Working Remotely?

5 Things Effective Virtual Teams Do Right

Mar 11, 2020

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – With more and more companies encouraging employees to work from home amid the growing Covid-19 crisis, some teams are having to learn on the fly how to successfully collaborate from separate home offices.

Maryland Smith’s Kathryn M. Bartol has some insights for those teams.

Email, instant messages, video conferencing and Slack each have been touted as instrumental in improving communication for virtual work teams. But, in her research, she finds that the effectiveness of virtual communication depends not on the technologies themselves, but how they’re used.

Working with globally dispersed teams in a large multinational firm, Bartol and co-author George Washington University’s N. Sharon Hill found that effective virtual teams do these things right:

1. They match the technology to the task.

Teams have many communication technologies at their disposal, ranging from email and chat platforms to web conferencing and videoconferencing. People often default to using the tool that is most convenient or familiar to them, but effective teams know that some technologies are better suited to certain tasks than others, and choosing the wrong one can lead to trouble.

“Carefully consider your goals,” Bartol says. Lean, text-based media such as email, chat and bulletin boards are great when pushing information in one direction — for instance, when circulating routine information and plans, sharing ideas, and collecting simple data. Meanwhile, web conferencing and videoconferencing are richer, more interactive tools better suited to complex tasks such as problem-solving, brainstorming and negotiation, which require squaring different ideas and perspectives. If you have to deal with a potentially contentious interpersonal issue, such as telling someone they screwed up, offended someone or haven’t been pulling their weight, you’ll want to opt for richer media.

Effective teams know that the more complex the conversation, the closer to “in-person” they’ll want the communication mechanism to seem.

2. They make their intentions clear.

Most of our communication these days is text-based. Unfortunately, when text-based tools leave too much to interpretation, common biases and assumptions can cause misunderstandings and lead to unhealthy conflict that hurts team performance.

People tend to be less reserved and more negative in writing, maybe because they can’t see the reaction of the person reading the message. They express anger, or even insult one another.

And that negativity flows from both directions. People on the receiving end of written communications tend to interpret them more negatively than intended by the sender. Emails that are intended to be positive are interpreted as emotionally neutral, according to research, while emails with a slightly negative tone are likely to be interpreted as intensely negative.

Good teams aim to prevent misinterpretations, by being crystal clear about their intentions, Bartol says. Team members re-read messages before they send them. They err on the side of enthusiastic positivity, highlighting certain parts of their emails or using emoji.

3. They stay in sync.

When remote team members don’t interact face to face, they risk losing getting out of step with one another.

Scattered across cities and home offices, it can be difficult to tell when messages have been received and read, unless receipt is specifically acknowledged. Communication failures can lead to uneven distribution of information – for example when a team member is accidentally left off an important team email. Sometimes, a breakdown in communication can create an out-of-sight, out-of-mind effect that keeps some team members out of the loop. That can damage team trust.

Effective teams make a point of keeping everyone in the loop, maintaining regular communication and avoiding lengthy silences. They proactively share updates and acknowledge receipt of important messages, even if no immediate action is needed.

4. They’re responsive and supportive.

The paradox in dispersed teamwork is that trust is more critical for effective functioning — but also more difficult to build — than in more traditional teams. Trust between teammates in the same workspace is influenced to a large extent by familiarity and liking; however, in dispersed teams, people must signal their trustworthiness by how they work with others on a task.

High-functioning teams develop trust by encouraging everyone to respond promptly to requests from their teammates, taking the time to provide substantive feedback, proactively suggesting solutions to problems the team is facing, and maintaining a positive and supportive tone in communications.

5. They’re open and inclusive.

Dispersed teams are more likely to have members from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. While diversity can result in a greater variety of ideas, which boosts team creativity and performance, virtual communication sometimes discourages team members from speaking up, making it challenging to capitalize on these benefits. Virtual tools reduce the social cues that help team members bond, which can diminish motivation to share ideas and information. People may also hold back when they can’t directly observe teammates’ reactions to their contributions.

To reap the benefits of the team’s diversity, highly effective virtual team members focus on communicating as openly and inclusively as possible. They involve the whole team in important communications and decisions, and actively solicit perspectives and viewpoints from all team members, to demonstrate openness to different ideas and approaches to a task. And when working to resolve differences of opinion, they seek to integrate the best of the team’s ideas.

For bosses, the study offers some important advice, says Bartol, the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Chair of the Management and Organization Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Bartol is also the co-director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change.

“Don’t assume that everyone on your team is aware of potential pitfalls with virtual communication or of the five key behaviors that improve performance,” she says.

Instead, managers should draft a “team charter” that defines expectations of how teams will work together, one that includes the technologies that a team should use for certain tasks. The charter might also detail a format for communications. For example, highlighted or bold-faced text could be used to draw attention to action items. And it might set a plan for keeping teams coordinated, with a strategy for setting and monitoring project deadlines.

The authors also recommend setting an expectation of how long the team will take to respond to new requests and rule of thumb for which communications are widely shared with the team, and which remain in inner circles. Some teams, Bartol says, “Use the ‘would you want to know?’ rule of thumb.”



About the Expert(s)

Kathryn M. Bartol

Dr. Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Chair of the Management and Organization Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park. She is the director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change (CLIC). She holds an Executive Coach Certification from the Columbia University Coaching Certification Program.

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