Lack of Nonverbal Cues Can Stymie 'Virtual Teams'

Expert offers tips to assist electronic collaborators.

Electronic communications have played a big role in allowing companies to expand globally. The Internet and e-mail communications mean that groups around the world can work together nearly as easily as a team of folks located in a single office.

"Nearly" is key, because the 'virtual teams' electronic communications allow to flourish have their limitations. Michael Beyerlein, a Purdue University professor and head of the Department of Organizational Leadership, says a drawback to working virtually is the lack of human interaction. "Nonverbal signals, such as eye contact, are huge," he says. "Researchers have estimated that about 90% of our communication is nonverbal, so obviously working electronically can create obstacles."

That said, following certain guidelines can help mitigate those obstacles. Beyerlein offers these tips for people working in virtual teams:

  • If possible, conduct the first meeting in person. "It gives the group a chance to get to know who they will be working with and establish goals and norms for the project," he says.
  • Use meeting facilitators. Each group should have a leader who makes sure everyone on the team has a chance to be heard, keeps the group on topic and resolves technical issues.
  • Celebrate the successes virtually. "Send congratulatory e-mails, glue pictures of your team to your computer, or if you can, get together and go out to a restaurant," Beyerlein says. "These are little things, but they can go a long way."

Beyerlein is an editor of The Handbook of High Performance Virtual Teams: A Toolkit for Collaborating Across Boundaries, which was published in April.


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