In this blog, Dr Daría Hernández and Professor Jeremy Dawson discuss the communication challenges facing teams  working remotely during the current pandemic and propose easy steps organisations can follow to improve employees’ team working skills.

During the Covid-19 pandemic many of us have been forced to work from home. If this has been challenging for employees who normally work independently, think how much harder it’s been for those working in teams. Remotely coordinating work, scheduling meetings that everyone can attend, and trying to keep track of the waves of emails, are just some of the challenges of this “new” way of working. Furthermore, remote meetings have led us to rely almost entirely on what the anthropologist Edward T Hall calls low context communication (where the message is conveyed explicitly from what people say rather than from other communication cues such as body language). If we’re then relying on our speech to communicate, we need to be able to identify and resolve communication problems.

While it might be difficult to identify why a working team is having communication problems, it is easy, nevertheless, to improve to a certain extent this communication by having each member of the team contributing about the same proportion of time. Research suggests that evenness of contribution is an important predictor of team success. Over the last 6 years, we have taken part in project called Behaviour in Teams (BiT) at Sheffield University Management School. BiT aims to help teams to improve their communications skills by providing real-time feedback on what types of verbal communication people use during a meeting. This feedback is based on verbal behavioural categories that commonly occur in teams. We count, for example, how many times someone proposes an idea, disagrees, or brings someone else to the conversation.  Once the meeting is over, we provide the whole team with feedback on how much time in total each person spoke and what behaviours he/she used. We recognise every team is different, and what might work for one team might not work for another; for this reason we keep a very neutral approach when giving feedback and avoid suggesting that any behaviours are uniformly good or bad (with the exception of “attacking” which is detrimental to team success). BiT also adopts a natural language format whereby the categories are named using accessible terminology. For example, category names such as Supporting and Seeking Information are intuitive to observers and participants. Therefore, one of the advantages of our methodology is that researchers and practitioners can develop their own categories to address specific research questions or training goals.

BiT has found that teams that receive feedback modify their participation behaviours, in that they bring in more silent members of the team as well as they reduce their speaking time to allow others to talk.

We might believe that without a formal coach giving our team feedback on our meeting behaviours, it is not possible to know for sure how much and in what ways we are contributing to the meetings – but that’s not true. Our research also shows that reflecting on our verbal contributions led team members to interrupt more in order to make themselves heard.

So, what can we do to improve communication next time we have a team meeting? Simply ask yourself the next 3 questions:

  1. Am I saying everything I need or want to say?
  2. Am I bringing in shyer members that haven’t contributed to the meeting?
  3. Am I shutting out members to give other members the opportunity to speak?

Fear not, you can expel all the air you want from your lungs in an online meeting without catching or transmitting COVID, so let’s all expel air evenly.

If you would like your organisation to have feedback on your team meetings from BiT, please get in touch with us

Daría Hernández is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield Management School and a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at PrOPEL.

Jeremy Dawson is Professor of Health Management at the University of Sheffield, working jointly between the Institute of Work Psychology (within the Management School) and the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).