In recent years, many companies have increasingly turned to virtual teams as a means of connecting and engaging geographically dispersed workers, maximizing the reach to global talent, lowering the costs associated with global collaboration, and enabling greater speed and adaptability. These teams have shifted the way in which organizations traditionally form, manage and evaluate team performance. Virtual teams, although offering many benefits, also pose a number of challenges. Developing effective global leaders to lead these virtual teams is also a relatively new experience that organizations are only starting to figure out.
In response to these challenges, a team from Cornell University’s Centre for Advanced Human Resource Studies conducted this research to study companies either currently utilizing global virtual teams or considering adoption of virtual teams.
We compile this study into a three-part blog that covers the topics of virtual communication, building teams from a distance, and virtual team leadership respectively.
Part 1: Virtual Communications in Global Teams
Part 2: Building Teams from a Distance
Part 3: Virtual Leadership
As technology has evolved, time and distance barriers have dissolved, allowing for access to experts worldwide. Most businesses or organizations today will be exposed to some form of virtual communication. Although virtual communication offers many advantages, it is not without challenges.
Advantages of Face-to-Face Communication
- Facilitates the transfer of tacit knowledge. This refers to knowledge that is not written or definable, but gained through experience. For example, when communicating face-to-face, the speaker can draw on visual cues from the audience such as crossed arms or frowns to gain quick, immediate feedback and make rapid adjustments as necessary to maintain the connection.
- Builds trust. Visual cues and social presence in face-to-face communication also enable people to learn more easily about one another’s background, skills, preferences and experiences. These contribute to the building of trust between team members. Virtual team members, on the other hand, often incorrectly assume others’ intentions when they do not respond to emails or misinterpret the meaning and emotion of written language, which could be amplified in virtual teams that are made up of people of multiple different cultures and backgrounds.
- No need to deal with time zone differences. These can be a pain when trying to schedule a meeting with many members across multiple time zones.
- Sends a message of importance to recipients.
Disadvantages of Face-to-Face Communication
- Power differences are salient. A leader is obvious in a face-to-face setting, and team members automatically back down when they hear (see) a leader speaking.
- Heterogenous expression is discouraged. In addition to power differences, research suggests that minority expression is also lower in face-to-face groups. There is a natural tendency for face-to-face meetings to inhibit trust and create unequal participation among members.
- Cost of meetings can be exorbitant. Facilitating face-to-face contact between co-workers or with clients can often be unrealistic, as business travel is too costly.
- Unintended discrimination against physically disadvantaged workers. Physically disadvantaged employees have greater access to the virtual environment than the physical workspace. They will be critical in creating teams that are more diverse in makeup and thus fostering greater creativity and innovation.
- Reduced access to experts due to the above reasons.
Strategies to make virtual communication more effective
- Set ground rules. These include rules for communication frequency, extent of feedback, technology usage and knowledge access. Predictable and timely responses between members lead to greater levels of trust in a virtual team. Make sure you do this right from Day 1.
- Fix regular meetings. Set times for regular team meetings as well as individual accessibility by phone or email, so no one feels like anyone is “missing” from the team.
- Create a shared database. Members should also rely on a common database to store and share knowledge.
- Meet face-to-face if possible. At some point (preferably early on), arrange for an in-person meeting for your team members. This helps to increase trust, help members form better relationships with one another, and increase perceptions of reciprocity, quality, loyalty. Since these these face-to-face meetings are solely to build relationships and not to complete any work tasks, they should focus on relationship building, setting ground rules for effective teamwork, resolving conflict and technology use.
- Set clear goals. Virtual team leaders need to place a high emphasis on establishing a clear vision for the team, so that members can have a clear direction wherever they are working from. Virtual team members should also strive to “take a systems view” in understanding how their role coordinates with the rest of the organization.
- Arrange for training. Virtual teams members should be trained to use the required software, manage a virtual environment and respect cultural differences.
- Recognize different needs. Virtual leaders, in particular, need to acknowledge that the mode of communication often depends on the nature of the task being performed. Face-to-face communication can be more effective than virtual communication for certain tasks, while the reverse can be true for other tasks. Face-to-face communication more appropriate for ambiguous or unstructured tasks, such as designing strategy, making difficult decisions, resolving conflicts, or negotiating with another party. It is also more appropriate when working with external clients or customers. On the other hand, virtual communication may be more suitable for structured, non-immediate or passive tasks such as routine analyses or monitoring the status of a project.