Communication in Virtual Teams


The last five years I have been leading exclusively virtual teams. In each project as a rule all or almost all project team members were located in different countries. How did I get work from people many of which I had never seen?

For a multinational IT company doing projects with virtual teams these days is often the norm rather than an exception. There is no wonder since various functions are spread across different geographies. This set up puts extra strain on the project manager and requires specific skills and approach.

Here are the major tips I could derive from my virtual practice.

Seek to have a team face-to-face meeting at least once at the beginning of the project

We humans have not yet developed the senses that will make the virtual communication as efficient as the face-to-face one. It is much easier and productive to communicate virtually with somebody if you have already spoken with him or her in person. Having done so, would go a long way towards understanding and avoiding misinterpretations and communication mistakes.

Be aware that people from different cultures express themselves differently and have different values and way of working

While differences between people in the same geographical region, like for instance Europe, might be subtle, going farther around the globe can make a real difference. I remember an important phone conference with a person from Germany and one from India. The Indian guy joined five minutes late, then mumbled something on the phone and we lost him. In ten minutes the German said impatiently, ‘Well, I am looking at my clock here…’ The Indian reassured us that he was just coming and then disappeared again. Believe me or not, one hour was not even enough to start the meeting.

Use tools appropriately – phone for more complex and tricky issues, email to document key decisions, chat for quick alignment

Each communication tool has its advantages and its downsides. Phone, or even better – videoconference is the tool that relays most completely the intended message. Email is good to document decisions but the number of emails should be kept to the minimum and they should be as short as possible. Chat is best for quick exchange and coordination.

Document key decisions

When it is an IT project and the team is virtual, in many cases so are the deliverables. We do our work in bits and bytes and need to make sure these bits and bytes say the right thing about what has been done. If the customer has accepted a deliverable in writing, don’t bother too much to see it with your eyes. Moreover, in many cases that will be impossible.

Don’t try to match the voice to the face and personality

It’s probably the human nature to try to picture the person we are in contact with. I have never managed to visualize correctly my virtual counterparts though. Once I have worked with Scottish people. Over the phone they sounded to me like old men (apart from the fact that I was not able to understand them during the first two months). I thought I had quite aged a team. When I met them, I was surprised they were actually young. The Scottish have that specific way of speaking that sounds as if they cannot take their breath.

In another project I pictured my counterpart as a young blond lady. When finally I met her I was surprised she was a middle age black woman. No offence meant, but one can never tell…

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