A recent survey of chief information executives (CIOs) revealed that 30 percent feel communication is the top challenge of managing virtual projects. But do the workers who serve on virtual teams see communication as an issue? And what are their preferences for communicating on projects?
Software Advice created an online survey of people who regularly work on virtual projects to find out whether the communication challenges identified by executives matched what team members faced. We also talked to Matthew Miller, a project leader at open source technology company Red Hat, to get his tips for the best communication strategies for virtual teams. Here’s what we found.
- Thirty-eight percent of team members said communication was difficult on virtual projects, making it the top-cited challenge.
- Poor communication regarding task management was perceived as the top threat to project success, selected by 41 percent of team members.
- Email was a preferred channel for 41 percent of respondents—though 23 percent noted long email threads were a communication pitfall.
Over One-Third See Communication as Top Challenge
Amongst our sample, 38 percent of respondents said that the top challenge for successfully completing virtual projects was communication.
Top Project Challenges According to Members of Virtual Teams
This finding closely aligns with the aforementioned survey, in which 30 percent of CIOs selected communication as the top challenge.
Thirty-three percent of these team members said the lack of the right software or technology was the primary challenge of working on virtual projects. Finally, 28 percent considered a lack of productivity the biggest threat to project success, since many team members believed those who work remotely are held less accountable.
Those who have been involved with virtual teams on a large scale may see communication issues slightly differently. Miller has worked for over a decade with thousands of contributors on open-source operating system the Fedora Project (which he now leads as part of his role at Red Hat). He says that for distributed teams, communication is important, but not necessarily the “direct problem.”
He points to a deeper challenge of most remote teams: the fact that members are typically “drawn from other teams,” and thus have only partial responsibility to their virtual projects.
“I’ve never been in an organization where there isn’t more work that needs to be done than time to do it, and often commitments to virtual teams are the easiest to break,” Miller says.
This may also shed light on the above-mentioned 28 percent who equated working remotely with decreased productivity. While team members may perceive remote workers as less productive, the issue may simply be that they have other commitments that take priority. Managers may need to consider analyzing the scope of a team’s commitments when assigning tasks or attempting to pinpoint problems.
Task Management a Key Communication Concern
Since communication was the primary concern, we next drilled down into the top communication-related challenges of remote projects. Approximately 41 percent of respondents answered that the failure to clearly assign and update tasks was the top threat to effective project communication.
Virtual Team Members’ Top Project-Communication Problems
For 23 percent of respondents, long email threads were the top obstacle to communicating effectively. For others (19 percent), they most experienced trouble scheduling virtual meetings and conference calls. And 16 percent of virtual team members experienced confusion about which communication channel—phone, chat or email—to turn to for which tasks.
Miller says he’s participated on teams that successfully managed tasks by writing on cards with markers and physically taping them to the wall. He explains that virtual teams can get the “card wall” experience in the form of an interactive Web application, such as an agile project management tool.
Indeed, many turn to software solutions for task management; in fact, we found in a recent report that 52 percent of project management software buyers were seeking a task management application. However, Miller stresses that what’s most important is not using a particular tool, but rather, having established processes in place for your team.
“The important thing is to make sure that you have regular group interactions about your shared tasks,” Miller says.
Email Is Preferred Communication Channel
Beginning a few years ago, thought leaders such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made arguments that workplace email would decline in favor of SMS or chat. However, our study confirmed recent reports that email usage has not yet declined to the extent some predicted. To the contrary, 41 percent of virtual team members surveyed selected email as their most preferred communication tool.
Virtual Team Members’ Preferred Communication Channels
This finding is complicated by the fact that this favored tool was also viewed as problematic by some. As stated above, 23 percent of respondents considered long email chains a threat to effective project communication. Miller confirms that long email threads can be a problem, and that it’s often about team members who need to have the last word.
“It’s important to step in and ask people to stop when these [email] threads have run their course,” says Miller, “while, at the same time, making sure people know that their viewpoint is indeed heard.”
After email, phone was selected by 36 percent of those surveyed as their preferred communication channel. Surprisingly, tools designed for online collaboration were selected by the fewest respondents. Only 12 percent selected virtual conferencing as a preferred communication channel, and discussion forums and chat rooms were selected by just 10 percent.
Phone communication may have some of the benefits of a “real-time” collaboration tool, but Miller recommends instant messaging (or chat) as one of the more effective real-time communication channels for virtual teams. At Fedora Project, they use an instant messaging tool called the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) system.
“This is much higher-bandwidth—in the human-time sense—than e-mail, and is a much better way to collaborate on something that’s in active progress, or to reach a final decision on an issue,” says Miller. Further, chat can be used to link directly to Web pages or relevant documents that may come up in conversation.
When facing virtual workers who prefer traditional communication channels, managers may need to push adoption in order to help bridge the gap between the tools team members are accustomed to and the tools that help them collaborate most effectively.
Younger Team Members Prefer Digital Communications
To add further complexity, our findings revealed a shift in communication preference based on age. Generally speaking, the preference for digital mediums (such as email) decreased with age, while the preference for analog communications (namely, phone) increased with age.
Demographics: Communication Channel Preferences by Age
Email preferences were greatest among the youngest team members surveyed: nearly half of those aged 25-34 had a top preference for email (46 percent). This preference was slightly less for 35- to 44-year-olds (41 percent), and lower still for 45- to 54-year-olds (36 percent).
The greatest preference for phone was held by team members in the 45-54 age category, at 41 percent, while 34 percent of the 35-44 age bracket and 29 percent of the 25-34 age bracket preferred communicating by phone.
These trends change when it comes to video conferencing and discussion forums and chat. The 35-44 group is less likely to prefer virtual conferencing and more likely to prefer chats and discussion forums than both the older and the younger age groups.
These differences may mean that companies with trans-generational teams run into subtle misunderstandings, as diverse communication preferences result in people not answering the phone or not replying to emails. To keep distributed teams on the same page, Miller recommends a “multifaceted” approach.
“For Fedora, we use the already-mentioned IRC and mailing lists, but we also have a wiki, and both a blog aggregator for contributors’ blogs and an official project blog,” Miller says. (Because Fedora is such a huge project, the blog allows developers in different sub-teams to see development in parts of the project.) “And beyond that, we have an big annual contributor conference. We get as many active project members [as possible] together face-to-face.”
Successful virtual projects, therefore, require more than just selecting the right communication tool for your team to use. Managers and project leaders for remote teams should supplement communication channels with engaging online information, collaborative environments and even perhaps in-person events to ensure that all team members stay in the loop.
Executives and team members agree: Communication is the core issue at stake when when a project is worked on by virtual teams. However, as Miller says, communication—when managed effectively—can end up being more of a solution than a problem for a variety of issues, such as task management and team members with commitments to multiple projects.
Moreover, a multi-pronged approach, including instant messaging, agile project management tools, blogging and wikis, should be used to engage teams and foster effective communication. When confronting teams with diverse preferences, a comprehensive communication strategy involving a variety of tools and techniques can help solidify team connections, as well as improve project visibility.
“It’s important to keep enthusiasm and engagement high, and to make sure that team members’ direct managers or sponsors have easy access to meaningful information showing the value of the work and the overall return,” says Miller.
To find the data in this report, we administered an online survey of four questions to a random sample of people within the United States. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.
After we gathered responses from 600 adults for each survey question, we narrowed down our sample to include only those who regularly work on virtual projects, and who had an opinion on the challenges of virtual projects. The resulting sample size for each question was an average of 247 people.
To further discuss this report, or obtain access to any of the charts above, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.