Virtual Teamwork

Work relationships are hard to build on Zoom—unless you pick up on colleagues’ nonverbal cues

Where would we be without Zoom? Or Teams or Webex or Slack? Videoconferencing platforms such as these have been the salvation of myriad businesses that have been forced into distributed work environments by a pandemic that is barreling into its second year.

But there are limits to remote collaboration.

Xiao-Ping Chen portrait
Xiao-Ping Chen

Producing collegial bonds is a big one, according to a new study co-authored by Xiao-Ping Chen, the Philip M. Condit Endowed Chair in Business Administration at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

The study confirms that workers are far less effective at building relationships when they primarily communicate with colleagues virtually rather than in person. This deficiency in relationship-building can result in poorer team coordination, efficiency and productivity.

But Chen and her co-authors also find that people who focus on colleagues’ nonverbal communication cues or try harder to listen attentively when meeting by videoconference are less likely to see any change in the quality of their work relationships.

“In fact,” Chen says, “we found that when these two communication behaviors were present, video calls were comparable to meeting face-to-face in promoting team efficiency and even more effective in coordinating team activities.”

The relationship business

Relationship-building is a known key to improving team outcomes—and even more important when employees are communicating over Internet video. But it’s also more difficult.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, when 79% of people polled by Gallup reported working from home at least some of the time, many companies and employees have complained about the drawbacks of remote work, such as declines in innovation and a lack of social connection.

While more people have returned to the office since the spring, nearly 60% of American workers said they were still telecommuting part-time or full-time in September. And that number of work-from-homers has likely increased since then, as infection rates spiked nationwide into winter.

Survey says…

To understand the impact of virtual work on workplace relationships, Chen collaborated with Nancy Buchan of the University of South Carolina and Wendi Adair of the University of Waterloo.

The researchers surveyed 324 employees of US firms who had conducted the vast majority of meetings in person before COVID-19 hit, but had since switched almost exclusively to videoconferencing. Each participant was asked about work relationships, communication behaviors when working in person versus over the web, and the performance of their unit before and during the pandemic.

Several clear patterns emerged across participants.

A failure to communicate (fully)

Participants in the study reported a sharp deterioration in their work relationships after more of their communications were done via videoconferencing during the pandemic. Analysis of these responses determined that virtual meetings made employees three times less effective at building relationships.

virtual team relationships

The reason? The same participants reported that it was harder to understand their coworkers’ nonverbal cues (such as gestures and facial expressions) and to listen intently to what others were saying during virtual meetings compared with in-person communications.

Without these two crucial elements, Chen explains, the positive effects of relationship-building—such as coordination and efficiency—were tough to establish.

She adds that this is especially true in “low-context” cultures (such as the US), where people tend to communicate in direct, explicit language and may be less able to discern subtle messages conveyed through expressions and intonations.

Look and listen closely

The COVID-19 pandemic will not last forever. But a recent survey indicates that two-thirds of American workers say they’d like to continue working remotely at least some of the time even after it ends. So, there’s a clear need to find ways to improve the virtual work experience for the long term.

“At the cognitive level, it will be important for managers to be aware of the importance in paying attention to people’s nonverbal cues when they speak in the Zoom setting, even though only the upper body and face are visible,” Chen says. “Engaged listening is also crucial to capturing cues outside of the message itself, such as tone and pitch of voice.”

She offers a few tips for managers to facilitate relationship-building in a virtual work setting:

  1. Allow five minutes for each team member to talk casually (about anything) before getting to the task—and certainly before sharing PowerPoint or other documents on the screen.
  2. Present using multiple screens, if possible, so that one remains dedicated to displaying the faces of meeting participants while the other shares documents.
  3. Encourage meeting participants to wear earphones, which enable closer scrutiny of colleagues’ tone and pitch of voice.

“Our findings suggest that companies and workers could offset some of the downsides of collaborating remotely,” says Chen, “which could pay dividends in the post-pandemic world.”

“Teamwork During a Global Pandemic: Communication, Relationship Building and Outcomes when Working Face-to-Face vs. Videoconferencing in U.S. and China” is the work of Xiao-Ping Chen, Nancy Buchan and Wendi Adair. Additional contributions were made by Ye Zhang, recently of Peking University, and Jeff Russell, managing director of ICEdge, a personal assessment of communication style that was founded in 2015 by Chen, Buchan, Adair and Zhang.

Ed Kromer Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.