Communication is essential for virtual teams to become successful

By Smaranda Boros (Professor of Cross-Cultural Management and Organisational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School).

Smaranda is an accredited coach and an expert in authentic leadership, who practices what she preaches by combining her theoretical and consulting knowledge with her own experience gained on a cross-cultural professional path. She also teaches the 'Leading Global Teams' programme.


If we define virtual teams as distributed teams that use primarily technology-mediated communication in order to accomplish the tasks they were set-up for, most organisations these days use one form or another of virtual teamwork. Even if the company operates in one country, it is rather frequent now to have several office locations or to allow teleworking, which makes that many teams now operate under the virtuality assumption.

However, most virtual teams still operate across different country locations. The purpose of such teams is often coordination (e.g. between HQ and subsidiaries), process integration (when there are functional splits across locations), or benefiting from a global talent pool (especially in project teams). These different types of teams naturally pose different challenges, since having a project team has different teamwork requirements than having a permanent coordination team. In one you need to facilitate the information exchange which needs to be as fast and efficient as possible, and you quickly need to set up a complex communication exchange aimed at delivering the required output on time. However, if the purpose is coordination you need to primarily capitalise on creating redundant communication channels, to secure the sustainability of the team, and create conditions for speedy reactions when needed (but without an immediately apparent goal).

So using the generic term of virtual teams for all these teams is in fact one of the reasons it is difficult to offer ‘ready-made’ frames and tips & tricks that would apply in all circumstances. There is always a need to create a shared mind (a so-called team shared mental model) and a shared heart (a team identity). But how we can reach them and to which extent we can capitalise on building them, differs depending on the conditions of each team. This is the first element that needs to be clarified about each virtual team in order to make it a success.

So continuously focusing on this mantra of ‘shared minds and shared hearts’ helps as a guiding principle. In virtual teams we devote tragically little time working on these aspects and instead easily get lost in procedures, processes and deadlines, without realising we have not sufficiently put in place the necessary ‘failure-proofing’ factors. Research that has been around for decades shows that traditional project teams would spend the first half of a project’s life on social processes rather than task-related processes. For instance, we have lots of meetings whose primary function is to create trust in a team, help establish some norms, clarify the roles, coordination procedures etc. rather than actually contributing to the final output. These would still be called project meetings and people still talk about the task, but if we look at their actual output, they are not contributing fundamentally to the final result. But without them, the articulation needed for the team to deliver this result is absent. We often see this in teams that have a strong start and then disintegrate half-way through, either because they can’t deal with conflicts or because the engagement dissipated somewhere along the way.

This luxury is usually absent in virtual teams, as are all the redundant communication channels existing in co-located teams (i.e. the coffee corner, the cafeteria or lunch place, the incidental bumping into each other in the hallway etc.). And then, most research on virtual teams points to ‘the difficulty to read non-verbal cues’, ‘language barriers’ and ‘the difficulty of building relations’ as the most prominent obstacles in the ways of virtual teams functioning. Members of virtual teams often don’t know each other, haven’t seen each other around, or are even coming from different countries, where the company’s subsidiary might have a very different flavour. When you think of all this, it becomes clear just how much unknown and unfamiliar aspects plague a virtual team. At the same time, there is the excitement of a new face, a very different mindset or view (which can be truly exciting and eye-opening at times), the thrill of working together with an expert in the field – all the advantages virtual teams bring at the table in terms of human potential.

But all this potential can only flourish if the right conditions have been created for the team to operate:

  • very clear goals, and shared understanding of all team members of what those goals mean in practice
  • open communication (more is more in this case) and creating redundant communication channels (for instance good informal relations between members) so that information can be clarified or conflicts can be prevented and tackled in different ways and through different routes
  • creating conditions for trust between team members.

We only trust what is familiar, so a first precondition for trust is some form of familiarity. Second, in virtual teams trust is gained by delivering on your promises, so creating occasions for trust-building with some small tasks in the beginning is a great ‘team-builder’.

Tips for making virtual teams a success

  • Clarity, clarity, clarity
    Don’t take anything for granted (remember the sad story of the Mars Climate Orbiter which was lost due to a team doing calculations in cm and the other in inches). Don’t assume any shared understanding, but instead check if everybody understands the same thing and check whether everybody has access to the relevant information.
  • Plan, then plan some more, while all along be ready to let go
    Plan each meeting in detail: purpose, agenda, norms for communication, operation, delivery. Plan everything and then be open and ready for all the plans to very quickly change according to the new realities and conditions.
  • Always keep your communication channels open
    Make it a routine to place that needed ‘no-purpose’ odd-call to and between team members just to touch base. This allows for both building friendly bonds as well as accidentally finding out about misunderstandings, information that got lost along the way, the unspoken conflicts – it is one way you can implement the redundant communication channels in virtual teams. And when you do have time to meet in person, make it PERSONAL. Forget the day-long business meetings. (If well-planned, they can be more efficient in virtual settings.) Use this time instead to make sure the human element is there so you can fall back on this personal ties in the virtual setting.

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