Team communication

Introduction

Some people are really good in communication. They have the charisma, the talent, the skills, to communicate, to listen to others, and persuade them if needed.

Programmers are(?) not that social, at least not as much as the business or the HR people. Ιn addition to that, teams now have more than one formations. People together in a room or building, distributed, hybrid. Especially during covid era nowadays, distributed teams tend to be the standard.

The common goal

Before anything, a team is a group of people who trust each other. The communication is transparent, and all information must be provided as a whole, not corrupted or parts of it concealed. But it’s not only that. How do you persuade the group that they have a common goal, and its achievement furthers the interests of each group member individually?

This discussion is far from novel. Mancur Olson, in 1965, wrote a book about group theory, group and individual behaviours [1]. Of course since the 60s, economies, communication patterns, way of living and thinking have changed completely, but the question still remains, and today is more complex, probably, than ever before in the past.

The goal must in be identified a transparent way, and all team members must agree upon it. Some will find this weird, but it’s the truth. If you have to deliver a software system in six months, the only reason a junior programmer would agree to that is for the sole reason of not losing their job. You know how the story goes from this point.

When a manager allows everyone to agree, they don’t give their power away. The opposite happens, they produce trust! Plus when all the team members agree, the members feel move involved, not just agents executing orders.

What do you buy first, the goal or the leader?

What is more important? The idea or the people who represent it? Well for me are equally important. One fuels the other. No team will ever win a game if the leader is not willing to lead to victory. A leader that makes a difference is a person that “walks his/her talks”. In simple words, they do as they say, not the opposite and that is what gives to the leader any credibility. This is the only way so the others to follow.

But the goal itself, the ideas matter too. You wouldn’t follow a military leader, no matter how excellent he is, to a mass slaughter, would you? The goal must be positive and matter to everybody in the team, from the manager to the junior developer, or else you don’t have a team, you have just a bunch of people supposedly working together. Yes we all need the money, the companies want revenue, but you don’t work just for that, right? A job, any job, must be creative, interesting, challenging, providing the force to grow as a professional and a personality too.

Team members that listens to each other

The team should be always be open to new ideas. It doesn’t matter if they are not qualified, it matters to be listened and acknowledged. The communication pattern must allow any ideas to come forward at any time, cause you never know when you will hear the idea that makes the difference, do you? So a team leader, has to find a way to encourage a healthy dialog among all team members. This way each one will be feel more comfortable to share ideas whenever possible.

Team members that supports each other

Team members must support and get to know each other. But any support must be real. Hypocrisy never lasts forever. And support generates motive. A team leader must encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among the team members, but a leader must also acknowledge the efforts, the achievements and the contributions towards the common goal. Rewards in teams are needed, but must be given without any nepotism or other dark motivations. Objective rewards increase team’s loyalty, and consequently performance is boosted.

Add the “distributed” keyword

Among others, you have the “distributed” factor in your hands, and nowadays is stronger than ever. A distributed team doesn’t just mean that people are to different locations and/or timezones. It means much more. Different timezone, different countries, different languages, different countries. Is it easy to keep that kind of a team bonded? No, not at all.

Before we continue, I want to make clear, that I am totally against installing any kind of software and hardware to an employee’s equipment and premises in order to monitor and control them. My cornerstone virtue is trust, without it nothing works.

Setting up a virtual environment for a group of distributed people working together, is far from simple. You don’t just install zoom or skype or teams and you are ready to go. You have to build a culture first. Any traditional risks such as complexity, the uncertainty of factors influencing the projects and the high interdependency of the project tasks to be managed, together with the temporal, geographical and cultural dimensions of virtual teams, make the management of a virtual project a risky and complex undertaking with a high probability of failure [2].

A virtual team

According to Hertel, Konradt, & Orlikowski (2004) “a virtual team is a group of geographically distributed and organisationally dispersed workers performing one or more tasks that are supported by information and communication technology” [2].

According to Powell, Piccoli, & Ives (2004, p. 7) distinctive features of a virtual team are “their preponderant – and at times exclusive – reliance on information technology to communicate with each other, their flexible compositions, and their ability, if necessary, to traverse traditional organizational boundaries and time constraints” [2].

In DeSanctis and Monge’s (1999, p. 694) definition other important issues of a virtual organisation being “geographically distributed, functionally or culturally diverse, electronically linked, and connected via lateral relationships” [2].

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Potential decrease in travel time and costs (Gillam & Oppenheim 2006); (Bergiel, Bergiel, & Balsmeier 2008); (Kayworth & Leidner 2000)The virtual structure may not fit into the operational environment (Gillam & Oppenheim 2006)
Responsiveness (Bergiel, Bergiel, & Balsmeier 2008)Lack of expertise in technological application related to teaming among some mature senior managers (Gillam & Oppenheim 2006)
Higher flexibility (Bergiel, Bergiel, & Balsmeier 2008), flexibility in balancing personal and profes-sional life (Gillam & Oppenheim 2006)Not an option for every type of employee because of an employee’s psychological make-up and other predispositions (Gillam & Oppenheim 2006)
Reduces discrimination (Bergiel, Bergiel, & Balsmeier 2008); opportunities for physically handicapped people to work in a non-traditional environment (Gillam & Oppenheim 2006)Potential decrease in efficiency due to free-riding (de Pillis & Furumo 2007); (de Pillis & Furumo 2006)
Teams of experts and best competencies – Maximize the expertise without having physically to relocate individuals (Bergiel, Bergiel, & Balsmeier 2008); (Gillam & Oppenheim 2006); (Kayworth & Leidner 2000)Extremely difficult and less effective communication and therefore reduced efficiency (Kayworth & Leidner 2000); (de Pillis & Furumo 2007); (McGrath & Hollingshead 1994)
Diversity forces creativity (Bergiel, Bergiel, & Balsmeier 2008)More project risk due to insufficient knowledge transfer (Reed & Knight 2010)
Table of proposed advantages and disadvantages of virtual teams [2]

Virtual team communication

There many different approaches regarding a virtual team’s performance. Some researchers are more optimistic, some not. As you will read below, in different times, different results were produced.

Research results of Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner (1998) and Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1999) demonstrate that successful virtual teams have extended and predictable communication patterns [2], but many other authors, including de Pillis & Furumo (2007), doubt that virtual teams can reach a similar performance level as face-to-face teams due to communication deficiencies and visibility of team members.

According to de Pillis and Furumo (2007) virtual teams are often less efficient and therefore have increased transaction costs and increased time to complete their project [2]. Even though frequency and face-to-face-communication are relevant aspects of communication they alone do not cover the complexity of communication. According to Suchman (1987) and Weick (1993) teamwork is dependent on how well the team members are socialized into the organizational context.

Another research pointed out that virtual teams communicate more frequently with each other than do traditional project teams (Galegher & Kraut 1994). Connaughton and Shuffler (2007) confirmed that frequency and face-to-face communication emerge consistently in research related to virtual teams. Hinds and Mortensen (2005) concur that frequent communication enhances shared team identity and therefore moderates the effect of distribution on interpersonal conflict [2]. Through frequent communication team members are able to share their experiences and more effectively manage their incomplete and imperfect communication. Research from Jarvenpaa, Knoll and Leidner (1998) and Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1999) revealed that frequent communication increases the trust in the teams [2].

New virtual teams especially have an increased risk of communication breakdowns (Hinds & Mortensen 2005), and face the same problems as the traditional teams, such as conflict management, trust or team cohesion [2], but frequent communication enhances shared team identity and moderates the distance conflict relationships.

Further findings are that predictable communication with regular feedback has been associated with improved team performance ((Jarvenpaa & Leidner 1999); (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner 1998); (Kayworth & Leidner 2000) and (Maznevski & Chudoba 2000)) [2]. Further findings are that predictable communication with regular feedback has been associated with improved team performance (e.g., (Jarvenpaa & Leidner 1999) and (Maznevski & Chudoba 2000)).

Collaborative work technology can be classified to four main dimensions (Jude-York, Davis, & Wise 2000) [2]:

  • Same time/same place
  • Same time/different place
  • Different time/same place (e.g. bulletin boards)
  • Different time/different place (e.g. email, text message, web-based project management tools)

Each communication media has a number of cues, and based on those different levels richness are provided (Schiller & Mandviwalla (2007)) [2]. The more of the factors a medium cover the richer it is, so face to face communication can be considered the richest one. It permits timely feedback, allows the simultaneous communication of multiple cues like body language, facial expression and tone of voice, and uses high-variety natural language that conveys emotion. Video conferencing, phone, chat (instant messaging), email, text messaging, addressed written documents (e.g., notes, memos, letters), and unaddressed documents (e.g., bulletins, standard reports) follow face-to-face communication in media richness in a descending order [2].

MediumTimely feedbackBody languageFacial expressionTone of voiceConvey emotionConvey messageEquivocality
Face-to-faceXXXXXXEquivocal
Video conferencingXXXXXEquivocal
PhoneXXXXEquivocal
ChatXXXEquivocal
EmailXUnequivocal
Text messagingXUnequivocal
Written documentsXUnequivocal
Table of level of richness of communication media

Media richness theory also proposes that the task’s performance will be improved when task related information are provided through the appropriate medium. Daft and Lengel (1984) [2] concluded that written media are preferred for unequivocal messages while face-to-face media are preferred for messages containing equivocality.

Some research considers face-to-face communication as necessary to foster trust (Oertig & Buegri 2006), reduce task conflict (Hinds & Mortensen 2005), enhance team dynamics and in turn increase team effectiveness ((Maznevski & Chudoba 2000), (Maznevski & Chudoba 2000) and (Grosse 2002)). Face-to-face meetings, e.g. in the team forming phase, seem to enhance virtual team trust (Duarte & Snyder 2001) and is, according to Grosse (2002), perceived as critical early on in a team’s development.

But there is also another parameter that we must take under consideration. Not all people like having their cameras open during meetings. They feel exposed more than usual, and especially if they work from home, they feel that there is some kind of intrusion. Especially during those difficult times, that virtual communication is the standard, not everybody can handle it smoothly.

Conclusions

A team that meets in person and a virtual team have the same denominator. Humans. And those humans with different personalities and personal goals must find suitable communication patterns in order to build all team virtues and common goals. No team is perfect, but in person or virtual can’t be used as an excuse to conceal the real issues.

Especially in these times, it has to be always clear that each one’s virtues matter most than power or any form of authority. Trust, do not enforce. Ask , do not command. Listen before you speak. Show compassion, not indifference. Don’t use the virtual factor to avoid decent and respectful communication, do not hurt transparency.

References

[1]. Mancur Olson – The logic of collective action, 1965

[2]. Changing the Communication Culture of Distributed Teams in a World Where Communication is Neither Perfect nor Complete, 2020

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