Email biggest cause of miscommunication in virtual teams

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Heavy business reliance on email is undermining effectiveness of virtual teams, a global study by EF Education First has found.

The report by EF Corporate Solutions, Virtual Conflict: Barriers to Collaboration in Virtual Teams, found that 70 percent of directors in multinational firms say that miscommunication in global virtual teams is becoming an increasing source of conflict in business, with email being the principle offender.

There are a variety of communication tools available to today’s virtual teams but email (87%) is still the most widely used tool for communication. Yet email was also highlighted as having the greatest potential to cause confusion and misunderstanding in virtual teams by almost 49 percent.

The study of over 800 directors and managers working for international organisations based in Brazil, China, France, Germany, Middle East, Russia, US and UK, indicates that the primary cause for conflict stems from language barriers (39%).

Respondents also suggested that email has the potential to cause ‘information overload’ and virtual teams can suffer from a lack of interaction when it is the preferred method of communication. However, email was revealed to be an effective tool for less confident members of a group to share their ideas when they might be inclined to share their thoughts face-to-face, particularly if language is an issue.

“Virtual teams are the norm for most multinational businesses today,” said Peter Burman, president of EF Corporate Solutions. “But what’s clear from the research is that most companies are failing to pick the right tools for the right job – and this is hindering their ability to communicate effectively.”

While email is the default tool for businesses, Mr. Burman goes on to explain that misunderstandings will always exist unless teams find better ways to understand each other, like a common language of business. “The fact that face-to-face and Skype meetings provide a lot of clarity shows that people still love to connect, see each other’s expressions and body language,” he adds.

The report also covers trends, barriers and success strategies for collaboration in global virtual teams including the widening generational gap between the youngest and oldest employees in the modern workplace. 45 percent of respondents cited the barriers to communicate between business associates over 50 and under 30 lie in the differences in the way they use technology.

“We’re in a unique position now, where Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers are all in the workforce at the same time. While there have always been generational gaps in the workplace, it’s now more important than ever to learn how to manage these differences in thinking as workforce retention is a priority in our post-recessionary environment. There’s a lot of potential here to turn conflicting ideas into opportunities,” Mr. Burman says, referring to the report’s findings on the positive nature of ‘good conflict’ arising from diversity in the workplace, which encourages differences of opinion to ultimately lead to creative new ideas.

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