Communication in Virtual Teams

In the first episode of Management Café, Ishare some research on the communication patterns of high performance teams.

There are two points I’d like to highlight which I think are particularly important with regards to leading or managing virtual teams. I'm sharing them below, but for the bulk of the research that’s driving these words, you’ll need to listen to the episode...

To try to tackle “communication in virtual teams” in one post would be to neglect the complexity of the topic. So I’ve picked two aspects of communication that you can quickly evaluate.

(1) The Direction of Communication

Pay special attention to this if you are someone who is currently recruiting for a team and you’re the main point of contact or if you are a manager who enjoys just getting on with day to day tasks.

In both instances, it’s worth taking a look at your team’s patterns of communication, because your team might be missing out on an essential component of high team performance. (This component is difficult enough to sustain in collocated teams, so, as always, we need to be even more deliberate to make sure it’s present in our virtual team practice.)

High performing teams have members that converse with other members regularly, not just the manager. So, if you find yourself constantly replying to team members’ questions or you seem to be the first point of contact when people can’t find information, then it’s probably time to start thinking about how you can connect team members so that they can support each other. (It might be quite reassuring to be the one with all the answers, but it doesn’t lead to a strong team.)

Remind team members of others’ strengths and areas of responsibility etc and introduce processes that help people know when they can reach out to others. Shared calendars or status updates on collaboration platforms are key to people assessing when is the best time to get in touch with someone when they need help. Formally setting expectations of how you will communicate your availability and how to reach out in an emergency, will give room to your informal communication.

Don’t forget to continuously interact with people from other teams. They are a valuable source of information, help and inspiration.

(2) The Importance of Informal Communication and Video Meetings

Sandy Pentland’s research, referred to in this podcast episode, showed that “35 percent of the variation in a team's performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members.”

While a video conversation might not be exactly like being in the room with someone, it will go a long way. And the more you use video to communicate, the more you will get from it.

Video is also useful for informal situations – but in virtual teams you might have to formalise the informal. Bear with me.
Creative processes have strict rules. A theatre play for example has one rule that, if broken, can send the whole concept out of the window. If you, the audience, decide not to suspend disbelief while you’re watching us perform, there is no play. Of course, this rule can be broken – but then another unspoken one will emerge.

Similarly, to create the space for informal communication to emerge, you need to set some rules or processes. Some simple ones to introduce are: find a time to have virtual coffees together on Tuesdays (I like Tuesdays…), check your collaboration platforms at least once a day, to be able to jump on conversations (ok, warning, warning, this might not work from everyone, but it’s just a suggestion…), have a chat system where you can say hello to anyone in your team when they hop on. Log on early to your virtual meetings, in case anyone else is also lurking around making themselves a cup of tea…

Informal communication is especially important in new teams or when new people are joining.

“When entering new settings, newcomers seek information from interpersonal sources to clarify their role, gain self-efficacy, and develop a sense of belonging.”

(Unpacking Team Diversity: An integrative Multi-Level Model of Cross-Boundary Teaming by Amy C.Edmondson and Jean-François Harvey, HBS)

Think beyond the “water-cooler” effect and think strengthening team identity and building trust.
Assessing your communication patterns and thinking through the best ways to create space for informal communication in your team will take time and quite a bit of energy, but it’s worth the focus: it will allow your team to transition from good to great.

A summary of what great communication entails can be found in this handout.