Chapter 8 – Role of Communication

8.6. Communication with Virtual Teams


Screen shot of a zoom (video conference) meeting
Wikipedia Birthday Celebration by Deror Avi via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0,

Managing Virtual Teams

Managing a team of people who work side-by-side in the same office is difficult enough. But what about managing a virtual team—that is, a team whose members are dispersed at multiple geographical locations? In the worldwide marketplace, such teams are essential. Deborah L. Duarte and Nancy Tennant Snyder explain the trend in their helpful workbook, Mastering Virtual Teams:

Understanding how to work in or lead a virtual team is now a fundamental requirement for people in many organizations…. The fact is that leading a virtual team is not like leading a traditional team. People who lead and work on virtual teams need to have special skills, including an understanding of human dynamics and performance without the benefit of normal social cues, knowledge of how to manage across functional areas and national cultures, skill in managing their careers and others without the benefit of face-to-face interactions, and the ability to use leverage and electronic communication technology as their primary means of communicating and collaborating (Duarte & Tennant Snyder, 2006, p. 4).

When properly managed, collaboration over large distances can generate serious advantages. For one thing, the diversity of team members as per Siebdrat et al. (2009) “exposes members to heterogeneous sources of work experience, feedback, and networking opportunities.” At the same time, the team’s diversity enhances the “overall problem-solving capacity of the group by bringing more vantage points to bear on a particular project” (Siebdrat et al.,  2009, p. 65). Often, engaging with stakeholders via email allows for more intimacy and understanding than face-to-face conversations, which, depending on the personality types involved, can sometimes be awkward or ineffective.

However, research has underscored the difficulties in getting a dispersed team to work effectively. A study of 70 virtual teams found that 82% did not meet their intended goals (Govindarajan & Gupta, 2001).  Furthermore, research has shown that virtual team members are not satisfied with the virtual communication technology and do not view it “as an adequate substitute for face-to-face communication” (Purvanova, 2014).

Given these challenges, what’s a virtual team manager to do? It helps to be realistic about the barriers to collaboration that arise when your team is scattered around the office park or around the globe.

The Challenges of Virtual Distance

Physical distance—the actual space between team members—can impose all sorts of difficulties. Some studies have shown that teams who are located in the same space, where members can build personal, collaborative relationships with one another, are usually more effective than teams that are dispersed across multiple geographical locations.

Potential issues include difficulties in communication and coordination, reduced trust, and an increased inability to establish a common ground…. Distance also brings with it other issues, such as team members having to negotiate multiple time zones and requiring them to reorganize their work days to accommodate others’ schedules. In such situations, frustration and confusion can ensue, especially if coworkers are regularly unavailable for discussion or clarification of task-related issues (Siebdrat, et. al., 2009, p. 64).

Even dispersing teams on multiple floors of the same building can decrease the team’s overall effectiveness, in part because team members “underestimate the barriers to collaboration deriving from, for instance, having to climb a flight of stairs to meet a teammate face-to-face.” Team members end up behaving as if they were scattered across the globe. As one team leader at a software company noted, teams spread out within the same building tend to “use electronic communication technologies such as e-mail, telephone, and voicemail just as much as globally dispersed teams do” (Siebdrat, et. al., 2009, p. 64).

Human Resources may help the Project Manager and team work through the challenges by providing supports and resources to the team.

Efficiently Managing a Virtual Team

Communication options like video conferences, text messages, and email can do wonders to bridge the gap. But you do need to make sure your communication technology is working seamlessly.

Patterns of communication are important for Project Managers and the team.  Example:  communicating facts is fine in an email.  If there are issues with a team member, better to have a virtual meeting.  Conference calling, intranets services within organizations, private chat rooms through intranet, telephone, videoconferencing, and social media platforms provide effective means to communicate between and among Project Managers and teams, and the organization.

Conference calls: when the team is working with mutual documents, presentations, charts, etc.
Videoconferencing:  when the team need to “see” each other.  It helps to develop relationships.
Email:  when the Project Manager, team or stakeholders need to communicate facts about the project, or one-to-one communication.

How to Enrich Execution of a Project

Develop a code of conduct:  Have the team and Project Manager agree to what information needs share, when, and to whom it needs to be addressed.  Establish authority rules as to who can make day-to-day decisions about their work and related to what activities, and what needs approval before moving forward.

Develop norms:  Project Managers and team members cannot always see each other.  They need to delve into the communication and ask many questions, and deepen the conversations.  It is important to be clear, concise and countercheck that everyone understands instructions and other communication.

Get team to show their work:  Do not rely on what is being said that is done.  Ask for proof.  Send a sample, send a picture, or have a video call.

Be flexible:  Time zones differences and cultural differences can cause issues related to “showing up” for meetings.  Be flexible with timing.  Flex the time of meetings to meet other team member’s time zones.

Stay in touch:  Ensure the Project Manager, team members and stakeholders are in regular communication through standard scheduling that is inclusive.

HR in Focus

Human Resources Specialists can provide training for the Project Manager and team in how to effectively self-manage, set up an efficient communication plan, and offer ongoing support by participating in meetings.  If there are difficulties with communication, Human Resources may wish to be a “sounding board”, provide guidance and support to individual members, or the team as a whole.  If struggles persists, Human Resources may offer external counselling services to help individuals.

The Special Role of Trust on a Virtual Team

As we discussed in Chapter 4: Managing Teams trust is important to teams, and plays a significant role in communication. So, what’s the secret to making virtual teams work for you? We’ve already discussed the importance of building trust on any team. But on virtual teams, building trust is a special concern. Erin Meyer describes the situation like this: “Trust takes on a whole new meaning in virtual teams. When you meet your workmates by the water cooler or photocopier every day, you know instinctively who you can and cannot trust. In a geographically distributed team, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability” (Meyer, 2010).

All sorts of problems can erode a sense of reliability on a virtual team, but most of them come down to a failure to communicate. Sometimes the problem is an actual, technical inability to communicate (for example, because of unreliable cell phone service at a remote factory); sometimes the problem is related to scheduling (for example, a manager in Japan being forced to hold phone meetings at midnight with colleagues in North America); and sometimes the problem is simply a failure to understand a message once it is received. Whatever the cause, communication failures have a way of eroding trust among team members as they begin to see each other as unreliable.

And as illustrated in Figure 8-1, communicating clearly will lead your team members to perceive you as a reliable person, which will then encourage them to trust you.


Clear communication leads to perceived reliability and trust.
Figure 8‑1: The benefits of clear communication

Leigh Thompson (2015), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, offers a number of practical suggestions for improving virtual team work, including the following:

  • Verify that your communication technology works reliably, and that team members know how to use it.
  • Take a few minutes before each virtual meeting to share some personal news, so that team members can get to know each other.
  • Use video conferencing whenever possible, so everyone can see each other. The video image can go a long way toward humanizing your counterparts in distant locales. If video conferencing is not an option, try at least to keep a picture of the person you’re talking to visible, perhaps on your computer. Studies have shown that even a thumbnail image can vastly improve your ability to reach an agreement with a remote team member.