Ambiguity brings down productivity, performance and morale on teams where employees are located in one spot. It can be a downright killer for virtual teams. That’s why you must take extra precaution to eradicate it before it causes confusion, misunderstandings, mistakes and rework.

Francis Norman, director and principal consultant at Ulfire, an organization that specializes in helping companies develop high-performing virtual teams, says that ambiguity usually takes these three forms on virtual teams.

Ambiguity of Communications

Mixed messages or imprecise messages lead to confusion, frustration and even hostility among teammates. Norman says that conducting discussions that end without firm agreements as to who will do what, when and how are almost worse than not having any discussions at all. Ensure that employees take clear ownership of tasks at the end of meetings and other discussions. Each person must know who will do what, when he/she will do it and what is to happen next.

Ambiguity of Schedule

Deadlines of when tasks should be completed are unclear. Without clarity of schedule, each person will eventually start to work to his/her own schedule, taking best guesses for when to complete assignments. It almost always leads to missed deadlines and conflict among teammates, especially when one employee is dependent on another employee completing a task so that he/she can do his/her own work. Set clear deadlines and schedules and confirm that employees understand when their work is due.

Ambiguity of Authority

Employees don’t know to whom they should be reporting. They may work with several departments and receive orders from multiple people. OR the true team leader may not be leading effectively. That often happens on fully virtual teams where the team doesn’t come together often or the leader chooses to communicate only via email. There should only be one overall chief (that’s you if you lead the team), and that means that you need to play the role. Find ways to motivate and inspire remote employees, but also make sure that they understand that you are there to step in and offer help and guidance when they need it. Additionally, solve problems, clear obstacles and keep lines of communication open. They have to see you as the leader, and that means you have to act like one.

Norman also suggests these tips to reduce ambiguity on your virtual team: 

  • Set clear guidelines and procedures. Make sure they are easy to read and understand, and keep them updated as necessary. Most important, though, is to have employees confirm that they understand them.
  • Boost communication across the board. With open, honest communication, you begin to build trust with employees. Once that trust is there, encourage them to speak up when they have questions or are unclear about something. Be gracious and patient when they do share their confusion. If you act frustrated or angry, they won’t feel comfortable enough to speak up, and that will lead to mistakes. Reinforce the idea “If in doubt, ask!”
  • Document all action items. Even if it’s just via a quick email, send the entire team a list of agreed upon action items and decisions, along with the name of the person responsible for each task, and a deadline. Ask everyone to follow up with a confirmation.

Francis Norman brings more thirty years of direct experience working within and managing large and small co-located and virtual project teams, along with his PhD research into project virtual teams communications. As a specialized leadership consultant, Francis is passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience to help client organizations improve their project outcomes and predictability.

With a background in Engineering, an industry he was part of for over 30 years, Francis has seen first hand how good and bad virtual teams can impact the outcome of projects. Francis’ experience and passion for virtual teams led him to commence his PhD research into interpersonal communications in virtual project teams in 2010, research that focuses on the human side of virtual project teams, to better understand how the team members function and interact. He is a regular presenter and keynote speaker on the subjects of virtual teams and cross cultural communications, and he hosts the Virtual Team Dynamics – the Ulfire Podcast, which is available for download from iTunes and most other good podcast sites. 

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