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Communication barriers in virtual teams

6 June 2016

Technology has infinitely changed the way we interact—not just personally, but from a business and organisational perspective, too. From instant messenger and video conferencing to app-sharing technologies, many businesses can now run just as smoothly while operating largely (in some cases, completely) online.

The ‘virtual team’ has consequently emerged, gaining popularity and sparking interest across a variety of industries. This is where employers engage with employees who don’t necessarily have a physical desk in the office, rather a ‘digital desk’ where they access software and services to work remotely from home, a client’s office or the other side of the world.

In an age where the rhetoric of flexible, work-life balance bellows throughout the corporate world, you would think these types of working conditions would be embraced and be easy to facilitate, right? It’s crucial that companies and, of equal importance, managers consider the communication risk factors to help mitigate any human and organisational errors that may arise from this modern setup.

What are the potential risks?

Although there’s a financial benefit associated with virtual teams, that is, helping to minimise location cost—there are other issues that could arise from all staff not physically located in the one place, which have the potential to really hurt business operations. Let’s think about this: a project manager sends an email to a virtual staff member. Will the virtual staff member correctly interpret the email? Risk exists in all forms of virtual communication (email is just one example) as the ‘intended message’ may not be the ‘message received’. This can lead to serious errors and miscommunication.

Often, there is a lack of ability to clearly portray emotion, tone, emphasis and body language in written forms of virtual communication—all of which you generally get with face-to-face or video interactions. This may result in an increased difficulty to effectively communicate, becoming more apparent when you consider the potential influence that generational and cultural differences have on communication. So, how does one mitigate the communication risks associated with a virtual team?

Overcoming barriers and safeguarding projects

A manager, be it a project manager or IT team leader, needs to be aware of the risks associated with virtual teams and make sure they understand the various communication styles required for both on-site team members as well as virtual team members. In addition, they need to ensure the appropriate communication mediums are being utilised for the benefit of the project, as well as all team members involved.

A combination of virtual communication methods including email, Skype or conference calling is necessary when working with remote team members, in particular. It’s also essential that managers communicate precisely what they want to achieve from the project, to ensure that working with remote employees or contractors actually works.

Identifying the correct communication for an intended message needs to be properly analysed and implemented effectively to reduce many of the communication risks associated with utilising a virtual team. This (and more!) can be learned through management-specific further education.

Southern Cross University Online’s Master of IT Management or MBA in Managing & Leading People postgraduate degrees deliver work-ready tools and techniques to mitigate risk factors in any virtual team, from engineering to business and beyond.

Find out more about our great online courses or speak to one of our friendly Student Enrolment Advisors today on 1300 589 882.