Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams

  • N. Sharon Hill and Kathryn M. Bartol
  • June 13, 2018

New research reveals simple strategies that boost performance.

As collaborative technologies proliferate, it is tempting to assume that more sophisticated tools will engender more effective virtual communication. However, our study of globally dispersed teams in a major multinational organization revealed that performance depends on how people use these technologies, not on the technologies themselves.

We asked team members to rate one another on virtual communication behaviors culled from a growing body of research on virtual teams. Peer assessments focused on five best practices: matching the technology to the task, making intentions clear, staying in sync, being responsive and supportive, and being open and inclusive. (Participants had worked together for some time and had been tasked with improving key business processes.) Individual scores were averaged to determine team scores.

When controlling for past experience on virtual teams and level of technology support available, we found that teams with higher scores on the five behaviors also received higher ratings from their leaders on producing quality deliverables, completing tasks on time, working productively together, and meeting or exceeding goals. Results indicated a linear relationship across the board: For every 10% that a team outscored other teams on virtual communication effectiveness, they also outscored those teams by 13% on overall performance. Although the research focused on dispersed teams, we believe the same strategies can help colocated teams, which increasingly depend on virtual collaboration tools.

Let’s look at each of the five behaviors in detail. They may seem basic at first glance, but we’ve observed that they are often overlooked. When teams are informed of these simple strategies and take steps to implement them, they outperform teams that don’t.

1. Match the technology to the task.

Teams have many communication technologies at their disposal, ranging from email and chat platforms to web conferencing and videoconferencing. People often default to using the tool that is most convenient or familiar to them, but some technologies are better suited to certain tasks than others, and choosing the wrong one can lead to trouble.

Communication tools differ along a number of dimensions, including information richness (or the capacity to transfer nonverbal and other cues that help people interpret meaning) and the level of real-time interaction that is possible. A team’s communication tasks likewise vary in complexity, depending on the need to reconcile different viewpoints, give and receive feedback, or avoid the potential for misunderstanding.