Teamwork is helpful but hard – and virtual teamwork is even harder. In an increasingly distributed work environment, more explicit communication is required in virtual teams to make up for the missing subtle communication that automatically occurs when in person.
When teams are effective, the outcomes are impressive. Research shows effective teams generate better solutions to problems with multiple possible outcomes, which is just about every 21st century problem we face. The key word here is “effective.” An effective team achieves their tasks, has high satisfaction among team members, and has viability for the future. It also has a high level of team virtuousness, or adoption of norms and moral commitment, which leads to team cohesiveness. On the flip side, ineffective teams can slow things down and create interpersonal conflict.
As we know from experience, so much of success and satisfaction with teamwork happens through communication. In person, this includes all the subtly of nonverbal communication. We notice our teammate is having a bad day by the way they sit at their desk, a bit slumped with their head hanging, so we save our critical feedback on their part of the project until tomorrow. We can tell by their upright and leaning forward posture when we discuss one element of an issue that it is of great interest to that team member, so we suggest they take it on. In person, we take in myriads of signals that guide how we relate to team members to help us be part of an effective team. When we lack all those signals, it gets more challenging.
Virtual teams have a harder time communicating the subtleties of interpersonal relationships, requiring different tactics. Of course, there are benefits of virtual teams, including being able to tap experts regardless of geography and being able to build a team of diverse members. Innovative technologies, such as video and chat and so many collaboration applications, have made it logistically easier for virtual teams to share content and interact. But even video does not provide the richness of interaction that benefits in-person teams. Since we know virtual teams are here to stay and communication is more difficult without in-person nonverbal cues, we can compensate with more explicit communication processes and techniques.
Explicit communication processes and techniques that are helpful for virtual teams include consistent structured and unstructured team meetings, reflecting back to indicate we listened, and metacommunication to adjust for effectiveness.
Consistent Team Meetings
Because virtual teams lose much of the ability to have “water cooler” talk, consistent meetings become more important. Having calendared time that team members can depend upon for working through strategy and task execution increases effectiveness and satisfaction. Both structured and unstructured meetings are important because they serve different purposes. Structured meetings with set agendas move things forward for the team and give team members a way to share and discuss items in a timely fashion. Unstructured meetings serve the purpose of letting team members communicate issues and ideas that are not specifically task related. Even in unstructured meetings, there still needs to be mechanisms to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak their minds, such as round-robin shares prior to open discussion. But the agendas can be open and fluid with any team member bringing up something that is top of their mind.
At a micro level, interpersonal communication on virtual teams can improve just by making the practice of reflecting back a team norm. Reflecting back, sometimes called replay, is when one team member shares what they perceive they heard from another team member. For example, when a team member says, “I don’t know why everyone has to edit each document before it gets posted. I don’t have time for that much editing and other team members just need to trust that I am an expert in my area.” Another team member could reflect back, “I hear you are feeling time pressure and want to be respected for your level of expertise, and that makes total sense. Is that an accurate depiction?” Notice that there was no judgment nor any recommended action or solution in that reflect-back statement. Reflecting back is purely a technique for making team members feel heard. It occurs before the problem-solving step. It replaces the subtle nonverbal communication of the empathetic head nod and facial expressions we would give in person to make somebody feel heard.
Metacommunication is the discussion of how interactions are occurring. Just like metadata, it is pulling up a level to get a new perspective. This technique is helpful in many situations where there is a misunderstanding, but it is imperative for virtual teams to meet the third element of effectiveness: viability for the future. No matter how much team members are committed, the very nature of being human means there will be miscommunication. When the team norm is to apply metacommunication when things are not running smoothly, problems can be efficiently addressed. Miscommunications are often about differing perceptions of the same thing. For example, one team member perceives moving quickly through a portion of the agenda as indictive as that part not being important, while another perceives it as a means to keeping the meeting on topic and on time. The first team member might feel disrespected if that section was about content that they felt was important. By pulling up a level and having metacommunication about the incident, the second team member could make it abundantly clear that they highly respect that person and their work and they were just working to keep the meeting on time.
Since we know that virtual teams will be part of the workforce in the foreseeable future, adjusting our communication to make our teams effective is critical. Meeting consistently, replaying content to make people feel heard, and using metacommunication to resolve issues are techniques that help make up for the missing nonverbal cues we get with in-person teams.