More than ever before, safety critical industries must rely on online communication. This requires us to rethink how we can communicate effectively in comparison to face-to-face meetings. SCT’s Mario Pierobon reports on how organisations can address and embrace this challenge.
Online communication has become a key part of our lives with a significant step change in its usage due to the pandemic. In parallel, the training domain has recognised that for people working in safety critical industries it is important to learn how to communicate effectively online. This type of communication requires skills that differ from the ones required for face-to-face communication. Communication, leadership, resilience, and culture are some of the key aspects at the base of effective online communication.
Online communication can take place in an extensive number of forms; these include oral communication (e.g., online meetings and video conferences), written communication (e.g., letters, emails, instant messages, etc.) and non-verbal communication (e.g., body movements, facial expressions, intonations etc.). “Sometimes the non-verbal component may stand alone as a powerful message of our business communication. No discussion of communication would thus be complete without consideration of nonverbal communication,” stated Stephen P. Robbins and Timothy A. Judge in a book entitled ‘Organizational Behavior’[i].
Motivating and Enriching
Training on how to communicate safety critical information online should consider the relevance that virtual teams have. Virtual teams are teams composed by physically dispersed members that work together through the use of technology to achieve common goals, according to safety management consultant Anxhela Bitri. “Temporal and spatial flexibility and availability are key characteristics of virtual teams; indeed, online communication permits lower travel costs and more time available,” she says. “The members of the team can work anywhere, independently from location and time, and have flexibility in work-life balance granting the opportunity to work in different project simultaneously.”
According to Akteos, a provider of intercultural training, working with professionals from other cultures is motivating and enriching when one manages to overcome the barrier of cultural differences. “This is an opportunity to share best practices, to discover new working methods and to broaden your outlook.”[ii]
The Risk of Misunderstanding
Online communication with virtual teams can also be a challenge. Indeed, the extensive range of different cultures that can get in touch thanks to the online environment, the different languages and the limited appreciation of non-verbal communication and personal contact can put barriers to communication. “The risk of misunderstandings is therefore higher and less ‘palpable’ than in traditional teams, which can create conflict,” states Akteos. “In multicultural virtual teams, there is another problem: attitudes to time, hierarchy, conflict management, communication, etc., which may differ a great deal from one culture to another.”
According to anthropologist and psychologist Geert Hofstede, cultures diversify in six main characteristics: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation and indulgence, observes Bitri. “One culture, for example, that has high power distance, will easily accept tasks assignment from a person in a higher role. This is not the case of culture with a low power distance, where people prefer more responsibilities and less assignment by another team member,” she says. “Studies by Hofstede highlight the importance of communication and the correlation that this has with different cultures.”
Trust is Built through Actions
The communication expectations that need to be defined from the beginning in virtual teams include norms covering how information will be communicated, how technology will be used, and what can be shared outside the virtual team, states Bitri. “Their absence can lead to information overload and lack of coordination. The consequence of this impact the performance of the team, in particular there could be delays or the quality of the final output could be below standards.”
Trust also has a key role, in particular with virtual teams where members have not the possibility to meet face to face and build trust, affirms Bitri. “In virtual teams, trust is built through actions rather than goodwill. Consequently, it is important to define from the beginning explicitly the expectations. Trust is built in the moment that those expectations become reality. If expectations are not met, trust among the members is not built and this can lead to misunderstandings and to conflict. The role of trust has a greater importance if the members of the team have a different background and have a different culture because in this case it is more difficult to build trust due to stereotypes."
Creating a Feeling of Belonging
Video conferences on a regular basis are crucial to team cohesion, even when everything seems to be going well, according to Akteos. “The manager must focus on what is working well and seek to generate a positive group spirit. You can also use the opportunity to remotely ‘celebrate’ the group’s successes,” says Akteos. “These meetings should provide an opportunity to swap experiences, to discuss any problems or simply to chat together to replace the ‘chats around the coffee machine’ traditional teams have, creating a feeling of belonging to a group and encouraging a solid working relationship.”
Bitri observes that there are fundamentally two types of communication for virtual teams: synchronous and asynchronous. “Synchronous tools operate in real time like for example virtual meetings (e.g., Teams, Skype or Zoom) or instant messaging sessions. Asynchronous technology, instead, operate in different moment in time,” she says. “This is very useful mostly for virtual teams where members are not in the same time zone. It is important to highlight that each project and each team is different and there is the need to find the most suitable tool for the members of the team that makes them feel confident.”
Managing Long Distance Teams Differently
It is important that members of virtual teams are trained on communication in the new online environment. “Long-distance team cannot be managed like a traditional team and to be aware of the fact that once the main principles have been established, old habits still have a tendency to creep back in,” states Akteos.
Best practices to transition to virtual teams include adapting the methods of management. It is often necessary to review the management methods to ensure that the individuals comprising the long-distance team work together effectively and happily. One simply cannot manage a traditional team and a long-distance team in the same way, and will sometimes need to overcome certain cultural reflexes, says Akteos.
Culture of course plays an important role in managing intercultural teams. “What works perfectly well in one culture may be inappropriate in another. These differences can generate misunderstandings and even exasperation. For this reason, it is necessary to learn a great deal about the culture of your team members and to lay down precise rules with them and with their consent,” says Akteos.
The main are that are impacted by the different cultures concern decision-making, communication styles and methods, management of deadlines and feedback, according to Akteos. “The possible consequences of failing to abide by these rules must also be clearly stressed. Each person’s roles must be described very clearly and without ambiguity as there is no room for uncertainty in long-distance working. When everyone knows the rules, it is the manager’s job to check that they are being correctly applied.”
Another important practice is to pay attention to the communication style, because to manage virtual teams, there is the need for an explicit communication style, according to Akteos. “The manager must explain things clearly and in great detail. It is important that each person understands the common objectives, which tasks need to be performed, who is doing what, who must be informed, by whom, of what, how often, and in which way,” says Akteos.
Barriers to Effective Communication
There is a number of barriers that can impact effective communication in online environment by slowing or distorting it. Therefore, in training on how to communicate online it is important to emphasise how to recognise these barriers and how to try to reduce them.
A first barrier is filtering, which becomes even more difficult to overcome during online communication. “Filtering refers to a sender’s purposely manipulating information so the receiver will see it more favorably,” state Robbins & Judge[iii]. “Factors such as fear of conveying bad news and the desire to please the boss often lead employees to tell their superiors what they think they want to hear, thus distorting upward communications.”
Another barrier is selective perception. “Selective perception is important because the receivers in the communication process selectively see and hear based on their needs, motivations, experience, backgrounds, and other personal characteristics. Receivers also project their interests and expectations into communications as they decode them,” say Robbins & Judge.
An additional barrier is information overload. “Individuals have a finite capacity for processing data. When the information we have to work with exceeds our processing capacity, the result is information overload,” say Robbins & Judge. “What happens when individuals have more information than they can sort and use? They tend to select, ignore, pass over, or forget it.”
Working in an online environment requires the learning of new skills, among which there are new communication skills.
The first core skill is engagement. The attention of people in an online environment is particularly unreliable. Phones, laptops, and other factors are some of the many sources of distraction that lower the engagement of the ‘listener’ during communication online. Being able to keep the attention and who is listening is essential. “With virtual communication, it is really important to set off on the right foot. That means you’ve got to ‘nail the opening’; use a good fact or stat to grab attention, or opening with a story is a great way to get engagement from the get-go,” says training organisation The Colin James Method in an an online article entitled ‘Benefits of Virtual Communication Skills Training During COVID-19’[iv].
Another core skill is interaction. Interaction can become awkward due to challenges like technology, time delays etc. To manage this more effectively, there is the need of good virtual communication skills training teaches techniques, according to The Colin James Method. “Use a moderator to call on people one by one to interact. Good moderators can also inject energy into discussions and facilitate introductions at the beginning. For participants, it’s good practice to state your name when you speak,” suggests The Colin James Method.
Another important point is feedback. The feedback loop can be difficult to achieve in a virtual environment. However, it is possible, according to The Colin James Method. “Participants are able to practice their training if groups are kept small. Small groups spread across the country can also practice with each other if shown how to do so. People working on their own need a slightly different feedback set up, but all of these things (and more) can be taught.”
Advance practice is also very important. “This ensures you can iron out any niggles during your test run. The use of break-out rooms in virtual training is also really effective for gathering insights in small groups,” concluded The Colin James Method.
[i] Stephen P. Robbins and Timothy A. Judge in ‘Organizational Behavior’, Edition 17, © Pearson Education Limited 2017.
[ii] Akteos, The Challenges of Long-Distance Management, https://www.intercultural-insights.com/2015/02/long-distance-management/
[iii] Robbins & Judge
[iv] James Colin, Benefits Of Virtual Communication Skills Training During COVID-19, https://colinjamesmethod.com/virtual-communication-training-with-covid19/