Virtual Teams and the Critical Role of Communication

Did you know that four out of 10 Americans work from home – even before the virus struck?  But the sudden, unexpected change causing so many more people to work from home can cause a loss of one’s daily routine, loss of physical connection, uncertainty, disorientation, stress – and even concerns for one’s well-being and being able to continue life as usual.

So given this sudden change, how does one navigate team communication in a virtual environment?  Dr. Cubas-Wilkinson from The Myers Briggs Company noted that a foundation for effective teams (whether remote or not) includes having a mission (goals and purpose), defined roles and organizational support (resources to do the work, clear organizational processes).   In a virtual work environment  the role of the organization includes providing the technology and tools that employees need to be successful, appointing a capable virtual leader (this is the single most important factor because the leader sets the pace and is a role model), and maintaining the connection to emotional, social and workplace needs of employees.  By the way, Dr. Cubas-Wilkinson pointed out that it is important to not assume that someone who has formerly been a good leader will be successful in a virtual environment.

Effective virtual team building blocks include trust, tools/technology, engagement, and communication.  There is a difference between communication and high-quality communication.  What is important for the latter includes:

  • Establishing norms: Sudden change disrupts our routines. Therefore, it is imperative to establish expectations and norms early.  So, employees may be wondering “What am I to be doing right now? What is my focus?”  In the regular work place these questions are answered with physical and tangible means: on-site desk, our structured routines, etc.  There is a tangible physical element associated with the routines of going into the office.  In a virtual environment it is often up to the individual employee to create his/her own structure and focus.  This can be daunting and lead to uncertainty, loss of productivity and loss of employee engagement.  Provide norms (when we will meet, what we will discuss, how to resolve problems, how we will communicate), expectations (when we will be online, response times and availability, when to solve problems independently and when to ask for help), and predictability.

“Someone who has formerly been a good leader may not be successful in a virtual environment.”

  • Communication: Effective communication is more than transactional interactions. It is achieved through meaningful exchanges between people: sharing ideas, taking risks, having respect for one another.  Reach beyond transactional interactions into relationship forming.
  • Create Trust: High quality communication in virtual teams is linked to interpersonal trust, which in turn is linked to individual and team performance and productivity. A lack of trust can create hesitation in giving input, unwillingness to show one’s real motives or share information, holding back knowledge, and taking advantage of each other.  Being super cordial to each other does not mean trust.

Dr. Cubas-Wilkinson offered that the way to create pathways for high quality virtual team communication include:

  1. Assess teams’ current communication.
  2. Evaluate how communication is helping the team – or not.
  3. Gauge employee needs regarding skills for effective communication in virtual contexts.
  4. Align developmental resources to promote and build necessary skills.
  5. Serve as the facilitator of high-quality communication.

By: Mary Zahner, Ph.D.