Context Communication: A Key Building Block for an Effective Virtual Team

Context Communication for Leading in the Virtual Environment

My latest article on context communication in virtual teams was recently featured in the September Spotlight on ILA Members issue with the International Leadership Association. The article summarizes how this important component of managing remote teams is one of the most critical elements of any virtual team’s life cycle. It is explained in greater detail in my latest book A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams.

As many of you know, the virtual world offers little context for effective communication. This calls for more creative ways to enable a rich path of information exchange to overcome time zones and vast physical boundaries. Effective communication is the first of the four elements of successful virtual team performance. It unites the team, and creates the Context for shared understanding which is one of the key tasks every virtual team manager must achieve.

When interacting with others, the more we can communicate our context, the greater the connection and therefore, the greater the chance of achieving the objectives that we set out to accomplish.

The virtual workplace has transformed the business landscape across the globe in many positive ways, but it has also altered the essence of human interaction. The face-to-face, direct, interpersonal interactions in which we can see the other persons, responses, both verbal and non verbal – fade away as more and more team members work together virtually. Why is it important to foster the human connection in the virtual world? When team members share a bond, any type of bond, they work more productively. In the long run, building good relationships enables more effective team performance and reduces situations that are dominated by conflict. Context communication allows virtual team members to understand the setting that their teammates are working in and to find the best approach to collaboration. Thus, with context communication enables team members working in close proximity will be able to quickly assess the cues and therefore understand the context in which certain behaviors take place. Observations about another person’s verbal tone, body language, and other visual cures create the context that helps team members understand each other, the task at hand and the overall work situation. Informal hallway or watercooler conversations that are common with onsite (in-person) teams provide a natural way to conduct casual conversations, build personal relationships, learn additional context and improve communication in leadership.

When context is missing, virtual teams are forced to make a greater effort to maintain the human connection, which in turn leads to new behaviors and ways of communicating. There are three major areas requiring the attention of a virtual team (and its leader) to offset the impacts of losing the normal context that exists for onsite project teams. They are – the Environment, the Medium and Relationships.

Understanding how to recognize the work environment of your virtual teammates from various online indicators or cues – will help you understand and adjust the way you communicate with specific virtual team members. Using appropriate technology ranging from simple emails, web conferences, video conferences and to other web based collaboration tools will help the overall work effort and will greatly impact the performance of the team – if the technology is understood and used correctly by all team members.

The most difficult challenge for a virtual team leader is overcoming the issues of not physically interacting with your team members. After setting up your team, as the team leader you will still need to develop team relationships, as members continue to learn about their teammates’ personalities, work styles, moods, friendships and career goals. Without the opportunity to lunch with colleagues, it’s up to you to build relationships by overcoming the missing social elements in different ways. The team members’ interactions must be oriented to overcoming what Yael Zofi refers to as the three relationship context challenges: (1) Isolation, (2) Personality, and (3) History.

From the leader’s perspective, his or her accessibility, ability and desire to initiate “reach outs”, and his or her “trust’ of the team, will go a long way to build lasting virtual relationships. The ability to build and maintain a “virtual watercooler” environment is often the most critical component of a successful Virtual Team.

For more information about Context Communication, see Chapter 3: Context Communication, Definitions and Challenges sample pages on Amazon or Safari Books.

Posted in Virtual Management