Communications skills: Virtual teams

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

By Carolyn Crawford

This is a summary of some key communications themes from the book “Virtual Teams That Work” Edited by Cristina Gibson and Susan Cohen (http://www.amazon.com/Virtual-Teams-That-Work-Effectiveness/dp/0787961620 ). It’s an extremely thorough and well researched book that I can recommend to anyone setting up, or currently operating in, a virtual environment.

To make this blog easier to navigate, there are four areas covered here:

  • Context
  • Challenges
  • Choosing The Right Medium
  •  Strategies

If you’re short on time, jump to the Strategies section for some ideas on managing the communications flow. It’s a long blog at 3 pages. But then again, it’s a summary of 420 pages!!  


Virtual teams amplify both the benefits and challenges that teams face. On the one hand they enable the best talent regardless of location to be applied to solve business problems, create products and deliver services, leveraging differences in perspectives and knowledge. On the other, as teams become more virtual in geography, culture and backgrounds, they confront greater uncertainty and complexity, increasing the difficulty of the information processing and sense-making tasks that they do.


The key communications challenge is that of building trust in virtual teams. There is no doubt that relationships based in face-2-face meetings tend to last much longer and to that extent, any f2f meetings that can take place, especially early in a project, are enormously helpful. Many teams would rather sacrifice information systems than travel budgets because of the team building, relationships, social capital and synergies created.

Physical proximity makes it easier to gather together to work on tasks; hold formal project meetings; coordinate activities because team members can keep aware of where others are up to; share in common bulletin boards; engage in hallway and lunchtime discussions; as well as overhearing casual conversations at the coffee machine that uncover common interests and goals. The social information that flows among team members increases the comfort and ease of communication, thus enabling more self-disclosure and trust.

Communication technologies such as phone, voicemail, email, videoconferencing and instant messaging all help members of virtual teams stay in touch with one another and share information. However, these technologies have limitations that can easily lead to misinterpretation. They cannot provide the same richness as f2f interactions. Because of delays in transmission and the lack of social and nonverbal cues (voice intonation, facial expressions and gestures), communication technologies can interfere with open communication, knowledge sharing and the ability of teams to identify and resolve misunderstanding.

It’s also physically harder communicating over media that requires typing or holding a phone. So people talk for less time and share less, especially on complex topics that are difficult to convey.

A further challenge is that it makes it more difficult to identify and resolve misunderstandings that arise eg a puzzled look that indicates misunderstanding, might never be identified or addressed.

In short, electronic mediated groups have been found to have more difficulty establishing meaning of information, managing feedback in discussion, and it therefore takes individuals longer to form impressions of one another and build or repair trust.


The scale of information swap is important to understand.

  • Email allows us to send a vast amount of archivable information, but doesn’t give us any real-time feedback which can lead to the illusion of shared understanding.

  • Discussion boards and instant messaging are more real-time but restricted by the typing time involved.

  • The phone allows for more social cues and means both parties are participating at the same time but the lack of visual cues doesn’t comfortably enable more than two people to participate. Conference calls are notoriously difficult to manage and tend to preclude extensive information sharing. They’re effective for decision making rather than knowledge sharing.

  • Videoconferencing, because of the social cues, increases understanding, but may not be technologically reliable.

Communication in virtual teams has two challenges: sending information so that the message is heard, and gathering feedback. Choosing the correct transmission media is crucial. Sharing routine information may merely require email or depositing a document in a shared workspace. Solving a complex problem requires a richer communication medium such as teleconferencing. And resolving a stalemate requires an even richer medium such as videoconferencing.

Seeking feedback comes with different challenges as silence in particular can be so easily misinterpreted. Going offline for 1-on-1 follow-up conversations are key to clarifying and overcoming misunderstandings.


To overcome these issues:


  • Managers can make sure team members are aware of their similarities such as common backgrounds, interests, hobbies or experiences – professional or personal – which help to establish rapport. This should be done both early in the project and on an ongoing basis.

  • The manager can also facilitate sharing of information about day-to-day activities throughout the project so people know how others are doing and why.

  • Keeping turnover low is also helpful.


  • Provide resources eg high quality telephone conferencing, headsets for frequent callers and tie-lines between locations.

  • Provide easy access and support, including technical support, for videoconferencing and online team spaces. Each virtual team member must be well versed and fully comfortable with the wide range of information technologies available to the team, including collaboration software packages, video-conferencing and other communications media.

  • Starting conference calls with a check-in period in which each participant says a few words about how he or she is, helps people to clear their minds in order to focus on the tasks and help others interpret what they say and gradually learn more about them.

  • To create a supportive climate research indicates that proactive information exchange, regular and predictable communication and explicit verbalization of commitment, excitement and optimism are key eg “wow, good job!”

  • Active listening can help to overcome difficulties experienced in receiving ambiguous messages that may result in low trust. Active listening requires requesting elaboration and clarification whenever the message being sent is not clear. It creates a sense of involvement, interactiveness and expression.

  • Framing can help to overcome the challenge of decoding messages sent across communicators with very different perspectives. Framing involves taking the other’s frame of reference – giving the information and speaking in the language (ie business language, examples and ideas) of the other party to create clarity and empathy.

  • Responses to others’ messages are also critical. A response is an endorsement that another person is willing to take the risk of interpreting the first person’s message and, if necessary, supplying the missing elements to make it understandable. Because of the greater degree of uncertainty in computer-mediated communication, there’s an intense need for responses. Responses are trusting behaviours that indicate involvement that in turn conveys attraction, intimacy, attachment and affection.

  • Follow up is another technique for increasing trust. Follow up means accurately repeating the communicator’s message (the quicker the better), contacting people when you need to, telling people what you’re going to do and then doing it. In creates predictability that you’ll do what you say you’re going to.

  • Team developers and facilitators can assist virtual teams by communicating these norms in advance including procedures for reconciling differences. Some teams develop procedural templates for communicating using electronic media. Norms revolve around the use of specific modes of communication, acceptable response times, notification of holidays etc, document archiving in shared work spaces, highlighting of important pieces of information or important parts of long messages, times when it’s reasonable to call, establishing task priorities, expectations for team meeting attendance and punctuality, advanced preparation required, and early warning systems for potential conflict, among other issues. Examples include; an agreement on email coding such as AR (action required); IAR (immediate action required); or FYI (for your information); or agreements like “I will log on once a day” or “I will be honest with my comments”. These norms help team members communicate easily and collaborate effectively.

In short, communication in virtual teams needs more conscious focus and attention than in a shared office; it requires commentary of what you’re doing or saying and why you’re doing or saying it; and just as Virtual Teams in general exaggerate the benefits and challenges of f2f teams, so the communication requires emphasis and exaggeration to get the messages and feedback through effectively and humanly.

  • Want to get this learning across to your team?  Why not hire f2f to deliver it?  Contact us to get a quote today.
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