How to communicate and co-ordinate effectively in a virtual team

The previous article in this series looked at how to motivate your virtual team and manage performance from a distance. This article looks at how to communicate and co-ordinate effectively in a virtual team.

In a team where you rarely (or never) meet in-person and mostly communicate via technology, communication has to be more explicit. Things that would be picked up by osmosis in a co-located team may not happen the way you expect, or the way you want.

Agree on some rules for how you deal with communication: e.g. should you prioritise emails from team-mates above others so that you can trust that you will get a quick response from each other?

Develop communication protocols for dealing with problems and co-ordinating different stages of a task. At NASA, where the astronaut team, mission control and other international agencies constitute a complex virtual team, they invest heavily in orchestrating handovers between team members, developing communication skills and training on conflict resolution. For example, they discovered that text-based communication was more effective for resolving task issues, but audio communication was better for team or interpersonal issues. What is best for your virtual team?

Respond quickly! Lack of rapid response between team members can destroy a virtual team. Like nature abhors a vacuum, people tend to fill silence with information. In the absence of certain knowledge, people hypothesize, catastrophize and generally make it up in order to make sense of the situation they are in. Since our bias towards people we like means we tend to respond quickly to them, if your team mate doesn’t hear from you they might interpret this to mean that you don’t like them too much. Communication delay across time zones gives you plenty of time to invent bad news!

Research based on communication accommodation theory suggests that taking account of different linguistic styles among team members in technology-based communications helps build bonds. Tools such as Lumina Spark helps team members read and respond effectively to the different styles of their team mates without losing their authenticity.

The next article in this series will cover how to build trust when you can’t meet in person.


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