How to Effectively Communicate with Virtual Teams
— February 16th, 2023
An uneasy hesitation. Followed by that stilted silence. Protracted and somehow deafening.
Yes, it’s that awkward pause during a virtual team meeting.
It may be just a technical glitch, but more often than not, it’s a visceral reminder of the discomfort and unnaturalness of communicating through a screen rather than face-to-face with “actual people.”
Virtual teams often experience a lack of trust and social presence, which can negatively impact communication and collaboration. A study by the University of California, Irvine, found that virtual team members often struggle to build trust, leading to communication breakdowns and lower levels of collaboration. This is often due to a lack of nonverbal cues and the inability to form personal connections.
In short, virtual teams need to work hard to build the trust and loyalty that are hallmarks of a successful team.
The Ultimate Guide to Internal Communications Strategy
Remote team communication is the new reality
Remote working is not going away. At least not entirely. According to WFH Research’s American Time Use Survey, as of June 2022, 15% of full-time employees work remotely all the time. A little over half (55%) are based in the office, and 30% have a hybrid work schedule. So while the number of fully remote workers may not be hitting the dizzying heights of the pandemic years, its influence remains. And as trends such as the Great Resignation and quiet quitting persist, organizations are realizing they need to come to terms with flexible working and determine how they can work effectively in this changed environment.
Virtual teams face different challenges than co-located teams, such as timezone differences, language barriers, and cultural differences. These can also affect communication and collaboration within virtual teams. Team leaders must be aware of these challenges and take steps to address them. Here are some ideas and recommendations to bear in mind.
Establish a clear virtual team communication strategy
Virtual teams tend to communicate more frequently than co-located teams. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that virtual teams tend to communicate electronically, on average, twice as much as co-located teams. This is because virtual team members rely on technology to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interactions, and as a result, they tend to communicate more frequently and more diversely.
Good communication is the same whether it happens in person or virtually. The goal of any manager of any team is to build connections, encourage trust and openness, and maintain employee engagement.
Check in regularly with the virtual team
Regularly scheduled updates keep team members in the loop and projects on track. BUT...only set up meetings that are needed. Fewer meetings, shorter meetings, and smaller invite lists all decrease the risk of virtual meeting fatigue and the dreaded sight of employees clearly multi-tasking while half-listening. Quick daily stand-ups should focus on the day ahead, help the team to feel like a team, and only take up about fifteen minutes of everyone’s time.
Focus on the individual as well as the team
In a virtual environment, individual team members can start to feel isolated, and this can sometimes go unnoticed. Managers should hold regular one-on-one meetings to create a virtual safe space for each team member to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns.
Be flexible with the channels you use
Managers should be open to making the best use of all the available channels. The goal is to communicate effectively with all team members, so it’s best not to be overly reliant on one channel, like email for example. Ask employees what their own preferred method of comms is and, where possible, accommodate them.
Encourage engagement and interaction with surveys and polls
Virtual communication can disrupt the typical rhythm of our conversations. Often it is the same few people who seem to pipe up in larger meetings. So, it’s a good idea to get all team members involved and gauge everybody’s opinions. Real-time interaction with in-built polls or surveys is a great way to encourage participation and get immediate feedback.
Be consistent with channels and frequency
Set expectations and stick to them. If you’ve committed to daily updates, it’s important that you maintain that frequency. Likewise, if you typically send company updates via email and feedback via platform dashboards, then continue in that way. Team members will become familiar with these conventions and will appreciate the consistency.
Provide regular feedback, recognition, and appreciation for the team members’ work and contributions. As Ed Batista, executive coach and regular writer for Harvard Business Review, puts it, “Make feedback normal. Not a performance review.”
Recognition and appreciation can help to boost morale and motivation among team members. It can be as simple as sending a thank you email or a message in the chat for a job well done or recognizing someone’s hard work in a team meeting.
And those awkward pauses we mentioned earlier? Sometimes team members are not entirely focused or invested in the meeting, or they are not comfortable speaking up or contributing to the discussion. Encouraging active participation, breaking the ice, and creating a comfortable and inclusive environment can help to mitigate this. It’s also important to remember that some people may be more comfortable communicating verbally than in writing, or vice versa. As a leader or facilitator, it’s your job to encourage everyone to express themselves and actively listen to all participants.
Don’t neglect virtual team-building activities
During the pandemic, we were invited to countless virtual happy hours, team-building games, quizzes, and coffee breaks. These virtual team-building activities helped to break the ice and created a sense of camaraderie among team members. Just because some employees are now back in the office on a full-time basis doesn’t mean these initiatives should stop. These are golden opportunities for team members to get to know each other better and build relationships that can help to improve communication and collaboration.
Encouraging informal conversations and social interaction also helps to create a sense of community for newer team members.
Remember—team members come from different backgrounds and cultures, and it’s essential to be sensitive and respectful of those differences. Inviting team members to share their culture and traditions with the team can be a great way to build connections and embrace diversity.
Facilitate virtual break rooms
Give team members a space where they can "chill out" with their colleagues. Virtual break rooms are a great place for employees to catch up with others on their team in a relaxed environment.
Encourage employee connections
In a virtual environment, it’s more difficult for people to bond. In some cases, a little encouragement can go a long way. Set up a space where employees who don’t typically work with each other can have a virtual coffee. Occasionally include buffer time in team meetings to allow employees to discuss non-work-related topics.
Who works in a remote location like this?
Each week get a team member to showcase their home office. In this short virtual tour, employees can give colleagues a glimpse into their home life, allowing people to get to know each other on a different level.
Enjoy hobbies together, virtually
Whether it’s working out, cooking, reading, or meditating, you can easily bring these activities into the virtual world.
The team that lunches together
Why not host virtual lunch breaks every month? Managers could have lunches delivered to all remote team members, and then the team could enjoy their meal together via platforms like Slack or Teams.
Remote working, live
Once in a while, host a live remote working session—a team turns on their cameras and works away as usual. Much like in an open-plan office, they can chat away as they work, ask questions, brainstorm, or work in silence, enjoying the virtual company.
A face-to-face meeting?
One last recommendation—jump at any chance to bring your team together in person. While this might be impractical or challenging to organize, if at all possible, try to get your whole team together in one place to make that human connection. The empathy, energy, and camaraderie created from just one real-life meeting will be worth the effort!
The Ultimate Guide to Internal Communications Strategy
Despite being physically distant, virtual teams can be more productive than co-located teams. A study by Stanford University found that virtual teams often outperform co-located teamsbecause they have more frequent and diverse interactions, and they tend to be more efficient in their use of time. Also, virtual teams often have more varied perspectives, which can lead to more creative problem-solving and decision-making.
So there you have it—take advantage of your team’s wonderful diversity, master the art of virtual communication, and you can build a stronger, more cohesive virtual team.