Informal and private conversations at work are natural and essential

The biggest challenge in distributed teams is overcoming distance and creating a sense of closeness within the team. The problem is that in distributed teams this closeness does not evolve automatically as is the case in face-to-face work-environments. We all have conversations about private matters during work and we don’t need to reserve a dedicated time slot for this kind of exchange of information or dialogue. This can happen over lunch, in the hallway, on the way to the elevator, or as a warm-up in meetings before the “serious business” starts. Everyone agrees that talking about personal and private matters is part of the overall work setting. Architects know that a space to encourage informal conversations is a vital element of an “office”. Most offices, therefore, have coffee corners, water coolers, cafeterias and other spaces where people can meet and mingle.

In distributed team settings, we need a dedicated space for informal conversations

In a distributed and virtual team setting, the objective is the same: Creating closeness as a prerequisite for trust and collaboration amongst team members. Only, here, informal information does not flow naturally. There is no eye contact like in an office, there is no chance to bump into a colleague in the hallway, we simply do not meet accidently. When we work with virtual teams, we typically note two types of exchanges: The team meets in a telephone or videoconference once a week or every fortnight and they send emails in between these real-time meetings. Compared to a face-to-face team setting, the number of interactions between team members is significantly reduced here. And what is even more important: Virtual teams only meet in strictly work related contexts: Web-Meetings, emails and telcos all are rule-defined and convention-based encounters. An on-site informal get-together once a year or a project kick-off is not enough to replace what is happening in a permanent face-to-face setting. A high frequency of encounters and an informal atmosphere are crucial to allow those moments of serendipity to occur, where creativity is stimulated and ideas are generated.

As a consequence, we have to make a deliberate effort for this kind of conversation to happen in a virtual team setting. We have to make arrangements, to create a space with access for every team member. A chat space is a great starting point and the tool of choice here. In our experience as consultants for virtual team collaboration, the chat is the single most important communication feature for remote teams.

It is important to note that it is not (only) about chit-chat or conversation about what I did on the weekend and my kids’ achievements at school. It is about a constant and almost seamless flow of information with no formal format as in emails, memos or meetings. Short messages, near time responses about everything that is important at that particular moment, a mixture of business, semi-private and private dialogue is what makes work “normal”.

Contextual conversation provides important information

Frequent dialogue among team members provides everyone with important context information. Knowing about the state of mind of my co worker, whether she is sick, had to take his kid home from kindergarten, has spent an hour in a traffic jam and is now stressed-out, is something that I see when I am in a physical office space with my colleagues and I then react accordingly. In virtual communication, a chat is probably the only place where such information would be conveyed. I would not write an email to inform my colleagues that I have been stuck in the elevator this morning. But it is clear that this affects my work.

Context information is extremely important in intercultural teams and we discovered that for some people it is even much easier to convey important context information in an informal written form – in the chat – than in a telco.

A team needs privacy

A team chat differs from other more traditional collaboration tools like file sharing platforms or broadcast communication tools and sending messages to a wider audience. A team needs a space for internal and private conversation. Private in this sense means that all the information in this chat is only accessible to team members and not to other communities outside the team. In organizations, we often encounter these discussions where community managers want to establish an open culture throughout the organization and therefore suggest that all communities should be open, or at least agree to let others view the content, if not edit it. We find it necessary to give the team the opportunity to have a permanent private space. Would you be open about how you feel or what you think, when you do not know who is listening? Only when the team feels safe to express themselves freely, a communication culture can develop and team members will express their thoughts spontaneously and not restrict themselves to politically correct statements. This is a necessary condition for trust in the team.

What is the right tool for team chat?

There are tons of chat tools to choose from. If you have the choice, select a tool that historizes information. This means that the chat stays open 24/7 and all the conversations are saved, no matter which team member is online or offline. Chat tools that terminate the conversation when members go offline, are not useful for a team chat. A chat should be an office space that is always open, so you can leave messages even if you are alone, much like sticking a post-it to a co-workers computer.

Some chat tools integrate more functions than just chat. They include video chat, picture and sound file upload, social tagging, RSS feeds. They take on functions of traditional collaboration tools, so it is up to the team to decide which functions its chat tool should have for their own collaboration process. In our experience, it works best if you have a collaboration tool suite for project management and other content work and a separate chat tool for informal contextual conversations.

We would love to hear your experiences and thoughts on this. Do you have an informal (virtual) space for you team? What tools do you use? and why? Maybe you have found other ways than a chat to fill this need of informal communication?

One thought on “Chatting in virtual teams is more than talking about football

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