in virtual team environments can sometimes feel like navigating a
minefield with an out of date map, you know where many of the issues lie
but there is always a small doubt somewhere in your mind that an
unknown trap is about to ensnare you. So too is the challenge of email
use in virtual teams, most of the time things are fine then suddenly
something will explode in your face and leave you feeling scared and
unsure of where to hear next.
Email Trust ChallengesAs teams become more dispersed, and particularly as they are
separated by increasingly large timezone differences, the need to resort
to asynchronous, written communication over verbal, synchronous
communications increases the reliance on email. The increased email
use pushes individuals and teams to become more concise in their
communications, removing many of the pleasantries and verbal checks and
balances we all take for granted when communicating verbally or face to
Without these checks and balances, the communications will inevitably
become more technically focussed and without the human personality in
the communications, building and maintaining a trusting environment
become harder and relationships become more transactional rather than
collaborative. The emails become more a series of instructions, demands
and responses where a verbal equivalent would comprise requests and
answers with personal discussion and input in between.
Additionally, once a high reliance on email begins it is easy to
become over loaded with email, the 50 to 100 new emails that greet a
virtual team member on a morning can seem like an unending list of tasks
without any real priority or pleasantry, as such the recipient will do
their best to respond to as many as possible but will inevitably start
to slip behind, leaving somme virtual colleagues wondering where their
response is and whether their virtual colleagues are there at all. This
uncertainty can result in repeat emails, increasing terseness in
correspondence and attempts to escalate the question to a superior or
circumnavigate the original recipient by asking the same question of
colleagues, thus duplicating the work and spreading the potential
Email OverloadIn parallel to the challenges of dealing with increased email use
comes the difficulties associated with email overload. Someone
overloaded with email will typically start to triage their
correspondence, dealing with those that seem most important first and
continuing until they runout of time. Those left over will remain until
the next day and so forth. Progressively the backlog will accumulate
until their email inbox start to become completely unmanageable, with
hundreds or even thousands of unread emails, each representing a
potential unanswered request.
This email overload then stops corresponding individuals from
following the normal civilities such as acknowledging assistance, it is
simply too time consuming to write an email to thank someone for their
help, so the help goes un acknowledged and another opportunity to build
and maintain trust is sadly lost.
Getting Virtual Team Email Use RightUnderstanding the issues with email use in virtual teams can help
teams get better value from both the technical and relationship sides of
email, below are some tips and traps to consider;
- Wherever possible communicate verbally and follow up with email where needed.
- Only copy people who absolutely need to know or be part of the
conversation. Ideally include everyone in the “to” line rather than some
in the “cc” line, many people will filter “cc” emails and only deal
with them when they have free time.
- Be explicit in your requests, give context and a realistic response
time, this allows the recipient to prioritise work and get back to you
in a timeframe that suits everyone.
- Acknowledge requests wherever possible, just a “got it, I’ll get
back to you” or similar will let the sender know you received their
- Acknowledge the response when you receive it, a simple “thanks”.
even an emoticon smile or similar will let the person who has answered
your email know that their work is appreciated.
- If you feel you need to follow up with the person you emailed, try
wherever possible to do so by telephone first, this will let you talk
through any issues or concerns without resorting to email where the
follow up request can get distorted.
- If your priorities change, let everyone you have requested
information from know, this respects their time and allows them to
change their priorities to help you out if needed.
- Above all else, respect your virtual team colleagues, email use is
more challenging than many acknowledge, everyone will struggle at times
to keep up but most people will help where they can.
use in particular can be more challenging than working face to face,
but used correctly email can help to maintain a good, trusting working
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations establish and run
high performing virtual teams, we combine extensive practical
experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current
real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams
collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can assist your business.
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Email Use In Virtual Teams - Ulfire