How to communicate in virtual teams: Hungarian PMs speak

I traveled to Budapest in 2014 to speak at the PMI Hungary Chapter’s Art of Projects conference for International Project Management Day. I gave a presentation on social media use in virtual teams and also ran a workshop on virtual meetings.

My fellow facilitator and I split the audience and asked them to discuss issues relating to virtual teams.

Top issues with virtual communication

One group looked at the top issues with virtual communication. The primary issue, they reported, was the lack of visual feedback. You can’t see the body language that shows if someone agrees or disagrees, or has a point to make. You’re reliant on just the voice and that can be misleading if not downright deceptive.

Another issue that they raised was the cultural differences in a multinational team. Hungarians, the group confessed, were seen by each other as creative, good communicators, a bit pessimistic and smarter than average. They contrasted that to how they perceive foreigners see Hungarians:

  • Problem-orientated
  • Goal-orientated
  • Creating a lot of noise and asking lots of questions
  • Struggling to celebrate the success of others.

This was based on feedback they had received themselves from non-Hungarian members of their international teams.

How to build trust in virtual teams

Another group looked at how to build trust in virtual teams. They concluded that it is the small things that matter. Allowing the team time for short conversations and sharing trivia through small talk helps build trust between individuals. This can be done at the start of conference calls or through online collaboration tools used for ‘chatter’.

Trust at a team level comes when you have rules and policies in place to work fairly together. When everyone knows the boundaries and what is expected of them it is easier to call out those who are not abiding by the rules.

There was consensus in the group that saying thank you with small gifts was a good way to build trust between the leader and the rest of the team. We briefly discussed the PMI Code of Ethics and agreed that saying thank you with a card and a bar of local chocolate fell within the ethical boundaries of project management practice, although everyone was aware of the need to act transparently.

Breakout sessions on virtual teams

Demonstrating leadership in virtual teams

So how do you demonstrate leadership when you never meet your team members? This was the question that the third workshop group took away to discuss.

They concluded that taking the time to get to know your team through ‘small talk’ conversations was a good way to build a positive relationship that would allow you to show leadership. They also stressed the importance of good documentation after meetings and taking control of minutes. Facilitation skills in virtual meetings were also important.

However, they concluded that if you are a good leader you can lead virtual as well as face to face teams. If leadership is about setting the vision, motivating the team and creating participation in the project then the leader can do that in a variety of settings. They will use the tools available to them, and these might be different in a virtual team, but ultimately a good leader is a good leader in any environment.

If you had been in this workshop, which group would you have joined and what discussion points would you have raised?

Take it further:

Listen to Elizabeth speaking on the PMO Office Hours podcast about leading remote projects.