There are many opinions and perceptions about collaborating remotely or within a virtual team. Many assume that collaboration decreases as the geographic distance between team members increases. But is there any truth to this? Do virtual teams have it harder than teams that are co-located? The answer is yes. Research has shown that virtual teams face more challenges than their face-to-face counterparts.
First, virtual teams communicate less effectively than face-to-face teams, even as they communicate more frequently. As you may know, a greater volume of communication does not necessarily lead to better communication. On the contrary, having more messages than your inbox can handle and being inundated with information can actually lead to more confusion, not less.
Second, conversations in virtual teams have been shown to be more task focused, to the exclusion of social interaction. Although this effect lessens over time, intuitively it makes sense. It takes a while to build and grow virtual relationships. However, an extreme task focus may lead to less effective communication and weaken relational links between team members. A lack of social communication is also associated with lower trust and cohesion in the team, along with difficulties in establishing a shared knowledge base. Obviously, this can negatively impact team performance.
Fortunately for virtual team leaders, research also provides strategies on how to overcome these challenges. These strategies fall into 2 major categories:
Increasing social identity within the team
To increase engagement within remote or virtual teams we need to first think about social identity. Social identity theory basically says that we all find ways to identify with various groups and the more we identify with a group, the more likely behave in a manner in line with the interests of the group, putting our own needs and desires aside. Greater identification with a group can leads to greater trust and cohesion, better communication and cooperation, and ultimately better performance.
So how do we do that?
You may already be familiar with the stages of team development – forming, storming, norming, and performing. Think about that first stage: forming. How do you select people to become part of the team? In some organizations I have worked with, leaders consciously select team members based on their experience and past performance working within a virtual team. Having team members that are comfortable and adept at working virtually from the beginning can help the forming stage go smoothly.
Additionally, it may be helpful during the early stages of team formation for team members to meet face-to-face meetings before engaging virtually. This can help foster higher trust, improved socialization, and closer interpersonal relationships. (Of course this depends on logistics and budget).
Lastly, don’t forget to make time for social interaction. To some, this may be seen as a waste of time. Remember, if communication within the team becomes too task focused, it can eventually erode team performance. Use ice breakers when the team first meets to start building relationships or reserve a little time during recurring team meetings to socialize and ensure people are comfortable around each other.
Leveraging the right technology
Technology also plays a big part in how virtual teams collaborate. Communicating solely over email and conference calls can make collaboration difficult. Thankfully, the tools and technology available are getting better and better.
High quality, affordable videoconferencing is accessible to all of us and can make a big difference in virtual teams. In a study that compared how users collaborate virtually with or without video, users unsurprisingly wanted video. Users believed that video added value to their interactions and made their interactions more satisfying. If you are not already using video within your teams, you should start.
Also, there are a number of tools on the market that enable teams to collaborate, from meeting applications to document storage and content management to social networks. All of these applications can enrich the team experience and allow for better communication and collaboration. Too often I find teams not exploring or experimenting with new tools but complaining about how difficult it is to work on a virtual team. Virtual team leaders can take advantage of what is available today.
In summary, virtual teams may have struggled in the past but it doesn’t have to be that way. You may find with a little effort that the experience can be just as good, and in some cases better, than if you and your teammates were face to face.