SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Email, instant messages, video conferencing and Slack each have been touted as instrumental in improving communication for virtual work teams. But do these technologies really deserve the credit they get?
New research from Maryland Smith’s Kathryn M. Bartol and George Washington University’s N. Sharon Hill finds that the effectiveness of virtual communication depends not on the technologies themselves, but how they are used.
The researchers studied globally dispersed teams in a large multinational firm, asking team members to rate one another on virtual communication behaviors culled from a growing body of research on virtual teams. Specifically, the teams were asked to focus on five facets of communication: matching the technology to the task, making intentions clear, staying in sync, being responsive and supportive, and being open and inclusive. The researchers averaged individual scores to establish a score for each team.
The researchers controlled for outside factors — past experience in working on virtual teams was one and the level of IT support was another. And they found teams that scored better on the five key behaviors also were seen by their bosses as better-performing.
They produced deliverables that were of higher quality, completed tasks on time, worked productively as a team, and met or exceeded the goals set for them.
For every 10 percent that a team outscored other teams on virtual communication effectiveness, they also outscored those teams by 13 percent on overall performance.
“Although the research focused on dispersed teams, we believe the same strategies can help co-located teams, which increasingly depend on virtual collaboration tools,” Bartol and her co-author wrote recently of their findings in MIT Sloan Management Review.
For bosses in particular, 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. Highly sensitive or interpersonal issues, the research suggests, shouldn’t be hashed out over email. 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.”
“We’ve found that clearly conveyed norms do make a difference.”
And so does leadership, Bartol says. “Leaders can rely on those team members to model effective behaviors — and can model the behaviors themselves — to raise the whole group to a higher standard.”
Read more: Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams is featured in MIT Sloan Management Review.
Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith professor of Leadership and Innovation, and the chair of the Management and Organization Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is also co-chair of the Smith School’s Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change.
Research interests: Leadership, teams, knowledge sharing, creativity, and gender in the workplace. She has received major funding from the National Science Foundation, most recently for studying effective leadership in virtual teams.
Selected accomplishments: Bartol is a past Dean of the Fellows of the Academy of Management, as well as a past President of the Academy of Management. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Management, the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and the American Psychological Society. She won a Sage Scholar Award from the Academy of Management and is a three-time winner of the Krowe Award for Teaching Excellence from the Smith School.
About this series: Maryland Smith celebrates Women Leading Research during Women’s History Month. The initiative is organized in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Other Women's History Month activities include the eighth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 5, 2019.
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