps and gaps in effort. Dependent on the size and structure of the project, this may be direct one to one communication or it may be through a single point of contact within each location. Regardless of the method, those actually charged with doing the work must be able to share ideas, issues and progress.
Causes Of Communication Failures
Communication failures occur in virtual teams for a number of reasons, however, virtually all of the causes of communication failures are the result of the physical and temporal separation of team members.
When individuals and teams are physically separated, regardless of distance, it is very easy to simply forget to talk to one another. It may just be that people get distracted by those in the same location, become engrossed in their own local work or the timing of communications needs are inconvenient due to personal or local commitments, but whatever the cause, this breakdown in communications causes many of the issues.
- Wrong time and wrong place – Often communications failures are the result of team members being in inconvenient time zones to facilitate regular, easy communications, this is at its worst when the teams are separated by more than 9 time zones. This large temporal separation means that communication must be carefully planned rather than organic. Such large separations lead to communications occurring at socially inconvenient times for one or all parties, which can then lead to calls being cancelled.
- Communicating with strangers – many people are uncomfortable meeting and talking to new people in a conventional social environment. Trying to communicate with strangers in a virtual context, when they are just a name and possibly a few personal details is even harder. This is why face to face, or at the least video facilitated meetings can be so effective in building relationships. Without a sense of personal bond, many people will not feel the same need to communicate as they do with those they have met and know reasonably well.
- Communicating across language barriers – Projects will typically establish a common language, this is then the language all personnel are expected to use when communicating. While this process may seem sensible and logical to those establishing the project, enforcing a common language can cause a number of issues in the day to day communications in the project. Those who don’t speak the project language are immediately disadvantaged and socially isolated, whose who have that language as their first or a strong language have a great superiority in terms communicating and socializing, those uncomfortable with the project language will struggle to make themselves heard.
- Communicating across cultures – different cultures have different ways of communicating, whether they be high context versus low context, quiet and reserved versus loud and voluble, direct versus indirect or dictated by social conventions and norms, each will have their own way of communicating. Failing to allow for these differences will lead to issues and potential breakdowns as the project develops.
Avoiding Communication Failures
While the chances of completely avoiding communication failures in any virtual team endeavor is very small, taking a considered and judicious approach to managing communications and supporting staff working across boundaries will be a great help.
Communication failures can be mitigated by; providing cross cultural training and awareness to staff at all levels; carefully considering how language differences will impact communications within the team; establishing sensible and considered guidelines for communications when team members are separated by multiple time zones and, wherever possible, by employing personnel with experience in working in virtual teams. Careful planning and considered leadership will lead to a greatly reduced risk of communication failures.
Share your experiences
Do you have experiences of communication failures in distributed teams you would like to share; have you found ways to manage communications that work and help your teams function better? if so, we would love to hear from you.
How can we help?
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations plan, establish and run high performing virtual teams. We combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can assist your business or sign up using the form below to receive our regular newsletter.
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