Spontaneous and Informal Communication in Virtual Teams
November 29, 2008 by Jason Montero
One of the sticking points of successful virtual teamwork is the importance of informal communication. Look at any study or assessment of a globally distributed team and you will see informal communication on any top 10, top 7, top 5, or even top 3 list as an indicator of a cohesive, high-functioning team – and a harbinger of success.
And yet, many virtual teams – especially at the management and executive level – resist investing time and energy into developing informal communication among team members. Perhaps it is because the idea of informal communication is so elusive, and it can seem counter-intuitive to encourage people to communicate on non-work related or ‘off-topic’ subjects during work time.
It is a misconception that all, or even most, informal communication is ‘did you see the game last night?’ or ‘have you seen that new movie?’ type of talk. Much of what people communicate about spontaneously is about the minute by minute project decisions and complications that are the crux of most information work.
I also believe it is a mistake to under-value a reasonable amount of casual interaction among co-workers and team members. In fact, I would encourage any virtual team to develop FORMAL ways to communicate INFORMALLY – weird, I know.
Consider this study from the Journal of Organizational Science:
Understanding Conflict in Geographically Distributed Teams: The Moderating Effects of Shared Identity, Shared Context, and Spontaneous Communication
Pamela J. Hinds, Mark Mortensen
Center for Work, Technology and Organization, Stanford University
Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
We found that spontaneous communication played a pivotal role in the relationship between distribution and conflict. First, spontaneous communication was associated with a stronger shared identity and more shared context, our moderating variables. Second, spontaneous communication had a direct moderating effect on the distribution-conflict relationship, mitigating the effect of distribution on both types of conflict. We argue that this effect reflects the role of spontaneous communication in facilitating conflict identification and conflict handling.
Ultimately, informal and spontaneous communication have been shown to increase shared identity and shared context, prevent misunderstandings, encourage accountability, and aid in conflict resolution among distributed team members.
There are many tools for fostering spontaneous and informal communication: discussion boards, instant messaging, social networking sites, blogs… Some of these you probably already have in house but simply might not be using them in this way – others are often low cost or free. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, the idea is to find techniques and tools that work with your culture and organizational structure.
Here is an example from Michael Sampson discussing the advantage of virtual team members maintaining a project blog: Michael Sampson: Dealing with Silence in Virtual Teams