When undertaking our research about the agile workforce, most of the factors that emerged as important were not a huge surprise. Generally they are the same as the factors that we know are important for ANY team – whether co-located, virtual or agile. That said, what became clear is that although the factors are the same, the ways in which we implement them need to be different when we spend much of our time apart.
Communication is very obviously a critical activity for any team. Not only can clear, timely communication be at the absolute heart of good team performance, but it’s converse can have a highly damaging impact. Research showed that communication has an indirect effect on team performance – because it is instrumental in delivering good relationships, which in turn correlate with the coordination of tasks. So, if we communicate well, we develop stronger relationships, which helps us to streamline and cooperate in the activities we need to fulfill.
The issue is that many teams don’t give sufficient thought to the impact on their communication style when they start to work apart more frequently – and can get into trouble quickly. Considering an appropriate means of communication to use within teams is essential when developing a workplace strategy.
How rich is your communication?
Researchers developed an approach called ‘Media Richness Theory’ (Daft & Lengel in the mid 1980s) which relates to the ability of information to change understanding within a time interval. They examined different types of communication ‘media’ and looked at the ways in which users are helped or hindered in getting their message across (and to change the level of understanding of the other party). They called this the ‘richness’ of the communication. There are some media / methods of communication that can clarify ambiguous messages quickly and these are considered ‘richer’ than those that take longer to convey the desired level of understanding.
A rich medium is one that:
- transmits verbal and non-verbal cues
- uses natural language
- allows for immediate feedback
- conveys personal feelings and emotions
These aspects help overcome any differences in cultural practices for example and to clarify ambiguities or misunderstandings. Clearly a face-to-face interaction is a rich form of communication – potentially meeting the above criteria. However, it’s important to recognise that face-to-face communications (i.e. those taking place in person as opposed to using video) may not deliver the “best” experience. People in the same room may still suffer from poor engagement and communication, depending upon the degree of trust between them, their relationships, the degree of co-operation between them, etc. However, all other things being equal, it gives the best opportunity for removing the impact of other contextual factors or inequalities which impact other communication methods.
Communication between team members is an important tool for information processing and can take various forms, which differ in terms of richness (as shown in this diagram):
What does this mean for agile / virtual teams?
For those teams that spend a lot of time apart, the methods tend to be towards the bottom of the pyramid – conveying lower levels of richness. These forms of communication are ‘computer mediated’ and can tend to limit the quantity and quality of information and richness of the interactions, because they:
- reduce opportunities for monitoring colleagues, making it more difficult to interpret knowledge and understanding (the subtleties of the context in which people work may not be known or appreciated)
- may hinder understanding and complicate knowledge transfer, especially when the information is ambiguous
- reduce non-verbal cues that reveal affections such as tone, warmth and attentiveness – which can have a negative effect on message clarity and the interpretation of feedback
- change the patterns of work, decision-making, and understanding of the work as well as the relationships between individuals
- tend to delay feedback – resulting in misunderstandings and negative feelings between team members, who may feel they are being ignored
- make silence more difficult to interpret (particularly for reflective, introverted thinkers)
If face to face communication isn’t possible, then certainly computer mediated communication can help improve the co-ordination of virtual teams. It is also important to think about how much ‘face time’ can be orchestrated when a virtual team is established (either a team that starts to work virtually, or some virtual individuals who are formed into a new team). Spending time ensuring good relationships exist and due focus is paid to how the team will be communicating in the future is worthwhile.
What can we do?
When embarking upon a new ways of working (or reviewing the effectiveness of an existing way), it is helpful to identify aspects of the current regime that work well – and to consider how these might change in the future. It’s also an opportunity to surface things that don’t help the team to perform at their best, to see whether there is an alternative that could be adopted. For example, people don’t always realise how much informal, impromptu communication goes on when they are in the office with colleagues. Hence they don’t always recognise what they are missing when they are apart – and may misinterpret situations and draw incorrect conclusions from the lack of communication.
When considering the different forms of communication, here are some pointers:
Understanding the implication of the use of different communication methods is a good start for any team. The team members will all have personal preferences (which align to their personalities) and being able to understand these enables discussion and negotiation between members in terms of what will help them work most effectively together. Also, understanding the impact of one person’s style on another, in a non-judgemental, constructive way can be helpful – i.e. “when I don’t hear from you I worry that you aren’t doing what I asked you in my email. Can you call me so we can discuss to make sure we’re both on the same page?”.
It is helpful to appreciate the degree to which they are working synchronously or asynchronously from their colleagues and to understand each other’s’ workload – all of which provides vital context.
Anticipation and flexibility – encouraging and motivating team members to anticipate the needs of others and to go the extra mile to provide information; check it has been received; adjust to time zone or working pattern challenges all help to build rapport and trust among team members. The manager can model this behaviour, but it remains the responsibility of ALL team members to take responsibility for the group (not just personal) activities to ensure a good outcome for the team.
Virtual communications such as video and audio conferences benefit from having a clear agenda, purpose and outcome. Not only do they improve productivity of sessions, they also help to build trust and relationships, if there is an evident shared purpose, objective and respect for the time of others.
Training and familiarisation – not all team members may be fully competent in the use of all communication technologies, leading to reluctance to use them. Basic familiarisation and support helps embed the necessary skills. Agreement as to which media are used for particular tasks also helps build agreement and trust in the team (i.e. non-urgent via email; urgent via phone).
Review over time – whatever we do at the start of a new arrangement, it is important to keep the channels of dialogue open – both between individuals and within the team. Allowing issues and bad feeling to fester isn’t healthy, so enabling people to surface problems in a non-judgemental way is very important (if not always easy).