Virtual Teams: How To Make Them Work Better

Virtual Teams

Distances are no longer a problem … maybe …

The evolution of technologies seems to have led to overcoming the problem of teams with people located in different parts of the world. But is it really so?

Does the possibility of being connected really create connection within the team?

The possibilities of connection offered by new technologies have allowed in the last few years to bring together in the same meeting, in a virtual way, people located anywhere in the world (some probably with a large cup of coffee in hand).

Not only then the teams have started to work more and more in “remote” mode – email, instant messaging, video conferences – but also the composition of the teams is much more subject to changes in relatively short periods: the evolution of the organization of companies and distribution of skills means that it will be increasingly common to work with different teams on specific projects. It follows that the work teams will be formed quickly, with a set goal, with physically distant people. Once the project is finished, other teams will be formed, with other people (of other nationalities) and other objectives.

All so simple? In reality, different questions are posed, which cannot be ignored:

Will a team in five different continents recognize themselves as a “family”? Will the sense of belonging develop in the same way? What is the effect of remoteness in keeping the focus on achieving the objectives?

The effects of working in these “virtual” conditions are not yet fully known: it is a field of study to be explored, but already some research highlights possible criticalities. First of all, the team takes on two additional elements of uncertainty: the “stable” participation of the members and the geographical distance. The distance affects the time zone (the famous coffee cups mentioned above) but, above all, in terms of communication between different cultures.

Not only can the adoption of a common language put some team members in a position to move in a reduced communicative context, but above all it becomes much more difficult to interpret non-verbal communication, both due to interference of technology than for the diversity of cultures. Gesticulation can be easily interpreted as aggression in other parts of the world, the same body posture can be read differently depending on the culture, looks risk to get lost during a video-conference. In fact, some research indicates that “virtual” teams have a greater frequency of relationship problems than “on-site” teams.

Another important critical issue is the difficulty of keeping the focus in the “virtual” meeting: if smartphones and laptops already lead to a lower degree of focus in meetings “in the same room”, the effect is even more disruptive when you are physically in places different.

In summary: if on the one hand it will become increasingly important to create quickly and with different people that climate of trust and open confrontation that allows the team to achieve its objectives, on the other hand in the “virtual” teams are missing some of those elements that facilitate the creation of relationships and commitments within the team.

What to do then? Is it always necessary to “see yourself”? It is difficult to think of it in these organizational and technological contexts, above all in light of the advantages that virtual teams can bring. We are therefore developing “best practices” that aim to reduce the negative impacts of virtual teams …

  • When possible, have team members meet at least once: experience teaches that web / phone-based teams work best if they first met in person, to build relationships and a sense of common purpose;
  • Choose / form team leaders able to recognize the peculiarities of the “virtual” teams and able to maintain a good level of communication in the team, the focus on the objectives and the involvement of the participants during the meetings (it is easier to get distracted in a call conference);
  • Accurately select the people who will be part of the team (especially in virtual teams not better than 6 people): in addition to technical / organizational skills, communication skills and the ability to approach different cultures (or the willingness to learn these skills) are essential;
  • Accurately prepare virtual meetings: turn off phones, close the e-mail, and stay in a place where you can concentrate on the video conference, check beforehand the operation of the supporting technology to avoid problems during the meeting;

Alongside all this, the figure of a team coach or an inter-cultural coach is very useful to support the “virtual” team. In these cases the team coach facilitates team members in acquiring the awareness that many behaviors that seem “normal” or “obvious” are instead the result of a culture, one in which one has grown; the coach brings out the implications of different cultures on the role of leadership, learning styles, building trust. Not least, it supports the team leader in managing the “distance” aspects of the team.

In conclusion, new technologies are not enough to create effective virtual teams: new skills, new skills, new professional figures and a new mentality of managers, entrepreneurs and collaborators are needed.

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