What is a Virtual Team?

First, to talk about virtual teams, we must be clear on what they are defined as. Virtual working isn’t an entirely new concept and technically has been around for centuries. From the Roman Empire to The Catholic Church and independent traders, all these entities have been affected by considerable geographic dispersal. However, technological improvements and the ever-increasing catalyst of globalisation brings us to the modern-day definition of a virtual team. According to Powell, Piccoli and Ives (2004), a virtual team is defined as:

‘Groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks’.

Virtual teams in today’s organisations consist of employees both working at home and small groups in office settings but different geographic locations. Improvements in digital technology will only increase the demand for virtual working. In 2016 45% of the world’s population had access to the internet and this, along with internet speeds, are set to increase making virtual working more prevalent.

Main Pitfalls of Virtual Teams

Despite the obvious benefits that come with virtual teams such as greater availability of talent, lower overall business cost with reduction of offices, reduction in travel time, and greater workforce flexibility there are several challenges that arise with them (Precup et al., 2006). Three of the main pitfalls highlighted that are repeated throughout various teams are:

  1. Lack of Social Interaction
  2. Trust
  3. Support on projects

“In building a virtual team, these issues must be at least implicitly addressed in order to have an effective virtual team” (Hunsaker and Hunsaker, 2008).

 Lack of Social Interaction

This is probably the most obvious and widespread pitfall to virtual team working. Virtual team members connect with each other, discuss the decision points and then disconnect.

Less emphasis is placed on getting to know each other and developing working relationships. While this may promote ‘surface-level’ efficiency, it can have a deeper negative impact on team bonding, which can reduce overall effectiveness.

You may speak with colleagues everyday over email or video call but none of these are quite the same as having someone directly in front of you. The loss of the “water cooler effect” where you bump into your colleagues in the corridor and chat about weekend plans, how meetings went, or work issues that are stressing you out is lost.

There are deep rooted psychological reasons for these issues. Several compelling arguments from evolutionary psychology have argued that people have an innate, primary drive to form social bonds and mutual caring commitments (Lawrence, 2012). The science of these biological undertones may be complex, however, the basic concept of seeing how someone reacts to what you say, or how well they are listening to you is easy to relate to. We pick up hidden messages from body language, gain trust from close contact and mirror emotions which in turn increases empathy. We pay more attention when someone is right in front of us due to all our senses being engaged.

If there is poor social interaction it can have a negative effect on individuals’ sense of connection to the company vision, mission and purpose. Employees may feel detached, or even lonely, and isolated from decisions that are going on, which has a significant impact on their interest, motivation and performance. On the flip side, studies have shown that group cohesion amongst employees has a positive effect on workers productivity (Dion & Evans, 2012). Co-workers indulging in water cooler talks, after work gatherings, and sharing their personal stories strengthens social bonds and builds mutually beneficial relationships. They feel connected to a shared goal and more driven to deliver it collectively. The challenge therefore is how to replicate these opportunities in a virtual working world.

Trust

The issue of trust isn’t solely a virtual team issue with face to face (F-2-F) feeling this too. However, the issue is multiplied when working in a virtual team for several different reasons. The lack of social interaction highlighted previously is one factor in issues of trust, however, it is not the only factor. Lack of trust can form from:

  • Missing out on Meetings: A reduction in face-to-face team meetings, impromptu conversations and in-the-moment responses can lead to uncertainty, disconnect and confusion. These things alone can pick at trust but combined can have a drastic negative effect.
  • Lack of Communication: The way in which messages are communicated is also key; get this wrong and others may interpret them in the incorrect way. Working in virtual teams physically disconnects you from your colleagues. Constant interaction is necessary to keep everyone up to date with what is going on so you can work effectively together.
  • Colleague Ambiguity: This can take many forms, from not knowing them personally, or not knowing how they operate at work, to even how reliable they are. This goes beyond putting a face (and a job role) to a name. From technical expertise to personality traits, really getting to know the person you’re working with virtually and establishing how to work best together requires effort. Without this, assumptions are made, and trust can begin to dwindle.

“Trust has been identified as the glue that holds virtual teams together and is a major determinant of success in virtual settings, so a lack of trust is a huge negative factor” (Buxton, 2012).

In F-2-F teams, everything feels more visible (even if that’s not necessarily the case). In virtual teams, this lack of physical presence can cause trust issues to manifest. Individuals who do not trust fellow team members are more likely to monitor or double check each other’s work to insure the quality of the team’s output. This self-protective activity increases the amount of time and resources needed to complete a project. (Brahm & Kunze, 2012). In virtual teams, trust becomes an important component in preventing psychological distance, and it increases confidence in relationships by promoting open information exchange.

Support on Projects

With global virtual team members often interspersed geographically and across different time zones, behavioural habits such as silo working can develop. Individuals provide their ideas and make their contribution, then move on to the next project. There can, at times, be little interaction between members daily, especially if social interaction and trust aren’t prevalent in the team. This can lead to the following issues:

  • Lack of expertise recognition: Each individual working in their silo virtually will not be aware of the expertise or talents that others can add to their work. This can lead to team members getting stuck or spending a lot of time on issues that could easily be solved by colleagues.
  • Not sharing information: As highlighted in trust this could be a vindictive move done on purpose or, most likely, it can happen purely by accident. Colleagues aren’t aware of what others are working on so there is no free flow of information.
  • Reduced team collaboration: From the points above it is evident that this lack of information sharing will impact the amount of collaboration going on. You might have a great idea but not know where to turn to take it further. This could kill the idea or just impact its final form.

UBM is a perfect example of this. Many of UBM’s divisional staff executed similar tasks and projects, they just happened to be operating in different industries or geographies. The average UBM employee spent nearly 20 percent of their time looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks. This lack of cooperation or support on projects is a huge drain on any companies’ resources, but there are solutions available to help combat these pitfalls (Jive Software, 2015).

Combating the Pitfalls

Now that we’ve explored the pitfalls of working as part of a virtual team, let’s look to some solutions. The pitfalls presented may seem daunting to some, there are ways to help reduce their effects and minimise these common virtual pitfalls. Including:

  1. Initial and Regular Team Meetings: Using our evolutionary instincts to build affinity for future benefit
  2. Clear-ER Communication: Reducing the uncertainty of interactions
  3. Active Use of Social Messaging Tools: Using the modern technology at our disposal to bring teams closer

The three solutions mentioned may not be enough on their own to overcome each teams’ unique challenges, but they can be used in unison to help form a solid foundation for a more effective virtual team in the future.

Initial and Regular Team Meetings

When a virtual team is first formed, it is highly beneficial that they meet face to face (F-2-F). The psychology behind F-2-F meetings is evolutionary and deep rooted in everyone, with the benefits that it provides numerous. For example, shaking hands causes the centre of the brain associated with rewards to activate. You are literally conveying warmth. Research has shown that negotiators who shake hands are more open and honest with each other, which results in better outcomes (Schroeder et al., 2014). This feeling of openness and honesty is what you want to create within your team. Touch from other individuals builds trust between them, something that no amount of interaction over digital methods can recreate.

An initial F-2-F meeting will go a long way toward introducing team members in depth to each other. Setting expectations for trust, candour, and clarifying team goals and behavioural guidelines are just some of the things that can be discussed to start with. Having everyone in one place allows for spur of the moment topics of conversation to be had. Side jokes and little side interactions in a team meeting should be encouraged to help grow rapport between individuals. You can pick up on the hidden messages that colleagues bodies give away and get a better understanding of what a person is like. The key with F-2-F meet ups is to have them on a regular, or even semi-regular basis where possible. This can be as limited as every 6 months, but creating more opportunities to get the benefits of bonding, building rapport, trust, and allowing people to re-connect will only enhance your team.

Eye contact and body language help to kindle personal connections and the “swift trust” (Germain and McGuire, 2014) that allows a group of strangers to work together before long-term bonds develop. This is when you can assess team dynamics and work to bridge specific gaps, for example, by assigning an achievable task to remote team members, allowing them a “small win” together. The trust and social interaction gained from F-2-F meetings at the start of a virtual team’s existence can be fragile and temporal though, so effort needs to be made to maintain them. This can be done by having semi-regular team meet ups mentioned earlier to reinforce trust, or through clearer communication as outlined next.

Clear-ER Communication

In a study of global distributed teams, Anderson et al. (2007) found that teams lacking in trust tended to have unpredictable communication patterns, often with just one or two members accounting for the bulk of the communications. Research suggest that the use of effective communication methods, especially during the early stages of a team’s development, plays an equally important role in gaining and maintaining trust.

Specific guidelines for virtual team interactions are vital. Research shows that rules reduce uncertainty (Walter & Bunz, 2005) and enhance trust in social groups, which in turn improves productivity. Teams, however, need to be aware of what they expect from clear communication. Everyone has a different way of operating and thinking so teams should clarify what this looks like for them. Are they agreeing on how quickly team members should respond to queries and requests from one another, and outline follow-up steps if someone is slow to act? Do they want a commitment to a simple acknowledgement of the message and a brief reasoning of why you can’t reply straight away? A simple note saying, “Got your message, about to go for a conference call, will reply after 2pm”, can help keep everyone on the same page. If they are aware why you aren’t replying, and when you will, this gives them more information on how to proceed.

This type of commitment should even extend to how often team members are making themselves available for interaction. If they aren’t in a meeting, are they free to be contacted? Will they try and make the same hours each day available for discussion? Clarifying simple things like that can bring everyone on to the same page more often. In virtual teams transparency is key, and clearer communications allow for regular work updates to occur. A common cause of lack of trust within virtual teams is not knowing what the other members are working on, lack of transparency, and the need for clear communication is vitally important to negate this.

Active Use of Social Messaging Tools

The implementation of social messaging tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Jive or Zoom can help diversify your methods of communications and offer formal and informal channels to occur. For example, a study carried out by McKinsey Global Institute (2012) (MGI) highlighted that companies use social tools to increase the interest in their business from customers. Yet, an MGI study found that twice as much potential value lies in using social tools to enhance communications, knowledge sharing, and collaboration within and across enterprises. It is all well and good implementing these social messaging tools, but without you, your boss and your colleagues making a concrete effort to utilise them, they will fail to have the desired effect in your team. There is a need to not only use them regularly, but effectively.  For effective use the establishment of the clear communication mentioned previously in this blog is key. These tools are about defining the purpose and what works for you and your team.

Forbes (2013) highlights spontaneous written communication like Instant Messaging can feel forced, however, an effective virtual leader can still use it to increase informal social interactions. Creating rules or norms that it is encouraged to message for general catch up’s regularly will negate the forced feeling. It can create opportunities for regular feedback to be shared or expertise to be offered and accessed easily. The pitfalls of a virtual team stem from a foundational lack of social interaction. If you are effectively interacting with colleagues, in formal and informal ways, you’ll increase consistent communication channels, encourage the sharing of information, and build trust amongst colleagues.

The solutions outlined above may not cure all that ails a growing virtual team, however, they can help make life a lot smoother for the members.

Find out more about how ChangingPoint can support your organisation in the virtual world of work, contact us today.


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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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