Miscommunications Are Magnified on Virtual Teams

Late last evening I received a text from a teammate that read, "I'm not available, Sorry." Obviously this doesn't appear to be weird on the surface, but there is more to the story. This colleague is three time zones away and we are in the middle of several important projects. The interesting thing is that this text didn't align with any text conversation. Scratching my head, I texted back "????" assuming she would explain that she sent it by mistake.

You've probably texted similar things when you were confused by something someone wrote. Fourteen minutes later, I received a reply that read, "The meeting that I ran by you." Now I was really confused. I had never asked for availability. In that moment, I played back all of our recent conversations and electronic communications and nothing stood out. Given that it was late in the evening and I was with my family, I didn't want to confuse the situation with another text message or a long email. I plugged in the charger, rested the phone on the kitchen counter-top and returned to the family room. More on this later.

It doesn't take much to have a miscommunication on any team. But on a when you are working virtually on a team, the distance between team members magnifies these mishaps. The greater the distance, the greater the probability of poor communication. When I say distance, the first thing that may come to mind is the physical distance (including time zones). While that's true, it's only one component of virtual distance. In the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Virtual Teams, the other two distances are referred to as social and cultural. At evoke, social and cultural are embedded in the way we look at distance. We break down these distances so that tactical and effective communication strategies can be applied. In addition to physical, we focus on organizational distance and relationship distance.

Organizational distance involves differences in organizational approaches within a company. It also encompasses cultural, language and access to common technology tools. Relationship distance focuses on individual communication styles, previous experience with teammates, involvement on other teams and communication tool preference. These are the “minefields”, if you will, of successful communication on all teams virtual. Remember, all of these must be considered when creating a virtual team communication strategy.

Looking back at my story, I made a fatal communication mistake. The first rule of virtual communication is to eliminate all ambiguity in all communications. When I texted back "????" I created ambiguity. On a co-located team, I could walk into work the next day and say, "Hey, I got this strange text from you" and thirty-seconds later it would be solved. On a virtual team your communication needs to be explicit. I should have texted back, “ I received a text from you that said, "I'm not available, Sorry" and I'm confused by this message because it doesn't fit with any communication between us." While this message would have taken more time, it would have cleared up the issue.

The lesson here is to be explicit in your communications and don't assume that implied or inferred messages will resonate with others.

P.S. The culprit in our texting mishap was an iPhone vs. Android issue. When a group text message is sent from an IPhone, and the person with an Android phone responds to the group, their message comes back to each individual separately and not to the group message. As a result, their response will insert itself into the last individual message that you had with that person. You can easily see how this could create confusion!