The development of the modern, more advanced, lower cost and faster forms of electronic communication that enabled organisations to move toward the use of virtual teams, has, I believe also led to an environment where individuals and organisations are, in many ways, more distant from each other than ever before. Employees are expected to collaborate at a distance with colleagues located in other parts of the city, country, or world, often without ever meeting and sometimes without even knowing what these colleagues look like, and to do so with no additional training or education in how best to communicate over distance.
As humans we have evolved as creatures that thrive on multi dimensional communications. Verbal communication is supported by numerous visual stimulants and aids such as facial gestures, hand gestures and artefacts such as drawings and models, yet working remotely removes some or all of this from the ways individuals are able to communicate, they are instead, in many situations forced to communicate exclusively or almost exclusively in writing, often asynchronously, to talk only rarely, and even then often on time limited conference calls that are clinical and impersonal in nature rather than personal and expansive. As such, is there any wonder there are communication breakdowns among team members.
Prior to the arrival of the electronic communications media that enable much of the virtualization of work, teams were co-located or, where they worked remotely would meet up periodically to align progress. Modern electronic communications have enabled the longer temporal separation and facilitated the disconnection of many employees from the more natural environment of co-located workers and a collegiate working environment, yet the organisations that have adopted these new approaches and technologies have done little to change their working methods from those used in a co-located world. And yet, some of these same organisations are then surprised that from time to time their virtual teams suffer communication breakdowns.
Virtual team communication breakdowns are difficult things to identify and their effect on the work undertaken is almost impossible to quantify in terms of dollars spent, and hours of labour expended. It is however, reasonable to say that where communications break down, and team members either stop communicating, communicate only when absolute necessary or become aggressive and defensive in their communications there will be a corresponding loss of efficiency in the way the team functions. These breakdowns then typically result in wasted work, work that is not compatible or work simply not being performed. If similar issues happened on a factory production line or in an environment where the protagonists were all simultaneously visible, one would hope that immediate action would be taken by the leadership of the workforce, but because only part of a virtual team is ever visible at any one time, and because it is hard to detect communication breakdowns at the best of times, many virtual team communication breakdowns go unaddressed and only come to light when things have gone visibly bad.
Some tips to minimise the risk of virtual team communication breakdown are;
- Remember that trust is one of the most critical features of an effective virtual team, once the trust between members is threatened the risk of a breakdown rapidly escalates. Team leadership must be prepared to act to help restore trust and engender an atmosphere where trust is easy to build and maintain.
- If possible, hold some face-to-face meetings at the start and during the work; personnel are much less likely to have a falling out with people they have met than with those they regard as strangers.
- Provide some communications support to personnel, particularly those who have to deal most frequently with their virtual colleagues. It is easy to take a figure of speech as an insult when one is not intended.
- Encourage team members to get to know each other better, sharing some personal information in discussions can help build relationships, and stronger relationships are more resilient to potential breakdowns.
- Provide regular access to media rich tools like video conference, while they do not fully replace face to face meetings, they are a good substitute and will help personnel feel connected.
Most especially, remember that all the individuals are human, most will have the best interests of the work in mind and the perceived slights and faults of the others are virtually always unintentional, and if things do start to break down, all parties should take a step back and consider the situation before reacting.
As specialists in virtual team dynamics, Ulfire is happy to discuss any issues you may be experiencing with planning and developing and coaching your virtual teams, please contact us to discuss your needs.
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