Korrine Jones is our guest blogger today. Korrine will offer a workshop at Service Management 2016 on ‘Leading an invisible IT team’. Korrine is Director and Principal Consultant of OD Consulting, and author of Virtual Team Reality: The Secrets to Leading Successful Virtual Teams and Remote Workers. This blog looks at why communication breakdowns occur in dispersed teams and provides tips on using communication tools and processes differently to increase the quality of communication.
A 2014 study undertaken by Software Advice (Radley) found that communication was the top-cited challenge to managing projects with dispersed teams. In fact, 38% of the almost 300 professionals surveyed for the study said that communication was difficult for dispersed project teams.
With a wide range of communication tools available these days, including instant messaging, project management tools, wikis, blogs and virtual conferencing via telephone or video, it is interesting to note that the survey found the most preferred communication tool for 41% of the respondents was still email. Delving into the data further, phone is seen as the next most preferred communication channel (36%), 12% selected virtual conferencing as the preferred collaboration option, and only 10% of respondents favoured discussion forums and chat rooms.
However, the survey also found that emails, particularly long email threads, are seen as the top obstacle to effective project communication by 23% of respondents. In line with these findings, my personal experience has been that dispersed teams often overuse email as their most regular form of communication, with the result of deteriorating rather than building communication, rapport and trust across the team.
The survey results also found that 16% of dispersed team members experienced confusion about which communication channel – phone, chat or email – to turn to for which tasks. It is important to remember when we read these results that the tools are merely the communication channels. While teams I have worked with have found it useful to use a range of tools, to be effective in communication your team needs to agree on how they will communicate and then select the appropriate tool/s for their specific communication needs. Which channel will you agree to use for each type of team communication?
The survey also found generational differences in communication preferences. Specifically, it found that preference for digital mediums (such as email) decreased with age, while preference for analogue communications (phone) increased with age. The study also found that these trends change when looking at videoconferencing, discussion forums and chat, with 35-44 year olds less likely to prefer virtual conferencing and more likely to prefer chats and discussion groups than both younger and older age groups. This confirms my experience that people have very different preferences when it comes to communication modes and channels. Therefore, a multi-pronged approach is best, particularly in teams with diverse preferences. In this regard, the survey report recommends that a comprehensive communication strategy involving a variety of tools and techniques can help to solidify team connections and improve project visibility.
The richness of each communication channel and its appropriateness to specific conversations is also important for us to consider. For example, communication channels with low levels of richness, such as text-based documents and email, are appropriate for information sharing and one-way communication. As the complexity and sensitivity of the communication need increases, so should the richness of the channel. For example, feedback should be provided by telephone as a minimum and, for complex and constructive feedback, this should be undertaken via videoconference or face-to-face. A recent example of inappropriately delivered telephone feedback occurred within a dispersed learning and development team in a national consulting firm. During one feedback discussion and one performance review, a team member received some constructive feedback that she was not expecting. On both occasions she was taken aback by the feedback and became quite upset. She was quiet on the end of the telephone line for a few moments while she collected her thoughts and got her emotions under control. Each time, her manager responded uncomfortably to the silence on the line, promptly wound up the conversation and hung up on her. This left her feeling even more taken aback and upset. She felt that these situations impacted adversely on her relationship with her manager and eroded the trust they had worked to create.
If these conversations had been held via videoconference or face-to-face, the team leader and team member would have been able to read the body language of the other party and therefore respond more effectively. Therefore, sensitive feedback, as well as conflict and tension should, wherever possible, be addressed face-to-face. If this is not possible, then videoconference is the next most appropriate option.
It is also important to remember that you don’t necessarily need to have highly sophisticated tools to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively. However, you do need to have taken the time to build rapport and trust with team members to make it work. One example that illustrates the value of simplicity comes from United Nations Volunteers. I recently interviewed Michael Kolmet, team leader of United Nations Volunteers working in Africa, for my book Virtual Team Reality. Michael finds that communication can be effective even if the only tools available are email, Skype and telephone, and for them, the video for Skype can be very patchy. So, his team members will always begin a Skype call with the video, but will continue with voice if the video drops out. They find the initial video is sufficient to build the rapport they need to continue the conversation openly. However, to make this work, Michael and his team members had previously spent time agreeing on shared values and taking the time to build trust and rapport.
The dispersed teams I have worked with, who communicate particularly well, opt for the communication tools that provide greater interactivity. For example, telephone is more interactive than email or texting and Skype or videoconferencing is more interactive than telephone. As the report findings illustrate, we are often guilty of defaulting to email, even with those we do see regularly, but we need to ensure that the more sensitive, complex and substantial discussions are made via phone, videoconference and, if possible, face-to-face.
As a final note, it is also important to choose a form of technology that everyone can use, and to ensure that every team member has access to the technology and has been trained to use it correctly. I have worked with many team members who have a range of interactive communication tools available, but either don’t know that they have access to them, don’t know their full capabilities or don’t know how to use them. It is essential for team members to be familiar with how to use the tools properly so that the team can maximise their capability.