Communicating with Virtual Team Members (7 min)

Communicating with Virtual Team Members

Working in a virtual team often means working with people in different geographic locations from you and maybe, different cultural contexts. You need to create relationships with virtual team members, but you don’t have the casual, in-person office interactions to help you do so. Here, we will look at some of the challenges of communicating with virtual team members and how to address them:

Working Across Time Zones

When colleagues are in different time zones, there are smaller windows of opportunity for connecting via a phone call or video conference. There is also likely to be a delay in communications via instant messaging or email, which might lead to frustration or block the flow of ideas in a conversation. Also, out of necessity, we may end up communicating when we are quite tired or in what would ordinarily be our leisure time, which can build up resentment.

It can be helpful to agree on a good time window that, isn’t too late or early for anyone, for everyone to meet regularly. You can also make sure to be clear about where your working hours overlap with your colleagues and when you are going to be unavailable for communication. This will set expectations and reduce frustrations. It can help to have a centralized tool for keeping track of everyone’s availability and for arranging important meetings at a time where everyone can be at their best.

Communicating Without Non-verbal Cues

Without the visual cues that help us to gauge the mood and meaning of the words another person is using, it is easy for messages to be misunderstood or misconstrued. The lack of this more natural kind of social interaction can also lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, causing team members to become withdrawn and reducing feelings of camaraderie and closeness with others.

To counter this, take a little time at the beginning and end of your video conferencing calls for everyone to make sure they have their camera switched on if possible, and check in together about your day, home lives and how your energy is. Take a minute or two to really listen to and watch each person and connect with the human being behind the emails.

Building Trust

Virtual working can unfortunately lead to a lack of trust within a team if communication is neglected. Members of the team are unable to see where the other is and what they are doing, communication experiences a lag due to time zones and there may be a lack of familiarity and intimacy.

Setting clear expectations and consistently meeting them can help to build trust with your colleagues. Make sure that you take on only what you know you can deliver and that you consistently deliver quality work on time.

Building Relationships

Virtual team workers miss out on casual water-cooler chats and after-work drinks with colleagues. Often, communication can end up being limited to task-related queries and instructions, which means that working friendships are absent or underdeveloped. This can cause a decline in motivation and reduce collaboration within the team.
Take some time each day to check in with colleagues via some informal messaging means, asking about their holiday or sharing a movie recommendation. These are the little interactions that can build a friendship or friendly working relationship that are often missed out on when working in a virtual team. One simple yet effective way to create human connections is simply to check-in at each meeting by sharing one personal and one professional best moment.

Check out this video (4 min) about an experiment between students at a management school showing some of the challenges they encountered working on a problem together virtually and the little tweaks that made a big difference to their experience.