Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Life inside a virtual team: Communication, language and culture

I have had the opportunity to work in or observe countless virtual teams over the past 15 years. From the military, an online degree program and my in-company work, it is clear that virtual team communication is a critical component of success in international organizations.

Over the past two years, I have largely specialized my training to deal with the unique challenges virtual teams face.

So let's look at a few of the key factors which support or hinder communication in virtual teams.

1.  Technical Skills

The members of a virtual team must master a range of technical applications to communicate effectively. Often this is taken for granted and the team members have only a superficial knowledge of communication tools.  Additionally, team members tend to rely on communication methods they use to enhance face-to-face communication in the local workplace (dear email, I am talking about you).

Here are some examples of technical skills which can support better virtual communication. But of course, this is not all.
  • Use all the tools in virtual meeting software (and no, companies do not use Skype).
  • Create PowerPoint slides which are designed to be read and not presented. This includes things like inserting documents and objects into slides, drastically changing formatting, etc.
  • Create and manage an organized document library, including naming standards, types, searchability, etc.
  • Use graphics tools like MS Visio to create diagrams (preferably those linked to data).
  • Troubleshoot and diagnose technical issues like bandwidth limitations, audio and video problems, etc.
  • Create and maintain a team website/portal in applications like SharePoint or SalesForce
  • Use the complete functionality of Outlook
2.  Communication Channels

Understanding communication channels within organizations has always been an important part of collaboration and communication in teams, but it is especially important in virtual groups. I notice that virtual team members and managers do not completely understand the communication channels within their organization or how to change them.

Employees talk about long (or non-existent) feedback loops quite often without understanding the communication exact 'workflow'. Virtual team members typically complain about lack of information without seeing the number of stops between the origin of the information and their location in the social network.

A lack of understanding of how information flows through the team leads to unnecessary and unproductive meetings, massive communication overhead among network nodes, and a lack of information transparency among the team. The result is often redundant work and even unproductive affective conflicts between team members.

3.  Stages of Team Development and Team Dynamics

Many managers these days are trained in team building and educated in how teams change over time.  But in reality I see a couple of things happening. First, virtual groups evolve into teams and aren't expressly formed. For example, a team in India begins as an 'internal supplier' for a team in the US. The Americans send clearly defined workpackages to the Indians, which are then completed and sent back as deliverables. But over time, the two groups start working more closely together and eventually collaborate on a new product innovation jointly. The result is a team. The manager and the team members likely didn't even feel the change because it happened gradually and we cannot point to specific formation.

Second, managers attempt to copy team development strategies from their co-located teams in the past. They organize kick-offs and team building activities. They create team rituals and talk a lot about values and mindset. This is valuable of course, but virtual team development faces some unique challenges the managers and members are unprepared for. Especially in building trust, the written word of email leaves a lot of space for misinterpretation and I see that virtual teams move a slower through Tuckman's stages than co-located colleagues.

4.  Culture

Everybody likes talking about culture these days and I can see why. After all, you can explain nearly any misunderstanding or awkward moment simply by saying, "It must be the culture." But let's take a step back here for a moment and look at this sentence for the cop out it really is. From my observation, nearly all misunderstanding and awkward moments are caused by something other than culture.
  • Okay, so he didn't respond to you email. - Not culture, he's busy and you're not a priority.
  • She always goes off on a tangent. - Guess what... she does that with everyone.  Not culture.
  • They are always very direct. - Well, they are working in a second language and the meeting is only 30 minutes long. They are trying to avoid a misunderstanding and get things done. Not culture (well, okay some might say there is some culture here).
Now, I am not saying that culture does not play a role in virtual teams. I am sure it does, but let's not place the culture label on everything. One problem with culture is the national culture idea. Research like Hofstede and Trompenaars is based on huge sample sizes to draw conclusions about values, tendencies and behaviors. But in virtual teams we are talking about individuals with distinct backgrounds, goals and personalities.

My clients don't need to know how to convince 'Germans', they need to know how to convince Anja, Thomas and Hans. I'm not advocating the abolition of country-specific culture training, but it should certainly include a large warning label, "Some or all of this may not apply to the person you are talking to. If in doubt, get to know the person." Character assumptions are the fastest way to make someone not like you.

There is another aspect of culture which plays a role: company culture. Employees are sick of hearing about it because I think every company in the world is trying to refine it, change it or implement it. They are largely numb to the whole topic, but there is a certain 'way of doing things' in companies and departments. Organizations have values, methods and rituals. If you want to improve communication in a virtual team, it might be helpful to look at how it works in the local offices, not a generalization about the whole country. (I have been guilty of this in the past... lesson learned.)

5.  Communication Norms

Building on points 2, 3 and 4, we come to communication norms.  Communication norms consist of agreements on channels, methods and formats. At the lowest level we are talking about terminology. At an organizational level we are talking about the project communication plan. Somewhere in between we look at things like slide templates, forms, collaborative document set up, standards for correspondence, meeting agendas, etc.

The local team members come into a virtual team with certain communication norms like how they report information, what meetings look like, etc.. Often, these norms are incompatible and virtual teams need to compromise their norms. At a low level, we may agree (explicitly or implicitly) on certain vocabulary and terms. At a larger level, the group may agree on norms for meeting presentations (e.g. no more than 10 minutes).

The point is that norms will emerge. The key is making sure they are appropriate for the group. One type of meeting agenda may work great in a face-to-face setting, but fall flat when we have a large virtual meeting.  That report structure may be perfect for stimulating discussion at the home office, but might not include enough information to be shared to a distributed team.

I see that managers and employees take norms for granted and several things happen.
  • The team does not discuss the norms, which results in ambiguity (no meta-communication)
  • The team adopts norms from one location which are ineffective (e.g. bad meeting styles are copied into the virtual team)
  • The team adopts norms which do not fit the communication tools and methods
  • Team members and managers do not hold others accountable when they violate the norms (e.g. no one says anything when the presenter takes too long)
6.  Language

This is typically the default diagnosis (along with culture) for why many virtual teams are underperforming. And managers and team members are not completely wrong. Communication in a second language takes more time and effort than in a first language. Meetings are longer or cover less content. Proper understanding often takes more repetition (either synchronously or via follow up correspondence). Writing takes longer, including emails, reports, documentation, etc. But where there is the will and need to communicate an idea, there is a way. Teams make it work, but it is frustrating and puts pressure on their already busy schedule. After all, project schedules and team goals are set on the assumption that worker efficiency is constant.

The magic level seems to be around B1-B2. Team members who are lower than B1 cost the team efficiency and time. Due to poor comprehension, meetings have to be slower and the communication overhead is higher for repetition and follow up. On the other side, the team suffers from their inability to contribute effectively - costing time and energy. Notice, I am talking about the communication workload on the whole team, not just the low-level speaker.

At B1 or B2, the team is generally able to coordinate action effectively if the right norms, channels and strategies are used to accommodate the distributed team set up and language burden. Groups of workers at this level are able to achieve L1-like efficiency under the right conditions. Team members in the B2-C1 levels are instrumental in helping to set up these norms. These are the team members who are best suited for moderating discussions and chairing meetings.

If there are team members above C1 or native speakers in the group, the challenge changes. As many have mentioned, the ability of high-level/native speakers to adapt to ELF is crucial. In my experience, learners come with ELF and it is not something I train. Their English has been formed by their exposure prior to the training. My job then is so simply formalize ELF as a standard and get everyone speaking the same 'English'. If left 'untuned' to ELF, high-level speakers cause higher communication overhead and actually hurt the team's efficiency. With the natural belief among language learners that greater proficiency means greater communicative skill, the realization that they are actually causing problems can be a real eye-opener.


I have highlighted six aspects to communication in the virtual team environment. Many Business English Trainers will be focused on the language aspect because they either do not have access to the inner workings of the organization or their mandate does not include broader communication issues. But I suspect that many trainers are willing to expand their 'English teacher' role if they see the opportunity to deliver added value or help solve the real communication barriers of the company.

My advice is that training experts enhance their skill set to stay one step ahead of clients in virtual team communication. This includes obtaining the technical know-how, matching reality with organizational theory, revisiting the field of communications and expanding their approach to language in the workplace. Clients will be extremely grateful for you ability to deliver greater efficiency and project success.

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