Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Taking the water cooler online

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Thursday, September 28th 2006

As the virtual workplace becomes more prevalent, many staff find teamwork difficult to build

For many freelance employees these days, turning up at the office is a rare occasion. As a freelance journalist, I'm part of a virtual team that communicates through email, or text. Not only do I rarely see my workmates, I can spend weeks not even talking to them. And I am not alone: non-verbal, virtual communication - particularly in white-collar workplaces - is becoming more and more common. However, this trend is increasingly coming under scrutiny amid signs that more traditional methods - like face-to-face meetings and talking on the telephone - are more effective.

A study by Cisco Systems shows that virtual teams can take up to four times as long to build trust than face-to-face teams. If you throw different cultures into the mix, it can take those virtual teams up to 17 weeks before they bond and perform as well as a team based in one location.

"Virtual communication is on the increase," says Caroline Shearsmith, occupational psychologist at Pearn Kandola who carried out the study. "At the same time, there is resistance against virtual teams who struggle to develop trust because the virtual communication is depersonalised."

The study, called The Psychology of Effective Business Communications in Geographically Dispersed Teams, comes on the heels of a 2005 Economist Intelligence Unit survey of retailing and consumer goods companies. The survey found that the second most important factor for improving productivity over the next 15 years - after more efficient organisational structures - was better communication among the workforce.

Somewhat ironically, the growth of virtual working over the past decade has highlighted the importance of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal cues - like body language, tone of voice and a simple glance - within a face-to-face conversation represent almost two thirds of the way we understand what is being said. "Non-verbal cues build trust," explains Shearsmith. "People don't know how to communicate on email, for example, where things like sarcasm and jokes don't come across."

One of the biggest problems is "virtual silence", when an email or a text is sent but no immediate response is received. (In my world, this kind of silence is immediately interpreted as "my editor hates my story".)

Shearsmith admits that there are already communication tools available that overcome such problems among virtual working teams. Some instant messaging and voice over internet systems automatically send a person's "not available" message if they are busy, but employers have been slow to deploy them.

Cultural differences among people working across national borders raises a whole raft of issues in virtual communication. The Cisco study identified two main types of human cultures, high and low context.

For example, high context cultures - Asians, South Americans and Middle Easterners - do not express their feelings and thoughts explicitly, and naturally they think low context cultures are too talkative and obvious. At the same time, people working in low context cultures - Americans and most Europeans - are much more open and direct and think that colleagues in high context cultures are sneaky and mysterious.

Shearsmith says that without non-verbal cues, the two cultures can easily misinterpret even the most simple and well-intentioned communication. One of the most obvious solutions to enhance virtual team performance is to create the right mix of electronic communication, including either some visual elements such as video conferencing and some text-based protocols that tell people things about you that they cannot see.

"Video conferencing should be as simple as making a conference call, but we have made it very complex so that people don't use it," says Ian Kennedy, head of systems engineers at Cisco Systems UK and Ireland. "A lot of the tools we have now - like IM and video conferencing - need to be blended together with an ability to click between mediums."

To that end, Cisco is testing a communications platform, called the Personal Communications Assistant.

"Relationship and trust problems could be alleviated via richer media used more often," says Shearsmith. "This will simulate some of the proximity and casual conversations that would happen in an office around the water cooler."


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