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Communication risks within and around a virtual team

Communication risks within and around a virtual team

Virtual teams and virtual team members offer many advantages to projects that, overall, far outweigh the communication risks that they imply.

In recent years, the way that projects take shape has evolved at or near the same pace as the information and communications technology we use in our business and personal lives. Not long ago, a project team was either co-located (all team members in the same close proximity) or connected together via express couriers and air travel (regular travel to meet face–to-face was reasonable, prudent, the best method, and acceptable in cost). Then came the email revolution.

Project teams could readily and efficiently communicate in an asynchronous manner, ‘virtual’ team members were welcomed and new ways of achieving productivity were discovered. Project productivity certainly benefited from this approach, but risks also became apparent (which we will elaborate on below).

Nowadays, video conferencing, application-sharing technologies and other technology advances have enabled project teams to be assembled with talent from anywhere, regardless of location while minimising location costs. Communications technologies are so readily available that the virtual project team member is now commonplace in today’s working environment. Depending on the industry in which you operate, the percentage of virtual team members on a project will vary and in some cases your entire project team may be virtual – meaning no two members geographically reside in the same location, nor meet often (if at all).

The Linux development was a classic example of such a team. For sure, projects where something physical is being put together always require people in the same physical location to coordinate it (such as construction of a new building, or a new mining development), however, these projects also have many more virtual partners than before (such as designers and off-site manufacturers working remotely). Regardless of the percentage allocation of your team that is “virtual”, communication risks exist. What are the key risks and how can the project manager effectively mitigate them?

The basic theory of communication involves a sender, a receiver, a message and a medium. When the medium of the message is virtual, such as email or instant messaging, risks exist in that the “intended message” may not be the “message received”, email and the like does not give you the emphasis, inflection, tone, or body language that you have when dealing with people face-to-face, or to a lesser extent by phone.

Over the course of our careers, we have all probably been guilty of at least once or known someone who has sent an email or instant message only to live to regret it as the intended message got distorted and ended up requiring far more “patching up” communication to resolve the matter than the time taken to craft the original email message. Lack of body language, tone, facial expressions and hand gestures make it very difficult to effectively communicate across all forms of virtual communication, especially when cultural and generational differences are factored into the equation.

A project manager needs to be aware of these differences as well as the communication preferences of every stakeholder and adapt their communications accordingly. In order to mitigate communication risks, the project manager should think hard about how their team members select and use the most appropriate communication mediums for the messages being delivered. Here are some suggestions for considering communication mediums.

Virtual teams and virtual team members offer many advantages to projects that, overall, far outweigh the communication risks that they imply. The number of virtual workers on projects continues to grow each year. In order for you as a project manager to effectively manage your project, make sure you understand the communication styles that are required for in-situ and virtual team members, and ensure the appropriate communications mediums for the messages being sent are being used for the benefit of your project.


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