VIRTUAL TEAMS – THE PITFALLS

Introduction

The world of virtual working is an alien concept to most, yet it is becoming more and more prevalent in the work place. This increase in its use has brought about large numbers of research on both the positive effects of it, as well as the negatives, and how a company can try to overcome these issues. We’ve summarised below some of the specific challenges facing ever-evolving virtual working practices.

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).

Find out more about how Changing Point can support your organisation in the virtual world of work at www.changing-point.com.

References

Brahm, T. and Kunze, F. (2012). The role of trust climate in virtual teams. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 27(6), pp.595-614.

Buxton, M. (2012). Building Effective Virtual Teams: How to Overcome the Problems of Trust and Identity in Virtual Teams. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Evans, C. and Dion, K. (2012). Group Cohesion and Performance. Small Group Research, 43(6), pp.690-701.

Hunsaker, P., and Hunsaker, J. (2008) Virtual Teams: A Leader’s Guide. Team Performance Management, 14 (2), 86-101.

Lawrence, B. (2012). Leading virtual teams: how do social, cognitive, and behavioral capabilities matter?. Management Decision, 50(2), pp.273-290.

Precup, L., O’Sullivan, D., Cormican, K. and Dooley, L. (2006). Virtual team environment for collaborative research projects. International Journal of Innovation and Learning, 3(1), p.77.

Powell, A., Piccoli, G. and Ives, B. (2004). Virtual teams. ACM SIGMIS Database, 35(1), pp.6-36.

The Couch Manager (2016) Virtual Teams Pros and Cons: All You Need to Know. Online: https://www.thecouchmanager.com/virtual-teams-pros-and-cons/

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

Wu, L., Waber, B., Aral, S., Brynjolfsson, E. and Pentland, A. (2008). Mining Face-to-Face Interaction Networks using Sociometric Badges: Predicting Productivity in an IT Configuration Task. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Power Resources Centre (2018) A Brief History of Virtual Teams. Online: http://powersresourcecenter.com/brief-history-of-virtual-teams

Jive Software (2015).UBM Puts All Its Business Divisions Onto Jive—And Transforms the Company’s Culture. Online: https://www.jivesoftware.com/wp-content/themes/jive2015/pdf.php?pdf_path=2014/09/jivesoftware_ubm_case_study.pdf&_type=casestudy

About the Author:

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