Recently I’ve been noticing advertisements for Slack, a team collaboration, proposing that it will streamline communications, reduce meetings, improve productivity, reduce email and other benefits. For technology marketing, Slack is low on the hyperbole scale (especially compared to things like blockchain or AI.) They claim that Slack makes communications simpler, more pleasant and more productive, and in my experience using it I would agree. But I wonder how many executives conclude that embracing a tool like this is a/the fix for ineffective and dysfunctional teams.
During a recent graduate school course, I did some research on the topic of communications and effective virtual teams and found that drivers of virtual team success include trust, cultural differences, communication, social skills of the team members, mission and goal clarity and rewards and recognition. (NB, I assume that in the businesses I and my readers work in, teams are virtual, or have virtual team members.) The majority of the success factors are attributes of leadership – with trust the foremost. Research in trust defines three types of communications that create trust in teams – leadership, relationship-building and information sharing.
Research and common sense suggests that technology tools are best for enabling formal and informal information sharing, and good information sharing builds trust among team members. Research also shows that technology supports leadership where communications channels are pre-defined and conducted according to patterns that are understood by all the team members (communications from a CEO on mission, vision and status, for example.)
The most challenging communications-based leadership activity is relationship-building. Trust is a key outcome of relationships that a leader wants to build. Trust based relationships are derived from warmth, attentiveness and interpersonal affections that are difficult to communicate via technology. Social characteristics and rich interpersonal cues that we rely upon to evaluate trustworthiness are hard to gage electronically.
The bottom line of the research is that technology-enabled communications can make teams that are well established work more effectively, but they do not help as much in forming teams and getting them to the level of trust that is needed to perform effectively. The takeaway is that a team leader who pulls together a virtual team of members who are all new to each other, working in different locations and from different cultures (a common situation in our business) and gives them a Slack id, should not assume that this will make them an effective team. That leader must take frequent and specific steps to build relationships and trust. Tools like Slack are great, and should be used, but not at the expense of necessary leadership that must be practiced the old-fashioned way, personally.
(I summarized all my research and conclusions without attribution, since I’m not submitting this in academia, but would be happy to send my paper on this topic to anyone who asks.)