Virtual misunderstanding

International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management

ISSN: 1741-0401

Article publication date: 1 June 2004



(2004), "Virtual misunderstanding", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 53 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Virtual misunderstanding

Remote and virtual working appear to offer significant benefits. Teams can be formed from colleagues in a host of different locations using a variety of communications technologies (such as email, videoconferencing or telephones) collaborating on common areas of work.

Both the possibilities and the demand for virtual collaboration are increasing as organisations become more global and technology advances. Yet, recent research by the ESRC Centre for Organisation and Innovation at the Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield, and occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola, suggests that social and organisational factors hamper the effectiveness of virtual collaborations more than technological glitches.

The study identifies a number of problems that arise from virtual working. “We found co-operation, co-ordination and communication to be more difficult, sharing complex information and knowledge to be harder and misunderstandings to be common,” says senior researcher Carolyn Axtell. “Moreover there is a greater possibility that distant colleagues will have different mind-sets, cultures, professions and backgrounds which bring different expectations and ways of doing things that are difficult to reconcile,” she adds.

One of the reasons for misunderstanding arising from virtual working may be the lack of non-verbal cues and immediate feedback that makes it difficult to recognise when a misunderstanding has occurred. These misunderstandings frequently arise when the receiver interprets information differently to the person sending the information.

Such problems can damage working relations as well as delay the completion of the task. “A good illustration is a recent TV advert in which a giant doll is delivered by European producers to American clients,” Axtell suggests. “The Europeans have misinterpreted the dimensions by assuming the Americans were talking ‘metres’ when they actually meant ‘inches’. If they had been co-located the Europeans may have seen the hand gestures that illustrated the desired size of the doll and gained greater understanding of the American context which may have made these different measurement systems more obvious.”

In fact, lack of knowledge about the remote situational context is a major problem to virtual working, she believes. “As humans, we have a tendency to focus blame on the individual rather than their situation when things go wrong,” she argues. This is exacerbated in virtual collaborations because generally far less is known about the situation in which the other person is working.

To avoid such pitfalls, the study makes a number of recommendations on how to enhance virtual working.

These include:

  • Establishing good relations and mutual understanding amongst collaborators through face-to-face meetings at important junctures, “context” awareness activities and informal interaction (either face-to-face or via technology).

  • Acquiring social as well as technical skills, particularly interpersonal skills and cross-cultural, cross-professional communication skills.

“Virtual working could be used more successfully if greater awareness of the potential pitfalls existed,” she points out. But, to achieve this, further research is now required. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with organisations either experiencing problems with virtual working or considering its introduction,” she concludes.

For further information contact Carolyn Axtell. E-mail:

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