A Basic Guide to Best Practices

Virtual Media and Remote Team Communications
by Patricia Lane | Lokahi Interactive



Dealing with email | Asynchronous communication

An American manager based in Sacramento, CA sends a quick email to his French project manger requesting his list of participants at an upcoming division meeting in the US. For this American manger, whom we shall call Tim, this information is needed rapidly as he is handling all the logistics for the seminar.

Our French correspondent, Alain, is waiting for the last of his colleagues to respond to this invitation. He will wait until he has complete and accurate information before responding to his boss.

24 hours later, Tim is starting to get irritated at the absence of response from Alain. He wonders whether Alain has received his message, why he hasn't responded, and perhaps even if he is taking this team meeting seriously. He waits until the end of the working day before firing off another email, short and to the point.

When Alain receives this one-line query, he is taken aback by what he perceives as his boss' curtness and over-reaction.

A cycle of distrust and discomfort begins in their virtual interaction.

What could have been done to avoid these problems? Some suggestions are provided below.




This fictitious example is illustrative of what can happen when using virtual communication tools in an intercultural context. It suggests the need to sensitize your team members to cross-cultural differences, train them in intercultural communication, and to provide a best practices guide when using modern technology as a virtual office.

This article addresses some basic principles to keep in mind when using email as a resource in virtual team communications and management.

It will come as no surprise that email was developed in the US. It vehiculates that culture's attributes.

Email is a monochonic form of communication which allows senders and receivers to control when exchanges are initiated and accepted in a culture which prefers to do one thing at a time. An informal means of dialogue suited to a low-distance hierarchical culture, email is void of those typical symbols which suggest a person's status or power. The ease and spontaneity attached to email is perfectly suited to the American straightforward and low-context culture; messages are typically succinct, conveying or requesting specific information, and void of 'soft' attributes preferred by high-context cultures.

If a Japanese, for example, receives an email from an American colleague he has never met and does not know much about, he is probably going to feel a bit ill at ease in reading the message and be somewhat at a loss as to how to respond to it. Why is this the case? There are several key factors.

First, Japan's culture is collectivist. This means that before email can be successfully used as a vehicle for information exchange, it is best for participants to have had the opportunity to get acquainted and to develop mutual trust.

Second, as a high power-distance culture, it is important for Japanese to know "who they are dealing with" - title, rank, power, appropriate form of address and level of politeness, relationships to others in the organization. Email does not provide those dimensions.

Finally, if the email in question requested a decisional response, chances are our Japanese correspondent will need to confer with colleagues prior to being able to reply. This time lag will be incomprehensible to our American sender unless he is already highly sensitized to typical Japanese decision-making processes.

Best practice recommendations in using email for remote team communication and management:

·         Agree on appropriate forms of address - first name basis v. more formal means of address

·         Implement auto-reply messaging - out of office, on leave, on vacation, who to contact if needed

·         Insure that each country's national holidays or other office closings are known to all team members

·         Determine maximum time delay to respond to an email (do not forget to include the impact of time differences)

·         Recipients must respond to all emails specifically addressed to them by:

o        simply acknowledging receipt of information sent

o        responding that information requested will be sent when available

o        or responding with the information requested

·         Avoid information overload - use cc's and list serves wisely

·         Encourage transparency and trust within your team - ban blind copy recipients

·         Do not use email to handle or discuss misunderstandings or conflicts - prefer a more personal form of dialogue

·         Be precise - what (are you asking for or conveying), where (is this to be found or sent), why (is this important) and most importantly when (is it needed)

·         Take advantage of email to prepare telephone and videoconferences so that all participants are ready and on the same page

·         Always include a descriptive title in the subject line

·         Respect the "one subject only" per email rule

·         Make use of your software's automatic signature features - always sign off courteously and provide your contact information


Comments or suggestions? Email us!





© December 2005 Patricia Lane | All rights reserved