Organizational Communication in a Virtual Work Environment
By: Stephen M. Urquhart
This research paper explores the inherent challenges in managing and communicating with members of a virtual team or workgroup, and reviews current literature to provide an overview of effective methods and practices for organizations seeking to improve the communication and effectiveness of such teams. Virtual teams must overcome a number of barriers, such as geographic and temporal distances, trust issues, differing communication styles, and technology challenges that can intensify each of the foregoing. Building blocks of managing and developing effective communication strategies are presented, such as clarity of purpose, effective interfaces, information sharing, and management behavior. Ultimately, a balance is proposed between rapid adoption of technology and processes, and preserving the interpersonal aspects of human relationships upon which the global society was created.
Organizational Communication in a Virtual Work Environment
Technology has created a double-edged sword for those who work in today’s hyper-connected global economy. The positive effects of modern technology include its ability to cut through the dimensions of time and space and efficiently provide vast amounts of information nearly anywhere in the world within seconds. The negative effects include the severing of some aspects of interpersonal communication, among them immediate feedback, standards of etiquette, and an overall depersonalization of the process, as foretold by Kiesler, Siegel and McGuire (1984).
However, companies that seek to remain relevant and competitive in this business setting are moving forward with organizational structures that are often more tangible on paper, such as in the organizational chart where they are drawn up, than they are in reality. Such is the nature of the nascent “virtual organization,” be it an ad hoc team that is working to address a specific product development or a more formalized organization that is bound together by a stated purpose and often little more.
This research paper will examine some of the challenges that are faced by virtual organizations and teams, and provide an overview of strategies that appear to be working to help bring people together virtually and overcome the communication hurdles that are inherent in these relatively new workgroups. It will also identify some of the organizational behavior issues that have the potential to limit overall team efficacy or otherwise impact the group dynamics.
For the purpose of this research paper, the following definition of a virtual organization is adopted as the most relevant and accurate: “A virtual organization is a collection of geographically distributed, functionally and/or culturally diverse entities that are linked by electronic forms of communication and rely on lateral, dynamic relationships for coordination. Despite its diffuse nature, a common identity holds the organization together in the minds of members, customers, or other constituents” (DeSanctis & Monge, 1998 para. 3).
Virtual teams and virtual workgroups may be assumed to have similar characteristics and circumstances, and these sub-entities may be the virtual organization in question or a subset of such an organization. This paper will focus mainly on virtual teams, similarly “linked primarily through advanced computer and telecommunications technologies … [so that] organizations can build teams with optimum membership while retaining the advantages of flat organizational structure” (Townsend, DeMarie and Hendrickson, 1998).
Finally, an accepted definition of organizational communication is adopted and expanded from a reference by the International Association of Business Communicators, in that organizational communication transcends the emails, memos and presentations shuttled through the workplace and takes on a much greater interpersonal scope. Organizational communication is relationship-based and includes such factors as emotion, behavior and human psychology (Gillis, 2006, p. 297).
Challenges and Implications
There are a number of permutations to a virtual team or organization, ranging from the workgroup that meets periodically face to face but works mainly in a dispersed setting and connected by electronic communication tools and resources, to the truly virtual team comprised of members that may have never met in person and may have little affinity with one another. In the latter scenario, differences in culture, background and motivation may hinder the ability of the group to truly “gel” or coalesce as a team. Moreover, there is a serious question about the level of trust can exist among team members who have so little in common. It is essential in such cases that the manager fosters an environment where the team members have a perspective on the goals in common, as well as a sense that all members of the team share a common future (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998) and, as referenced earlier, a common identity (DeSanctis & Monge, 1998 para. 3).
In addition to the interpersonal obstacles created by a lack of shared history or cultural context, the technology itself has limitations that may impede effective teamwork. Applying the Time, Interaction, and Performance (TIP) theory, (McGrath, 1991) teams in a common location or virtually connected must both carry out the following functions: problem solving, task performance, member inclusion, participation, and interaction. When a team is working virtually and in some cases asynchronously, these functions are difficult to calibrate, and the verbal or visual cues of a breakdown in communication may not be apparent in time for effective management coaching of the team process.
In one recent book, the term “virtual distance” is introduced to address precisely the breakdown in communication above when interactions are limited to e-mail, instant messaging or other computer-mediated communications (Lojeski and Reilly, 2008). In the virtual team environment, context is frequently missing and the full potential of interpersonal communication, replete with body language, facial cues and expressions, intonations and eye contact, is lost in transmission.
There are also cases where the technical capabilities of the team members are uneven, and if there is not a high degree of trust or shared sense of purpose among the team members, unskilled team members may be wary of requesting training or assistance or revealing what could be construed as a weakness. As a result, a virtual team that relies heavily on computer-mediated communication and technology for collaboration and teamwork will run the risk of underperforming and potentially alienating team members that feel left out of the interaction. Managers of virtual teams must take these issues into consideration when determining “fit” for a team that is working outside of the traditional office setting and without dedicated information technology (IT) support to coach the members who lack sufficient knowledge of the tools and resources needed to participate and perform.
Paradoxically, while virtual teams are often seen as capable of bridging multiple time zones to create the quintessential 24/7 workflow, in many cases it takes longer for these teams to get things done precisely because of the gaps in time and distance. As one manager from global shipping company DHL expressed, “People are working in different time zones, which means that decisions or actions take that bit longer. Managers have to remember to account for this in their planning and scheduling” (Melcrum, 2003, p. 37)
To summarize, the three critical and essential elements that are likely to have a significant impact on the potential of virtual teams to thrive or fail are trust, a shared vision, and effective use of technology to facilitate the interactions and performance of the team. Each of these can have implications for the behavior of individuals on the team, and without training and preparation a manager may not be able to achieve the necessary results through the team without significant corrective actions and interventions during the team’s activities and interaction. When any one of the above elements is allowed to further degrade, the team will similarly degrade in its effectiveness, potentially causing damage to the organization in the process. The management of virtual teams is an assignment that requires significantly different skills than traditional team management, and organizations need to use appropriate caution and due diligence when selecting all members of a virtual team, management included. (Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1998)
The ultimate gauge of the effectiveness of a virtual team should be its ability to perform, and ultimately to achieve the desired results. Three criteria are offered in a University of Dallas/PricewaterhouseCoopers study: the team’s productivity level; the team’s ability to learn and improve; and the overall level of satisfaction, and engagement, of the individual team members (Lurey and Raisinghani 2001).
Effective communications with remote and virtual employees begin with an environmental scan to ensure that that portion of the workforce is accurately identified, and that their differences (cultural, geographical or organizational) are acknowledged and factored in to the strategy. In many cases, organizations are not fully aware of the number of virtual workers they have, and as a result this group can be forgotten if proactive measures are not taken (Kernaghan, Clutterbuck & Cage, 2001).
Best practice organizations actively involve their virtual workers in the design of organizational communication processes and resources that will best facilitate their ability to interact and stay engaged, and they have management support both philosophically and financially (Kernaghan, Clutterbuck & Cage, 2001).
Effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful virtual team or workgroup, and without it any short-term successes are likely to be eclipsed by underperformance and disengagement of individual members. Rigorous criteria for selection of employees to gauge their readiness to work in a virtual environment was not covered substantially in the literature, but is likely to have a significant impact on the efficacy of individuals and teams in their performance of virtual work. Additionally, it is incumbent upon the team manager to clearly define roles and responsibilities along with expectations as the team is brought together (Jarvenpaa and Leidner, 1998). This is further reinforced in the Melcrum study in which the following key challenges are outlined for managers of virtual teams: creating clarity of role, synchronizing work efforts, building and maintaining effective communication interfaces with the team. If these issues are not addressed, it will likely result in decreases of motivation, clarity, trust and connection to the organizational goals (2003, p. 54).
“Our research and experience tells us that it is still the line manager who is the most trusted and that therefore it is the line manager who is the key the success of any communication/remote working strategy” (Melcrum, 2003, p. 89) The following is a partial list of the guidelines presented in the Melcrum study to assist managers in developing an effective communication strategy for their virtual teams:
- Create opportunities for people to get to know each other on a personal level.
- Have a clear system for recognizing and managing misunderstandings.
- Anyone who feels upset or uncomfortable about e-communications from another virtual team member has a responsibility to share that concern openly, with a view to building greater understanding.
- Keep the team relatively small – no more than eight to 10 people. The larger the virtual team, the more likely it is to fragment into uncoordinated smaller groups.
- Have clear and frequent processes for reflection and review.
- Hold virtual team meetings on a regular basis, just as you would with a face-to-face team.
- Do not overly rely on e-mail. Expect people to talk in person, by telephone or video conference, at least once every few weeks. (2003, p. 110)
Melcrum offers the following “Pillars of communication success” as the key elements to developing and implementing an effective strategy for virtual and remote workers:
Figure 1. The four pillars of communication success.
This diagram offers four elements that are equally important in shaping an effective communication strategy for remote and virtual workers: clarity of purpose, effective interfaces, effective information sharing, and the communication behavior of organizational leaders. At the team level, clarity of purpose answers the question, “What do we need to achieve in this unit and why?” It also addresses values and sets the tone for how the team will interact. The interfaces referred to in this model include the interactions among the team members, the relationship of the team with its adjacent and supported business units, and a sense of connectivity with the corporate headquarters or regional office. With respect to information, it is vital that the team is receiving the information needed to perform their roles and the team’s mission, and that information is received in a timely manner. Finally, the behavior of top management will either fully support and actively contribute to the success of the virtual teams and workgroups, or it may simply fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” pattern where the team feels abandoned or irrelevant. The team leader must actively seek the support of top management and convey this sense of support to the team members consistently (Melcrum, 2003).
When structured correctly, the virtual team environment can create a number of benefits for its members, such as improved flexibility and work-life balance, reduced travel requirements, and a less distracting setting for productive, knowledge intensive work (Melcrum, 2003). Similarly, employers can benefit by decreasing the physical plant required to house workers, limiting the amount of money spent on travel for meetings that can be done using technology, and potentially contributing to satisfaction and retention of key employees through flexible and virtual work arrangements.
For an organization and its employees to realize any of these benefits, the organization must address the aforementioned “virtual distance” issues, specifically real and perceived distance that is created by geographical separation, temporal (for example, time zone differences) distance, and organizational distance (Lojeski and Reilly, 2008).
Recommended methods for overcoming “virtual distance” include face-to-face meetings, coordinated work, an emphasis on team development, and a strong focus on organizational communication. Acknowledging that much of the communication between members of a virtual team will be computer-mediated, particularly via e-mail, it is essential to provide training in effective use of e-mail and to establish norms and etiquette for team communications up front. Team members must ensure that their communications are intelligible and can be understood by others who may not fully appreciate the context in which an e-mail or missive is written. (Lojeski and Reilly, 2008)
Advances in technology have made it possible for today’s workers to communicate, collaborate and compete with their global counterparts in ways that were not imaginable 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, the accelerated adoption of technology in nearly every aspect of business has outpaced the capacity of the average worker to fully appreciate, embrace and employ the new capabilities. A casual observer of modern business practices may observe a conscious or unconscious reluctance on the part of the workforce to accept technology as a permanent part of the workplace, but it is clear that technology is here to stay, it is not standing still waiting for people to catch up, and success in the modern workplace depends on harnessing its power and potential. Moreover, the success of a worker in today’s knowledge economy is predicated on their ability to leverage technology to the advantage of their employer or client, and constantly learn and re-learn the skills necessary to compete.
In all of this, there is an inherent risk of losing track of the traits and characteristics that distinguish human beings from robots, such as the ability to empathize, to exercise independent thought, to think critically, and to build effective relationships with others. Relying too heavily on technology as a surrogate for achieving goals and relentlessly driving for results creates the risk of dehumanizing the world of work and alienating its denizens. It is essential to strike an appropriate balance between efficiency in a process sense, and effectiveness in an organizational sense.
Good managers can preserve the human side of the business, no matter how far flung or disparate its employees may be, by building on the “four pillars” (clarity of purpose, effective interfaces, information sharing, and management behavior) and constantly checking for understanding, engagement, and growth among their team members. In the apparent zeal to automate everything, those of us who have the ability to influence this balance have an obligation to remember how we got to where we are today, and remind others what it takes to continue to make progress without falling victim to process.
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