On a recent virtual teams workshop (that I ran), we were talking about communication technology and the role that text based tool such as Instant Messenger and text message could play in connecting together virtual teams.
One of the participants angrily interrupted: "If we are not careful, we will end up like my kids, they refuse to communicate, all they do is text all day, it's ridiculous."
He was clearly irate. He was trying to sit down and have conversations with his kids and finding that they had little to say to him. He felt that text was not 'proper communication'.
One of the challenges in virtual team communication is how do we create the informal spontaneous communication events that help maintain relationships? The few words we have as we pass in the corridor or stand at the coffee machine can be important social moments and keep the 'heartbeat' of communication going. If we don't connect even at a trivial level we may fall out of the habit of connection and it becomes harder and harder to re-engage.
It can be equally difficult communicating across generations. Most kids go through a phase when their parents know nothing and they only want to connect with their peer group. But it was always so, my generation spend hours sitting on the stairs on the telephone saying very little.
When I asked my participant how his communication was with his kids he said "Terrible. We hardly speak".
I suggested communicating to them according to their preference not his. When my son and daughter went away to university we talked about communication. When I was at university, my mother was reliant on me getting some change and calling her from a public phone box once a week - and even then I sometimes forgot. If I did forget, a letter a few days later was her only option. Today we have text, messenger, mobile phone and tools like Skype if we need them.
Their preferred form of communication was a text to ask "Are you around to talk", often followed by Skype session if both were free. My son felt that telephone calls were "a bit rude" because they interrupted what he was doing and meant that he couldn't respond during lectures etc..
For those of us brought up to feel that phone or face-to-face are the only real ways of communicating, text can feel unsatisfying. But not half as unsatisfying as not connecting with your kids!
I quickly got into the habit of uploading photos of my travels on Facebook and texting them pictures of interesting or funny things I saw. They would often text back and it became a great mechanism for staying connected. Most of the time it was a short text interchange, but occasionally it would prompt a response "Are you around for a call" and a longer conversation would break out.
It is the same in virtual teams; we have to keep the connection going so that spontaneous communication can happen more easily.
It is also important to have a common interest. In my family, it is football - we often share news about our club or photos from the matches we attend. In a virtual team we always have a common interest in our work, so there is always something that can be communicated.
It's also true that different individuals have different communication preferences, in terms of media, content and frequency. It's a good practice to have a discussion around this with your team (or your kids) so you can set up a communication plan that meets the needs of everyone involved.
If we sit and wait and expect others to communicate in the way that we prefer then we may find communication dries up. That's bad for virtual teams and disastrous for your family.
It seems that any form of connection can help to maintain a relationship and make it easier for more substantive communication to happen. It can be hard to maintain communication with teams that are spread around the world, or even teenagers in an upstairs bedroom. In both cases technology can help, but we have to embrace different communication preferences and styles - the important thing is to connect and stay connected.
By sharing updates on Facebook and keeping in text contact I am sure I connect more regularly and know more about what is going on in my children's lives than my mother ever did in my weekly phone calls - and that's real communication.
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