UCCS researcher studies how to maximize virtual communication tools for effective teamwork

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many teams may work remotely forever. So how can they maximize their effectiveness? Research from Kay Yoon, Associate Professor in the UCCS Department of Communication, applies social media theory to communication tools to discover the answer. Photo credit: Surface, via Unsplash.

The surge of COVID-19 in 2020 prompted many companies to ask some or all of their employees to work from home, creating temporary online teams to accomplish their goals. Yet as the pandemic recedes, the nature of work has changed — and many teams may continue to work remotely forever. But in a fully remote environment, how do team members determine the best person for a task? How do they share knowledge, and how do they make sure their team is doing a good job?

These questions are at the heart of new research published by Kay Yoon, Associate Professor in the UCCS Department of Communication. The study, co-authored Yaguang Zhu, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Arkansas, examines the different ways that individuals in fully virtual teams use technological tools to accomplish their goals — and how successful they perceived their teams to be.

The research grounds itself in social media theory using the concept of an “affordance” — what a technological tool affords a user. To do so, Yoon and Zhu examined six affordances of social media. Then the researchers applied those technological capabilities to team communication software tools, like Microsoft Teams or Slack, to determine when and why users felt their teams were functioning most effectively.

Yoon and Zhu discovered that different affordances in communication tools have different positive effects for teams.

For instance, when a team member needs to know who has expertise in a certain area, they value the affordances of visibility and searchability. Visibility makes it easy for team members to see each others’ behaviors, knowledge and relationships, much in the way that Facebook and LinkedIn make interactions visible to others. Searchability helps users identify and locate information with search indexes, keywords and tagging.

Yet when the entire team needs to share the same understanding of who has expertise in an area, they value the affordances of awareness and pervasiveness. When team members are aware of the opinions and activities of others, and when their tools are pervasive — allowing for mobile, frequent and consistent communication — team members find it easier to be on the same page.

These findings are important, say Yoon and Zhu, because they show that the tools we use to communicate with each other can impact the effectiveness of our communication.

“As evidenced by the recent global pandemic, recent advances in communication technologies allow us to work and collaborate with others, even across geographic, temporal and cultural boundaries,” said Yoon. “Although the original research idea was conceived before the pandemic, the need and prevalence of virtual teams were already growing. I thought that it is critically important to examine the impact of communication technologies on team collaboration.”

In fact, Yoon and Zhu’s research shows teams might even consider switching platforms or tools based on the phase of their project. A platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams might be the best tool when teams want visibility and searchability: when they want to communicate in real-time via instant message, or learn about each other through a video call. But in later phases, as a project comes to fruition and teams value the affordance of editability, they may consider wikis or other shared editing tools instead.

Ultimately, the research offers practical strategies for virtual teams to leverage social media technologies to their advantage. After all, effective collaboration is founded on communication. And while some teams may never return to the workplace, they’ll never stop needing to communicate effectively.

Yoon and Zhu’s research, titled “Social Media Affordances and Transactive Memory Systems in Virtual Teams,” is published in Management Communication Quarterly. Read the full study online. To learn more about Yoon’s research, visit the UCCS Department of Communication website.

About the UCCS College of Letters, Arts & Sciences

The College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at UCCS is the university’s largest college, enrolling nearly 6,000 students across 21 departments and programs. The college offers 19 majors and 53 minors in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Students can also choose from five accelerated bachelor’s and master’s degrees, nine full master’s degrees and three Ph.D. degrees, as well as pre-medical and pre-law programs. The mission of the college is to position graduates for success in their personal and professional lives, with a focus on thinking, creating and communicating — skills vital to employers and graduate and professional schools. Learn more about the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at UCCS.