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Business Researcher Studies Team Communication in Virtual Environments

Shannon MarlowWorkplaces looked very different nine months ago. For those who became telecommuters in the era of COVID-19, office door knocks and team meetings ’round the conference table have been replaced by pinging chat bubbles and cascading Zoom windows. During this nine-month transformation, researchers have learned many lessons about team communication and performance in the virtual environment.

Shannon Marlow, an assistant professor for the Department of Management in UTSA’s College of Business, is one of those researchers. Marlow holds a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology and specializes in research focusing on teamwork, team leadership and training. She has analyzed approaches to team communication and contributed to a conceptual framework for communication in virtual teams.

Marlow recently connected with UTSA Today to discuss the virtual shift’s impact on how teams work together, who’s falling behind in an increasingly teleworking world, the benefits of a hybrid approach after COVID-19 and her current research on team psychology.

How has the large-scale shift to virtual formats affected how teams communicate and work together?

The way teams communicate and coordinate has undergone a number of changes in organizations that have shifted to a fully-virtual work environment. Some evidence indicates that employees have been attending more meetings than before changes related to the pandemic were implemented. As employees have lost the ability to casually communicate outside of meetings—like running into coworkers in the hallway or meeting up for coffee—more virtual meeting time is needed.

Additional evidence suggests that employees may be struggling with new issues as they transition to working fully remotely. Such issues include confusion about team member roles, a decreased sense of interpersonal connection with colleagues and decreased motivation, among others. However, reactions to this shift differ across industries and positions as well as by individual preference. For instance, some employee surveys have identified several positive aspects of shifting to a virtual format such as greater flexibility and an increased focus on making meetings more relevant and efficient.On the whole, is team performance improving or declining now?

How successfully a team will shift to this new format, and whether their performance will suffer or improve, depends on several factors. For example, team history, organizational culture and organizational support are all factors that will have a large impact on how well a team adapts to a virtual environment. By ensuring every employee has access to a stable internet connection and providing training on new virtual tools, organizations that invest in helping their employees work effectively in a remote environment will likely not see a large change in performance. However, I think it’s important to state the obvious—many industries, and teams within these industries, are experiencing performance declines because of factors related to the pandemic outside of their control.

What populations are struggling to adapt to working with teams in a virtual setting? What populations are thriving?

Telehealth is one industry that has become very important during the pandemic, but it is often criticized because the technology used to facilitate it isn’t fully accessible for everyone. For example, some virtual tools used to support telehealth were designed for people that speak English as a first language. This can make it very difficult for non-native English speakers to receive the care they need. Those unfamiliar with technology may also have a harder time adapting to this approach to healthcare. This ultimately makes it more difficult for healthcare teams to help provide effective care to patients. In contrast, those with a higher degree of familiarity with virtual tools and previous experience working with them are likely to adapt to virtual work more easily.

Face-to-face communication has long been thought of as beneficial for team performance, but many workers now prefer telecommuting because communication with their teams has become more fluent and relevant. There may be fewer unnecessary meetings and interruptions, for instance. What can employers borrow from this time of temporary telecommuting to improve communication when their employees physically return to the workplace?

In addition to returning with beneficial changes such as making meetings more focused and efficient, this is a good time for employees to work on establishing effective virtual communication habits. Some research suggests that hybrid teams, or teams that use a mixture of face-to-face meetings and virtual tools to communicate, tend to perform better than comparable teams using fully face-to-face or virtual means of communication. Although, this varies based on industry. For some teams, it won’t be feasible to continue to communicate virtually when the organization moves back to how things were before COVID-19. But for employees that will continue to have some virtual communication with team members—whether it’s phone, email, etc.—now is the time to develop effective habits. For example, sending out a debrief email with a list of roles, tasks and deadlines after a virtual project meeting is a good way to keep everyone organized.

“Closing the loop,” or acknowledging when information is received is another important aspect of communication, especially when communication may be more ambiguous because it takes place solely via virtual tools. A lot of this sounds obvious but some of these exchanges happen naturally in a face-to-face setting and are less likely to happen when communicating virtually. This leads to more opportunities for misunderstandings. Taken together, taking back new practices that arose from remote work and developing more effective virtual communication norms may benefit teams when operations return to normal.

Because so many employers have already made widespread moves to telecommuting in 2020, do you see a significant rise in telework in coming years? What industries do you see embracing it most?

It does seem that many companies will continue to use telecommuting in place of face-to-face work or allow employees to spend more time telecommuting than before. Although it’s not the norm, some companies have seen benefits such as reduced costs from the shift. Tech companies in particular seem to have embraced this approach. For example, Twitter recently indicated that they will support employees that continue to want to work from home after things begin to return to normal.

What studies or projects are you currently working on?

One of the more interesting studies I’m working on, with a collaborator from the University of Colorado Boulder, is focused on examining how some teams may develop psychological safety more quickly than others. Psychological safety refers to a shared perception that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Interpersonal risk-taking includes behaviors such as speaking up, offering opinions and asking questions during critical discussions. Evidence indicates that teams with a high level of psychological safety outperform similar teams with lower levels of psychological safety. Google, for example, found that their highest performing teams had higher levels of psychological safety and attributed much of their success to this important team state.

In our study, we examined why some teams developed this state more quickly than others and found that teams that communicated more with each other early on developed psychological safety more quickly. In the future, we’re going to follow up on this finding with additional research to determine why more frequent early communication helped these teams develop psychological safety more quickly. We think it’s because it gave the team members more opportunities to reduce uncertainty and build effective team norms right from the beginning, but additional evidence is needed to confirm this.

Another project I’m excited to work on involves creating a workshop about team communication. The workshop is part of a series of monthly workshops designed to build team skill sets in science teams. Although a lot of communication practices that improve teamwork as a whole seem obvious, like the “closed-loop communication” practice I mentioned, many people don’t think about these small things or fully implement them. I’m excited to deliver this workshop because I think it will help people take steps to make good team communication practices a habit and ultimately see some small improvements in team outcomes.

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