VIRTUAL TEAMS – COMBATING PITFALLS

In our previous blog we explored the pitfalls of working as part of a virtual team. The pitfalls presented in the blog included: lack of social interaction, trust and support on projects. Where these may seem daunting to some, there are ways to help reduce their effects and minimise these common virtual pitfalls. Including:

  • Initial and Regular Team Meetings: Using our evolutionary instincts to build affinity for future benefit
  • Clear-ER Communication: Reducing the uncertainty of interactions
  • 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 Changing Point can support your organisation in the virtual world of work at www.changing-point.com

 

References

Anderson, A., McEwan, R., Bal, J. and Carletta, J. (2007). Virtual team meetings: An analysis of communication and context. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(5), pp.2558-2580.

Forbes (2013) How To Beat The Five Killers Of Virtual Working. Online: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sebastianbailey/2013/03/05/how-to-overcome-the-five-major-disadvantages-of-virtual-working/#3c60bbf82734

Chui, M., Manyika, J., Bughin, J. and Dobbs, R. (2019). The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies. [online] McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/the-social-economy

Germain, M. and McGuire, D. (2014). The Role of Swift Trust in Virtual Teams and Implications for Human Resource Development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 16(3), pp.356-370.

Schroeder, J., Risen, J., Gino, F. and Norton, M. (2014). Handshaking Promotes Cooperative Dealmaking. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Walther, J. and Bunz, U. (2005). The Rules of Virtual Groups: Trust, Liking, and Performance in Computer-Mediated Communication. Journal of Communication, 55(4).

About the Author:

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Sam Mitchell Client Solutions Designer at ChangingPoint. For more information on ChangingPoint, please contact sam@changing-point.com