Virtual Teams

Virtual teams are groups of individuals who work interdependently, are located at a distance from each other, and conduct most of their collaboration through communications technology (rather than face-to-face). A “pure” virtual team is one in which each member is geographically distant from each other member, but more often, at least some of the members are likely to be colocated.

As organizations become more global and outsource more of their work, and as trends such as hot desking and telecommuting become popular in some professions, more and more business is being conducted across geographic distance. In many organizations today, it is not possible to locate everyone at the same site. This fact, in combination with the recent proliferation and improvement of communications technology, means that the use of virtual teams is likely to become more common.

Despite the dispersion of team members in virtual teams, organizations want to benefit from bringing together employees with diverse expertise without spending too much on travel. Although some travel is still likely to be necessary, the aim is to allow these geographically dispersed individuals to work together while they are apart. This work typically takes place through communications technologies such as e-mail, the telephone (including audioconferences), voice mail, instant messaging, video conferencing, shared desktops, intranet sites, and other interactive computer-based tools. Although traditional colocated teams may make use of some of these technologies, virtual teams rely on them more heavily because they cannot easily arrange face-to-face contact.

Literature on Virtual Teams

Empirical research on virtual teams is in its infancy, but more information is emerging all the time. Until recently, much of the literature was either theoretical and speculative or based on experimental findings with ad hoc or student project teams rather than teams within organizations. Nevertheless, the literature reveals a range of interesting issues.

Technology Mediation

One area of interest is the use and impact of communications technologies. The level of use of different types of technology depends on the resources available, the type of task, the level of interdependence required for the task, and the collaborators’ preferences. The literature suggests that more complex tasks requiring a high level of interdependence, tasks in which misunderstandings are possible, and tasks in which emotions are involved benefit most from communications media that allow the transmission of more communication and social cues (i.e., rich media). The richest media enable the transmission of visual and verbal cues that aid understanding (e.g., nods, verbalizations such as “uh-huh”) and provide immediate feedback (i.e., the nod occurs immediately after the communicator’s comment, indicating the point has been understood). The richest media, therefore, are face-to-face communications; video conferencing offers a possible alternative, although problems with sound and visual synchronization can make this technology less rich.

Text-based media such as e-mail are generally considered among the least rich technologies because many social and communication cues are missing and feedback (in the form of a reply) is typically delayed. These less rich media are more suitable when tasks are routine and less interdependent and when there is less danger of emotions or misunderstandings escalating. Research also suggests, however, that when such communications technologies are used for a longer period of time, people are able to transmit more complex information through them. For example, the rocket engine design team that Anne Majchrzak and colleagues (2000) studied was able to adapt to less rich media and use them for some complex and ambiguous tasks (such as generating and critiquing new ideas, learning about unfamiliar concepts, and understanding the design concerns of other team members) because there was a high level of shared understanding among team members that had been developed through previous face-to-face meetings.

Shared Understanding and Knowledge Exchange

Another key area of concern in the literature is the concept of shared understanding, which appears to be central to the success of virtual teams. The team needs to have a shared view of its task, goals, roles (i.e., who should be doing what), and processes. This is crucial in virtual teams because the coordination of work is more difficult when members rarely meet. However, the dispersion of team members means that it is more difficult to establish shared understanding in virtual teams because of poor communication, little exchange of social cues, and lack of direct contact or experience of each others’ contexts. Furthermore, dispersed members are likely to be more diverse: They may live and work in separate contexts, where different local constraints, goals, and expectations influence their behavior and understanding. They may also face national, professional, or functional language barriers. Therefore, it is important that members be aware of each other’s different backgrounds and perspectives to avoid misunderstandings. Without a shared understanding, team members may think they have understood each other, but in fact, their understanding is based on completely different frames of reference and is actually at cross-purposes. This can lead to misunderstandings and sometimes conflict within virtual teams, jeopardizing working relationships and performance. Unfortunately, the literature suggests that such contextual information is rarely exchanged or remembered by virtual team members.

There is also some interest in dispersed expertise and knowledge within virtual teams, which can have both negative and positive implications. When a team is dispersed and does not share the same physical context, it can be harder to know who has particular knowledge or expertise. This is exacerbated by the fact that teams have a tendency to focus on commonly held information, overlook unique data, and assume that everyone knows the same information. On the positive side, the higher diversity that is typically found in virtual teams can lead to higher levels of novel and nonre-dundant knowledge because people from different locations and backgrounds are likely to have access to different types and sources of knowledge. This wider knowledge pool can bring huge benefits to virtual teams, but only if they are able to overcome the inherent difficulties of bringing it all together.

Relationships

Relationship issues such as conflict, cohesion, and trust have also received attention in the literature. It is often assumed that virtual teams will experience more conflict than colocated teams because of the increased likelihood of misunderstandings. However, evidence for this assumption is mixed. Nevertheless, research suggests that a remote colleague is more likely to be blamed if things go wrong than a colocated colleague. This is the result of an attribution error, whereby the distant person’s context is much less salient than the colocated person’s context. A team member is much more likely to be aware of the situational constraints of a colocated person and take these into account, whereas without knowledge of the remote colleague’s context, the person is likely to be the focus of attention, and so the colleague will be blamed without consideration of his or her situation.

Research has found that virtual teams are less cohesive than traditional colocated teams because they lack face-to-face interaction. However, other research suggests that in some circumstances, virtual teams are actually more cohesive than colocated teams. Studies using experimental, ad hoc virtual teams whose members are visually anonymous to each other and know very little about each other have shown that extremely high attraction and team identity can develop very quickly. When cues about individuals are not available, a group identity will be inferred from whatever cues remain (e.g., they are all students). This effect is thought to enhance the attraction to other group members.

Similarly, it is often assumed that trust will be lower in virtual teams than in colocated teams because of their lack of close contact, but the research on this is inconclusive. Some research suggests that although trust may be lower in the early stages of virtual team formation, over time, it becomes equivalent after repeated interactions demonstrating trustworthiness. Still others have suggested that trust may be immediate based on stereotypical representations of the virtual collaborators (e.g., that people in certain professions are automatically trustworthy). However, this type of trust is assumed rather than evidence based, and so it may not be justified over time.

  • Have an initial face-to-face meeting to develop a shared understanding of the team’s goals, roles, and processes and its different contexts, expertise, and other aspects of diversity.
  • Explicitly exchange contextual information (e.g., about culture, ways of working, expectations, national holidays) and explicitly identify the range of expertise within the team. Ensure that everyone on the team is made aware of this information.
  • Use technology appropriately for the task at hand and have face-to-face meetings at important project junctures when richer media are required (e.g., when tasks are complex, interdependent, and involve emotions, and when shared understanding is low).
  • Emphasize a common group identity (to foster cohesion), but also be aware of differences (to aid shared understanding and knowledge exchange).

References:

  1. Axtell, C. M., Fleck, S. J., and Turner, N. (2004). Virtual teams: Collaborating across distance. In C. L. Cooper & I. T. Robertson (Eds.), International review of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 19, pp. 205-248). Chichester, UK: Wiley.
  2. Duarte, D. L., & Snyder, N. T. (2001). Mastering virtual teams (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Gibson, C. B., & Cohen, S. G. (Eds.). (2003). Virtual teams that work: Creating conditions for virtual team effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  4. Hinds, P. J., & Kiesler, S. (Eds.). (2002). Distributed work. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  5. Lipnack, J., & Stamps, J. (2000). Virtual teams: People working across boundaries with technology (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
  6. Majchrzak, A., Rice, R. E., King, N., Malhotra, A., & Ba, S. L. (2000). Computer-mediated inter-organizational knowledge sharing: Insights from a virtual team innovating using a collaborative tool. Information Resources and Management Journal, 13, 44-53.

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