Organizational Communication in a Virtual Work Environment

By: Stephen M. Urquhart

Webster University

Abstract

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

Introduction

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.


Definitions

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)

Strategies

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)

Conclusion

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.
References

DeSanctis, G. and Monge, P. (1999) Introduction to the special issue: Communication processes for virtual organizations. Organization Science, November 1, 1999; 10(6): 693 – 703.

Gillis, T. (2006) The IABC handbook of organizational communication. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jarvenpaa, S. and Leidner, D. (1998) Communication and trust in global virtual teams. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Vol 3(4). Retrieved from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue4/jarvenpaa.html

Johnson, J. (1992) Approaches to organizational communication structure.Journal of Business Research. Vol. 25(2): 99.

Kernaghan, S., Clutterbuck, D. & Cage, S. (2001). Transforming internal communication. Business Intelligence. Retrieved fromhttp://www.infoedge.com/toc_new/BI-3034toc.pdf

Kiesler, S., Siegel, J., & McGuire, T.W. (1984). Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication. American Psychologist, 39(10), 1123-1134.

Lojeski, K. and Reilly, R. (2008) Uniting the virtual workforce: Transforming leadership and innovation in the globally integrated enterprise. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Lurey, J. and Raisinghani, M. (2001) An empirical study of best practices in virtual teams. Information & Management. Vol. 38(8): 523-544.

McGrath, J. E. (1991). Time, interaction, and performance (TIP): A theory of groups. Small Group Research, 22 (2), 147-174.

Melcrum Publishing. (2003). Building a strategy for remote communication.(primary research) London, United Kingdom.

Staples, D., Hulland, J. & Higgins, C. (1998) A self-efficacy theory explanation for the management of remote workers in virtual organizations. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Vol 3(4). Retrieved fromhttp://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue4/staples.html

Townsend, A., DeMarie, S. & Hendrickson, A. (1998) Virtual teams: Technology and the workplace of the future. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), Vol. 12, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), pp. 17-29.

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To fully appreciate the impact of the most recent technological revolution and its impact on how humans interact, relate to the world, and form groups, it is instructive to look back to the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press forever changed how people were able to communicate across geographies and cultures.

A thought leader on modern communication technology and media, Howard Rheingold, made this comparison in a 2005 Technology Education Design (TED) Conference presentation entitled Way-New Collaboration. He explained that the ways in which human beings organize socially has been co-evolving for millennia, tracing back to the days when hunters of the great beasts of the time would exchange their surplus food for things of value, thus forming communities of trade and interdependence. Forming groups for survival is an innate behavior, but forming groups around an intellectual commons traces its roots to the period immediately following the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, which enabled “new forms of collective action … in the spheres of knowledge, religion and politics (Rheingold, 2005).”

Just as the printing press had a transformational impact on society in its day, the Internet is making a similar impact today. Rheingold describes a number of characteristics of the new technology that make it conducive to group formation and communication, including: ease of use, openness, self-instructing, enabling connections and intentionally group forming (2005). With the introduction of email, it was possible to bypass hierarchical and traditional structures to communicate directly with people who were previously unreachable, and this has only been intensified by web logs (blogs) and “wikis” that allow anyone in the world with access to a computer and an Internet connection to publish to a worldwide audience.

And that world seems to be getting smaller with each technological advance. If the printing press made it possible for one person’s thoughts to be accessible to many others around the world, the Internet has only accelerated this effect and decreased the barriers to entry that once existed. Stanley Milgram’s “small world” experiment (1967) ultimately became the basis for the subsequent “six degrees of separation” theory, and the later book Six Degrees, in which the author demonstrates that even on a planet populated by billions of people living in hundreds of nations and within thousands of cultures and subcultures, we are all frequently closer than we realize to others. (Watts, 2003)

“This is not really the small-world phenomenon – it’s more like a small-group phenomenon,” posits Watts in Six Degrees (2003, pg. 41). What this research pointed out for Watts, and others, was the way people would be able to use this relative proximity to get messages to others whom they could not previously connect with, and to create groups based on common interests or common goals where such a group could not have existed in the past because of the lack of a means to connect and hold such a group together.

While it was not clear at the time, Milgram’s research and the subsequent exploration of the “six degrees of separation” helped to create the framework for today’s Internet-based social networks. If one person has, conservatively speaking, five friends and five close acquaintances, and each of these friends has a similar set of friends and acquaintances, this quickly becomes a social network which, at only the second degree, consists of 60 people. (See Figure 1)

The business social networking tool LinkedIn is based on this construct, in which any member is able to assemble their own first level of contacts, friends and associates and then visualize through this first degree a second and third level of contacts. To help make these contacts more meaningful, LinkedIn introduced professional and common-interest groups which members could join, leading to a clustering effect that helped to align the interests of the LinkedIn members and create new linking possibilities based on common backgrounds or interests.

Reflecting on CrowdConf

Posted: October 6, 2010 in Future of Work

It’s amazing how a one-day conference eats up three days of your life … well, when the conference is in San Francisco and you live in Orlando. But this conference was well worth the time in transit. Now, sitting on the plane somewhere over New Mexico or maybe Texas, I am reflecting on CrowdConf 2010 and the key takeaways.

One thing that concerns me about how crowdsourcing is being depicted is that it is somehow exploitative by design. Listening to David Alan Grier’s talk about the history of crowdsourcing did nothing to dispel this notion. And when Keniks founder and CEO Patrick McKenna shared his formula for crowdsourcing, he essentially ruled out the possibility that it is viable to harness real talent but that we should instead focus our business model on the low-end work.

Here’s what I think: what we are really talking about is tapping into the global talent supply chain in ways that were never before possible, and in doing so we have the opportunity to create meaningful work and viable opportunities for people who were marginalized as a result of the Great Recession and other seismic changes in the employment market.

There’s certainly a global perspective to explore, but for the moment I want to think about the domestic implications here in the United States. By some estimates, we currently have 15 million people unemployed in the U.S. My bet is that the number is higher than this. Most of us are now beginning to realize that many of the jobs that have vanished over the last decade are not coming back. Ever.

People who have followed the accepted employment model are used to job descriptions and career paths, and while empowerment is a popular buzzword most workers have a finite amount of latitude in what they do and how they do it within the corporation. In other words, people are used to being told what to do. Here’s the upshot: as part of the obsession to streamline and automate, coupled with the availability of outsourcing services, those positions which could be tightly defined in a job description are mostly gone, either to an “offshore” service provider or simply eliminated.

Our education system is more closely aligned to the 20th century model of employment, but what if the 21st century Knowledge Economy actually requires a completely different orientation to employment? For example, what if the estimated 42 million or so “free agents” (sole proprietors, contractors, consultants, etc. – according to the Human Capital Institute) are actually on the leading edge of the next economy? What skill sets do they need to have to succeed? And how prepared are we as a workforce to take our skills directly to the marketplace and earn a living based not on a more-or-less predictable employment model but rather in the fluid free agent market?

Here’s where the lessons of crowdsourcing come in. The “game changer” which makes 21st century crowdsourcing possible is the Internet, and its ability to link people anywhere in the world. The Internet is the backbone of the new global talent supply chain, and the participants in this new economy can participate whether they are in the corporate parks of Bangalore, India or the rural counties of Indiana.

More to follow …

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog, but today I feel inspired! Because today, in San Francisco, over 400 people convened at the St. Regis Hotel for this first-ever CrowdConf, a conference focused on the future of (distributed) work. So what IS that? (this link takes you to a clever little video on 5min which is a cool new discovery). Well, what we really talked about was the concept of “crowdsourcing” which was coined by Jeff  Howe back in 2006.

Here’s how he describes it on his eponymous (crowdsourcing) blog:

The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

This full-day event attempted to traverse the commercial and academic perspectives of crowdsourcing and did an admirable job.

Many small businesses are doing what they can to keep things going in the face of one of the worst economic downturns in our lifetimes, but with so many elements of uncertainty many are loathe to make full time hires or resume their pre-recession growth trajectories. And yet, there is still work to be done. While we wait to see what will happen with health care reform, labor laws, tax changes and other variables, it is important to keep moving, stay focused, and explore other ways to get things done.

One way to keep projects moving and stay on track is through the use of virtual teams and the thousands of freelancers around the world who are eager to ply their craft, often for a fraction of the cost of a full-time employee in the US. Inevitably, the question arises:

Isn’t that taking jobs away from people here in America?

Maybe. Maybe not. It really depends on how you look at things. I see a tremendous opportunity through virtual outsourcing to gain access to global talent that was simply out of reach until this century, and to re-focus the efforts of the US workforce on high-end innovation and development rather than fixating on what is inevitably a “race to the bottom” in trying to compete on price with people who often market their services for about $3.50 per hour.

Since I started my business in March 2010, I’ve tested a number of these online resources, such as oDesk, Guru, 99designs and several others. In many cases, you will find very capable US-based freelancers registered on these sites as contractors and service providers. And in many cases, using these services is not the cheapest option. I have had some projects go very smoothly, and others that (four months later) are still not complete. And in that timeframe, I have learned some things that I am going to share with you.

  1. Have a plan. This would seem pretty obvious, but in the US workplace we’re so used to ambiguity and lack of specificity in job assignments that it’s tempting to apply the same approach with virtual team support. Don’t! If you cannot create a “paint by the numbers” plan for the project that spells out the goals, elements and deliverables then you are kidding yourself if you think the person on the other end is just going to figure it out for themselves. It is up to you to spell it out, and be as specific as possible in defining the scope of work and what the finished product should look like.
  2. Use specific questions to narrow the field. Many times, freelancers and virtual teams will simply bid on every project that is posted, and they will decide later (once they’ve made the cut for interviews) whether they can actually do the project. Eliminate these pikers right up front by putting questions in the original job posting that they need to answer in their response. No answers, no need to pursue further. If they won’t pay attention to details when they are eager to win your business, how attentive will they be once you’ve paid them?
  3. Set a price for the project, don’t go hourly. It is very tempting when you see the hourly rates that are posted on services like oDesk to just create an open-ended project … after all, for $3.50 an hour or sometimes as high as $11.00 an hour you can get lulled into the sense that you are getting “cheap labor.” And that’s true to a point. However, what you will find is that there’s a pretty significant delta between our expectations in US business (including research, writing, marketing, etc.) that doesn’t necessarily resonate in other parts of the world. What that means is that you will end up paying someone for 20 hours to learn what it is that they need to be doing, when you could have hired a US-based “VA” (virtual assistant) or an intern to perform that same task in a couple of hours. So, bottom line: set a price that you are willing to pay and make it a project price not an hourly rate. You will weed out the people who don’t have the ability to get it done, AND you will create an incentive for fast delivery because the project is only fully paid upon completion.

More tips later. Like”Keep an open line for communication.” and “Check the work in progress and be specific about changes.” What questions would you like to ask? What tips would you share based on your experience?

I recently joined a “Goal Achievers Group” in Orlando, and I think it is an excellent idea to bring together small business owners, “solopreneurs” and others who have decided to forge their own path. The group is not your typical networking group, but rather a “board of advisors” that serves as a sounding board, resource or voice of reason in helping to make smarter business decisions, network more effectively, focus on the value proposition and market services in a challenging market.

The basic premise is this: We all face way too many tasks and feel pressured by all of the responsibilities that are involved in owning and running our own business. And with a team of similarly situated business owners, we are not alone.

Here are the things we’ll be covering over the next several weeks:

  • – Marketing action plan
  • – Mastering rapport skills
  • – Building powerful connections and first impressions
  • – Setting you apart from your competition
  • – What to say to influence potential customers
  • – Discover your client’s buying strategies
  • – Designing your office space for success and productivity
  • – Streamlining your day
  • – Learning to serve not sell
  • – Creating power questions to impact your target market
  • – Creating powerful presentation and speeches
  • – Optimizing your website success
  • – Article marketing
  • – Utilizing webinars and teleconferences for profit and exposure
  • – Creating enticing intro’s that speak directly to your ideal client
  • – Develop your personal brand
  • – Building a sales cycle process and program
  • – Using social media so that it work for you
  • – Learn to influence to action your target market, without having to sell

It’s an ambitious list, and we’re going to cover quite a bit of ground in just 1 1/2 hours each week. I have found it to be a great way to start out the week, as we meet on Monday morning and it’s a nice detour before heading in to the office.

If you’re in the Orlando/Winter Park area you should check it out! Just look on MeetUp for the group called “Goal Achievers Group” and sign up. Special thanks to Athenee and Jenn for getting this group off the ground and for your leadership!

Organizational Communication in a Virtual Work Environment

A Research Paper – Human Resources Development Masters Program

Webster University

Abstract

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

Introduction

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.


Definitions

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).

Strategies

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).

Conclusion

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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