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How to Deal with Communication Problems in Remote Teams

With virtual teams, communication issues tend to be more pronounced, especially as those teams grow.

Virtual Teams

With the rise of the knowledge worker and knowledge work – which involves performing intellectual, cognitive, and abstract tasks rather than physical ones, remote and dispersed teams became the norm rather than the exception.

Those teams promise to be more flexible and efficient. In practice, reaping the benefits requires deliberate work on increasing the quality of communications between team members.

For traditional and remote teams alike, good communication is a performance lever. One study showed that for every 10% improvement in communication effectiveness, teams saw a 13% improvement in performance compared with other teams.

With virtual teams, communication issues tend to be more pronounced, especially as those teams grow.

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Deal with Communication Issues in Remote Teams

Below we review some of the main communication issues that remote teams face and some proposed solutions to them.

1. Address lack of commitment by developing a communication charter

Members of a virtual team may feel less inclined to communicate and be present in the same way they are when working in an office.

To maintain discipline, you can use a communication charter. This charter would typically include all the communication tasks needed for the team to function well (e.g status updates or requests for feedback), the audience, the sender, the communication medium (email, video conferencing, etc.), the timing and frequency, and the main messages to be communicated.

The charter can also include ground rules which govern team interactions, to ensure mutual respect and a positive virtual work environment.

The first step in developing this charter is asking about the information needs of each team member. You can ask a simple question: who needs what information, when, how, and from whom?

Involving the team members early on in developing the communication charter ensures commitment to it.

This would keep things on track and set clear expectations about the roles and responsibilities of each person when it comes to communications.

2. Use the right technology for the right task

Your communication charter probably includes various communication tasks, such as status update meetings, detailed discussions around a certain deliverable, meetings around a specific issue, sudden updates and notifications, and so on.

The key rule to follow here is to match the technology to the task, as recommended by MIT Sloan Management Review. For example, using email for project status updates or to send general information is not recommended, as someone could be forgotten.

For this task, you may need a bulletin board that everyone has access to. You can use a certain channel on Slack or Microsoft Teams for one-direction communications to ensure members receive notifications when you write something new.

You can also develop a dashboard by using a Google spreadsheet that everyone has access to. The dashboard would include key progress indicators. This eliminates the need for exchanging those details over email.

Another example of matching technology to the task is when you want to conduct a team-building activity. Here a webcam meeting is preferable to a dry email.

In short, it is critical to use the right technological tools for the task and the people involved.

3. Establish a home time zone to resolve synchronization and scheduling issues

Remote teams are usually dispersed geographically and across time zones, which can make it hard for people to work together. If your employee promised you to deliver a report the morning the next day, which is 6 PM where you are, it might cause delays or deadline confusion.

There are many ways to solve this, but a key step to take is to declare a home time zone. You should do this even if your core team is also dispersed.

For example, if you set EST as your home time zone, any deadlines you mention are supposed to be in that same time zone. If you see the deadline Monday the 11th of May at 11:00 AM, it means 11 AM EST.

Once you decide on a home time zone and your formal business hours, time zone charts and maps will help you find out time overlaps (the Alarms & clock tool in Windows 10 is a handy one).

You will be able to see what time it will be in Berlin when it is 11 PM in New York, for example. This way, it will be easier to coordinate and schedule tasks at times that are suitable for (nearly) everyone. Then, identify the times when it will be hard for most people to meet (no overlap between time zones) and avoid scheduling meetings in those times.

As for scheduling, offering team members different optional dates for a meeting can ensure most of the participants attend since they will have voted on a date and time that suit them.

3. Actively work on fostering trust between team members

As tasks and teams become more virtual, trust between team members suffers. With lower trust, there is a higher chance of interpersonal and task-based conflict between, which in turn undermines productivity.

To address this, you must develop two types of trust within your team. The first is trust in the person (that they have positive intentions), and the second is trust in their professional capabilities (their ability to perform their tasks). Both types positively affect team cohesion.

To foster the first type of trust, it is recommended to have frequent positive interactions between team members, such as weekly status update meetings. Also, cultivate a culture in your workplace where team members jump to help one another.

The second type of trust can be developed by pointing out the positive results each member on the team has achieved and encouraging team members to highlight their colleagues’ strengths (which is practiced at Google).

4. Use video meetings when possible to reinforce the connection

Remote teams often rely on written communications for exchanging information. Yet, the tone of voice and body gestures cannot be captured by text. This can cause misunderstandings, poor engagement, low team morale, and lack of cohesion.

Conducting a quick video meeting with everyone and checking in on them takes only 10 to 15 minutes, but usually leaves a positive impact in that team members feel a sense of belonging.

One study showed that webcam meetings were 34 times more effective than emails. Furthermore, to eliminate misunderstandings and as a best practice, ask people at the end to repeat back the action items that were discussed and agreed upon in the meeting.

5. Manage expectations and remove ambiguity

Defining roles and responsibilities is an important task to ensure a fair distribution of the workload. This is equally important in virtual work teams. Being clear about what you require from your fellow workers and employees can help remove confusion.

Using tools and templates like a RACI matrix can keep everyone in the loop and organize work effectively.

In this matrix, you identify who is responsible for doing the task, who is accountable for the outcome, who should be consulted and asked for inputs, and who should be informed about the progress. Below is an example.

Task Responsible Accountable Consulted Informed

Writing the contents of the landing page John Elen Edward Tom

Designing the landing page Derek Elen Edward Tom

6. Be prepared for technology malfunctions

Technological networks serve to connect team members, and any technological malfunction can result in a complete communication breakdown.

You cannot afford this risk; thus, you need to have backup systems and procedures in place to default back to.

This can include having an additional connection to use if your Wi-Fi fails, ensuring the tools you use are compatible with people’s devices and operating systems, empowering employees to identify and solve common issues so they don’t rely on external IT support, etc.

Before you implement new technologies organization-wide, you need to ensure that the equipment is up to the task and that employees receive proper training so they can use the system confidently and to its fullest potential.

Final words

Virtual teams are more susceptible to communication issues both because of the distance as well as the diversity of the team. They include people from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds, which increases the chance of misunderstandings.

While those teams can be very efficient, you need to set some ground rules first. This can include agreeing on key terms that the team will use and their definitions, among other measures.

You should always be working on increasing clarity and accuracy in communications, reducing ambiguity and uncertainty, and maintaining a healthy flow of information to everyone who needs it. This way your team will work like a beehive.

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