Project Management

5 Warning Signs That Your Virtual Team Communication is Dysfunctional

Published by in Project Management

Let’s be frank: there is NO single, proper, “one and only” way to measure your team’s collaboration. Many have tried, some have even published papers on the matter, but have (cleverly) included a disclaimer, stating that “This is not a recommendation to use any one particular tool, but a selection of references that may be helpful in thinking about collaboration.”

Also, experts claim that trying to measure collaboration using numbers is not the way to go:

“To apply a metric, which after all is a generalized/standardized model used to make comparisons, is to deny the specifics of collaboration, and in so doing, deny collaboration as such.” Jim Sniechowski, PhD

So, what now?

Simple: Ditch the numbers, focus on where you are at the moment, and see where you can improve.

The five-stage path to virtual team communication

First: Make sure that your team is collaborating. There are five levels every team needs to reach in order to make it to the final level of communication success: collaboration.

[Caption: The five levels of collaboration]

Let me explain the levels further:

  1. Networking: The team has just been assembled. Members know they work for the same organization, but do not know much about each other. Their roles are loosely defined, and there is little communication, so they make all decisions independently.
  2. Cooperation: As the team connections get stronger, networking becomes cooperation. Even though the communication is formal, members provide information to each other more often than before. At this level, roles are loosely defined, but decisions are made independently and without consultation.
  3. Coordination: Coordinated teams are well-organized teams, and well-organized teams produce results. At this point, resources and information are shared far and wide through frequent communication between the members. Even though roles are well defined, some of the decisions are made by shared effort.
  4. Coalition: At this time, the team knows that to achieve high-end results, ideas and resources should be shared extensively. Communication is frequent and prioritized, and each and every member will have their voice heard.
  5. Collaboration: There is an “I’ve got your back” atmosphere in the air. Everyone feels as if they are part of something bigger and that they belong there. When it comes to decision-making, the consensus is a must, and mutual trust fuels regular communication.

Only if your team has reached the fifth level, if you feel they are jelled and have full trust in each other, can you say they are collaborating “for real.”

And the purpose of this sequence is not about “Is team collaboration good?”

It’s all about minding the signs that something might be off. These five red flags are indicators that collaboration is not going as smoothly as the manager might want.

5 remote team collaboration red flags

Let’s use an example:

Consider a situation where a team has to create a website for a certain client. The team is comprised of five members: a web designer, a graphic designer, two web developers, and a project manager.

Let’s say that project manager is you.

All team members are complete strangers, living in different parts of the country, and since work will be done remotely, they will probably never meet in person.

It’s a perfect breeding ground for…

1. Repetitive mistakes

Even though the web designer and web developer were given clear instructions, pictures on the website remain unoptimized and page loading time takes longer than trying to watch Netflix on dial up. The designer and developer have been reminded about project expectations.

Still, the problem remains.

Redundant mistakes are the most common indicator of lousy virtual communication.


Pinpoint the source of the problem—and talk to them separately. (Usually, the one who claims that there are no problems IS the one causing the problem.) Note the team’s opinions about the cause of poor team performance, and ask for their suggestions for improvement.

After gathering your team’s feedback, make an action plan with definitive steps, and lay it out while both parties are present. Their reactions should be an accurate indicator of if your solution is acceptable and enforceable.

2. Lack of feedback

The graphic designer has finished her work on the website logo and displayed it for everyone to see. In the first ten minutes, you leave feedback.

In the next hour, only one additional member states their opinion. After that (even though everyone’s online and has clearly seen the post)… nothing!

In this case, lack of feedback could mean one of two things:

  1. Either team members believe that it is not their place to comment on work they are not specialized in (even though this is a five-man team, and all forms of communication are strongly encouraged).
  2. They don’t deem other’s work worthy of their time, let alone their words.

The solution for the first case is obvious: just make it clear that feedback is more than welcome, no matter who it comes from.

In the second instance, however, you may want to consider reorganizing team structure and composition.

3. Constant PMs to you as a manager

Tattletales, tattletales everywhere!

Abusing the team’s project management software to send the manager complaints about everything is not an uncommon practice, but the concern is the difference in attitude between those PMs and the team’s group chat.

While team members are very reserved and polite when communicating with each other through chat, they are full of anger and resentment toward the rest of the crew in a one-on-one conversation with you.

It may be the time for the radical approach: gather the team, allow them to get to know each other personally, and arrange some team building exercises if needed.

By ignoring this problem you allow frustration to build up and explode in your face, thus wiping the team—

—off the face of the Earth.

4. Members do not take part in the “chit-chat” channel

Your web developer is online, but his input in trivial conversation is minimal or even non-existent on your Slack or Slack alternative.

Even though this occurrence can mean that he simply doesn’t want to waste time on off-topic chatting, it could also point to the fact that he feels like the team doesn’t respect his personal views and opinions.

If this turns out to be true, there is a real danger that he will—over time—exclude himself from all discussions that can potentially result in disagreement and confrontation.

You will be left with nothing but a worker that merely provides the product without any input or feedback. That’s not healthy virtual team communication; that’s a recipe for end-product mediocrity.

5. Suspiciously similar solutions keep reappearing

Just as lack of collaboration could be an obstacle, over collaborating can also prove to be a serious problem.

According to research about collaborative design conducted by MIT’s Mark Klein and his colleagues, creativity of an individual can be heavily suppressed by collaboration:

“Collaborative design process is typically expensive and time-consuming because strong interdependencies between design decisions make it difficult to converge on a single design that satisfies these dependencies and is acceptable to all participants.

Worse yet, the research shows that a collaborative design process results in “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

In other words, creating a collaboration method that works for everyone is tough—especially when balancing respect for everyone’s input and developing trust within the team while also making the best decisions for stakeholders and the end product.

Simply put: Too many inputs lessen the impact of individuals creativity, which is why in these cases you will get applicable, but rarely cutting-edge solutions.

Klein and his fellow researchers offer a few tips to mitigate this problem:

  • Make incremental, Agile changes to test new ideas.
  • Create “concessions strategies” so that each team member is incentivized to not only participate in conversations, but also to seek best solutions, even if it means burying their own ideas.
  • Keep clear project requirements available for the team to reference.
  • Keep the team small to avoid overcommunication.

Failure before success

If these five red flags are being raised left and right, take immediate action to protect your virtual team’s communication!

And while you can take credit for your team’s results from time to time, you are responsible for your team’s failures each and every time.

Keep your eyes and ears open, tend to your team needs and provide them with guidance when they feel lost. In the end, you may not be able to measure collaboration, but you will sure be able to measure the success your team achieves.

The lingering questions about virtual team communication

What do you know about keeping your remote team’s communication healthy? What do you think about these solutions? How can we best accommodate the rise of virtual teams? What tools best support online collaboration, and which products just don’t work?

All of these tough questions are pressuring businesses internationally to reevaluate their communication structure. I’m curious about the changes you’ve made to foster remote communication and your thoughts on virtual work. Let us know your answers and thoughts in the comments below!

And if you’re interested in more project management resources for virtual teams, be sure to check out:

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

About the Author

Branislav Moga

Branislav Moga

Branislav is a content writer at Active Collab. Has a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism and Master's Degree in Human resource management. After spending several years as a field journalist he turned to content writing. Moto: practice over theory.


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