Chapter 14: The Dynamics of Digital Work
50 Working Virtually
A virtual team (also known as a geographically dispersed team, distributed team, or remote team) usually refers to a group of individuals who work together from different geographic locations and rely on communication technology such as email, FAX, and video or voice conferencing services in order to collaborate. The term can also refer to groups or teams that work together asynchronously or across organizational levels. Powell, Piccoli and Ives (2004) define virtual teams as “groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks.” Ale Ebrahim, N., Ahmed, S. & Taha, Z. (2009) expanded the definition adding that virtual teams are usually small, temporary groups consisting of knowledge workers.
Members of virtual teams communicate electronically and may never meet face-to-face. Virtual teams are made possible by a proliferation of fiber optic technology that has significantly increased the scope of off-site communication. Virtual teams allow companies to procure the best talent without geographical restrictions. According to Hambley, O’Neil, & Kline (2007), “virtual teams require new ways of working across boundaries through systems, processes, technology, and people, which requires effective leadership… despite the widespread increase in virtual teamwork, there has been relatively little focus on the role of virtual team leaders.”
There are three main aspects to a virtual team – purpose, people and links. While purpose is an important aspect for all organizations, it’s the most critical aspect for virtual teams; purpose is what holds a virtual team together. Virtual teams do not have hierarchy or any other common structures because they may not be from the same organization, and purpose here brings and holds the team together. Purpose is generally translated into certain action steps for people to work on with a defined structure consisting of common goals, individual tasks and results. A number of factors may affect the performance of members of a virtual team. For example, team members with a higher degree of focused attention and aggregate lower levels of temporal dissociation (or flow) may have higher performance. Further, members with higher degrees of attention focus may prefer asynchronous communication channels, while those with low levels of flow may prefer synchronous communication channels.
Powell, Piccoli and Ives found and investigated 43 articles about virtual teams and concluded that the current research have found four main focus areas of it.
Design of a virtual team means simply that forming a VT should be planned. This means structuring the interactions; what kind of communication tools are used, how much face-to-face time will be possible, etc. Research has found that team building exercises, the establishment of shared norms (Sarker et al., 2001, p. 50) and the establishment of a clear team structure helps the team to succeed. Kirkman et al. found empirically that having more face-to-face meetings improved the empowerment of virtual teams, which leads to better learning. Numerous communication problems can be diverted by creating shared knowledge databases in order to allow all the team members to have the same information and to know that others have it, too. As an added bonus, shared knowledge databases also share the same language and mental models, which are substitutes for the all important face-to-face time. Furthermore, shared mental models can be focused through designing, requiring the teams to create goals and strategies. This has been shown clearly to improve the teams
With cultural differences also coordination problems and obstacles to effective communication can be involved.These problems may be solved by actively understanding and accepting differences in cultures.
The technical expertise of a team seems to have a positive effect on the team’s performance and the satisfaction of belonging to the team. At the same time, high trust is found to develop. On the other hand, “the relationship between technology and task performance is found to be more dependent on experience with technology and with group membership than the type of task on which the group was working”.
Diverse technological skills can create conflict among the team. This is why teams should have consistent training to improve team performance. For instance, mentoring is a good way to make personal ties to more experienced virtual team professionals. According to Tan et al., consistent training fosters cohesiveness, trust, teamwork, commitment to team goals, individual satisfaction and higher perceived decision quality. In their article, they taught a communication technique called the dialogue technique. It is created through three stages: small talk, sharing mental models and norm building.
The overall results found that more virtual teams exhibit higher task conflict and lower communication frequency, knowledge sharing, performance, and satisfaction. Although these findings are consistent with previous research, their results suggest that the results do not generalize to all types of teams and methodological approaches.
Virtualness has a different effect on teams depending on the length of team duration. For short-term teams, leaner media, misattributions, and subgroups all potentially contribute to less effective teams. In longer-term teams, members make fewer misattributions to a person as they interact with each other over a longer time frame and develop relationships. Also, over longer time spans teammates build a group identity that helps them to overcome differences. There aren’t any negative effects on team performance or satisfaction, and team conflict actually decreased as the degree of virtualness increased. Although there was a negative effect on communication frequency and knowledge sharing, the effect was much less in long-term teams compared to short-term teams.
Virtualness also has varying influence on teams depending on how the virtualness is measured as well as the length of time that a team is working together. The negative effects that effect short-term teams disappeared for longer term teams. Their results also showed that there are different effects on virtualness depending on what type of analysis is used (individual or group) and the methods (experiments or surveys) of virtual work.
This section introduces the emotional problems involved and mitigation tactics needed to achieve cohesion and trust among team members. Overall, the research about this reports “a positive link between socio-emotional process and outcomes of the virtual team project.” Because of geographical distribution, face-to-face time occurs only rarely. This, according to research, results in weaker social links between team-mates and leads the team to be more task-focused than socially focused. If face-to-face meetings are feasible, meetings should be held as much as possible at the beginning of the team formation in order to bring team-mates closer and form interpersonal bonds. These meetings should focus more on relationship building than on actual business. However, with socializing different cultural preferences have to be remembered. If face-to-face meetings are not possible or feasible to the desired extent, other approaches can be applied. Social-bonding can be done partially via electronic communication tools. Jarvenpaa and Leidner’s study found that if teams communicate more socially they achieve higher trust and better social and emotional relationships. Leaders can help foster relationship building and general team building in many ways, e.g. by providing continuous feedback, listening to team members‟ opinions and suggestions, clearly stating the team member roles and having consistency in their leadership style.
Cohesion means the sense of unity in a team. Cohesion is important to virtual teams, and is associated with better performance and greater satisfaction. Cohesion, and trust are very important in fostering team effectiveness. It has been found that collaborative technologies take away from the development of cohesion within Virtual Teams and that traditional teams have higher level of team cohesiveness. Another study has found that although virtual teams may start with low cohesion, over time they exchange enough social information to develop strong cohesion. In comparing men and women’s perception of cohesion in virtual teams, Lind (1999) found that both women in virtual teams and men in traditional teams perceived greater team cohesiveness than men in virtual teams. However, virtual teams have difficulty attaining cohesion. Research on socio-emotional development in virtual teams has centered on relationship building, specifically team cohesion and trust. Relationship building deals with interactions that increase inclusiveness. Socio-emotional processes and outcomes of virtual team projects are closely related, as virtual teams need to meet the socio-emotional needs of virtual team members in order to be successful.
Trust is particularly problematic subject with virtual teams, because it is arguable whether people can be expected to trust each other if they have never met face–to-face. Furthermore, trust is noted to be crucial in successful teams, but usually there is not much time to build it little by little because often the teams are short-lived in projects. Jarvenpaa and Leidner describe a mechanism of how people solve the trust problem in a short time. It is called the swift trust paradigm and it suggests that team members assume from the beginning that the other team members are trustworthy. They adjust that assumption during the lifetime of the team. Jarvenpaa and Leidner also researched the differences between teams that had a high level of trust in the beginning and teams with a high amount of trust in the end and compared them. To achieve high trust early in the group’s life, the team had social and enthusiastic communication and they coped well with technical uncertainty and took individual initiatives. The groups that enjoyed trust later had predictable communication, timely responses, positive leadership and the ability to move from social communication to task-focused communication. The integrity of other team members is important in the development of trust, and perceptions of other members’ benevolence supports the maintenance of trust over time. Face-to-face meetings during the beginning stages for a team, before they become virtual, helps to develops strong trust.
Task processes are actions that team members carry out in order to accomplish their goal and complete their project. The three main parts to task processes are communication, coordination and task-technology-structure fit.
Communication is one of the most crucial things in virtual teams. Communication is vital to the success of the virtual team and it is crucial that the team is a group of excellent communicators with the proper technology for the best levels of communication. It starts from selecting excellent communicators for the team members and the right technology for them to use. Virtual communication technologies cause many difficulties in effective team communication, such as time delays, common reference frames, differences of interpretation, and assurance of participation for remote team members. Some empirically found challenges in successful communication in virtual teams are failure to communicate due to wrong or lacking contextual information, unevenly distributed information, interpretation of the meaning of silence and technical problems. Nonverbal communication, which is vital for team communication, is also missing in virtual teams. Traditional teams communicate more effectively than virtual teams. Difficulties often arise when some team members are co-located while others are geographically distant. There is an assumption that co-located team members communicate with each other about information that is not communicated to the distant member, which can cause friction between members. Leadership and cultural differences also substantially affect the effectiveness of communication. The frequency and predictability of communication and how much feedback is provided regularly improves the effectiveness of communication, which leads to greater team trust and improves team performance. On the other hand, inconsistent and infrequent communication reduces the coordination and success of virtual teams. One common reason is that some team members leave for a short amount of time without communicating their absence to other members. However, virtual teams are found to communicate more frequently than normal teams and female-only virtual teams have higher communication than male-only or combined gender virtual teams. Higher effective communication is shown to improve cultural understanding.
Inequalities of hierarchy within the group are reduced via email communication and also make it easier to access higher level employees due to the difficulty of scheduling face to face meetings. However, minority members are more likely to express their opinions in anonymous conditions, though their opinions are more accepted in face-to-face conditions. Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) groups create hierarchies that try to preserve the status quota. In-group and out-group biases were found in student groups by Cramton (2001). Lateral communication in virtual teams can be important to a team’s ability to adapt and change, especially when moving from co-location to Virtual Teams. Lateral communication can be improved by creating a flatter reporting structure and hierarchy as well as by using computer mediated communication tools.
The extensive reliance on communication technology leads to reduced effect and difficulties in management compared to the traditional teams. Researchers have found some solutions for these problems. One company has created a reward system for team cooperation to encourage people to actively and accurately communicate. On the other hand, according to Pink’s research on rewarding creativity, rewarding communication is not a sustainable way to encourage cooperation. In another company, they emphasized the need to debate as well as merely share information.Predictability and feedback also frequently improve communication effectiveness, creating trust and better team performance. In addition, in one study researchers tested the question of whether adding video to electronic communication helps to explain a detailed task (a map route) to another person. They found that for native speaker pairs it did not bring any additional benefits, but for non-native speaker pairs it brought significant improvement to the task.
Coordination is how much combined effort exists between various parts of an organization and how consistent and coherent they are. Coordination is positively associated with virtual team performance. However, it is difficult for virtual teams to coordinate across time zones, cultural divides and divergent mental models. The development of a type of collaboration norms within the team are necessary for a team to meld team members’ contributions. Face-to-face meetings are especially helping in leading a successful project. If face-to-face meetings are not possible, a formal protocol for communication training improves both coordination and collaboration activities. Minimizing cultural barriers also improves coordination between team members. It is, naturally, more difficult to coordinate virtual teams in different time zones, cultures and mental models. Collaboration norms have to develop for the team to function well. As mentioned before, periodical face-to-face meetings are a good way to form relationships and also a good vehicle to coordinate activities and to drive the project forward. When face-to-face meetings are not feasible, one alternative is to develop coordination protocols with communication training. Ramesh and Dennis have suggested standardizing the team‟s inputs, processes and/or outputs. This should help the team to coordinate and help the other party.
The task-technology-structure fit examines “the possible fit between various technologies available…”; Studies have hypothesized that the technology fit depends on individual preferences, e.g. experience of use and the urgency of the task; The technology used is dependent on personal preference, previous experience with the technology, ease of use, need for documenting project activities, and how urgent the task is. found that face-to-face meetings or phone calls are suitable for ambiguous tasks, managing conflicts, managing external resources, brainstorming and strategic talks. Electronic communication is more suitable for more structured tasks such as routine analysis, examining design tradeoffs and monitoring project status. Interestingly, in their study the team first adjusted their organization to the technology at hand, but later also adjusted the technology to their organization.
Output in virtual teams means all the things that come out of the work processes of the team.
“Decision quality” is one of the outputs of virtual teams. The majority of research has not found significant evidence of difference between the decision quality of virtual and traditional teams and the number of ideas that were generated. However Chidambaram & Bostrom (1993) found that virtual teams generate more ideas compared to traditional teams. As there are many constraints with working virtually, virtual teams require a longer time to reach a decision
When comparing “the performance” of traditional and virtual teams, the results are mixed. Some studies find traditional teams and some virtual teams to be better. The majority of studies have found the teams to be about at the same level. Powell, Piccoli and Ives list many studies that have found different factors, which make virtual teams successful. The found factors are:
- Strategy/goal setting
- Developing shared language
- Team building
- Team cohesiveness
- Coordination and commitment of the teams
- The appropriate task-technology fit
- Competitive and collaborative conflict behaviors (conversely, the same study found that avoidance and compromise conflict behavior had a negative impact)
The results from different student studies are mixed concerning working in a virtual team. Tan et al. found that teams which used their dialogue technique were more satisfied with decisions made in the team. One study found that a traditional team started out more satisfied than a virtual team. Then, in less than a year, the satisfaction of the virtual team rose and exceeded the satisfaction of the traditional team. Women are more satisfied than men with virtual teams and are also more satisfied compared to women in traditional teams. Team members that are more satisfied were more likely to have had training and used more communication methods compared to unsatisfied team members.
Cultural diversity has been shown to affect group decision-making, and some of it can be positive for the team. Combined with collaborative conflict management, groups of individuals from different cultural perspectives are more likely to actively participate in group decision making. The differing backgrounds and experiences of these group members also encourage creativity and create conflicting viewpoints, which make it more likely that multiple options are explored and considered. The other side of this same coin is that virtual teams create a more equal workplace, discouraging age, race, and disability discrimination by forcing individuals to interact with others whose differences challenge their assumptions. Physically disadvantaged employees are also able to participate more in teams where communication is virtual, where they may not have previously been able due to physical limitations of an office or other workspace.
Virtual teams are required to use technologies to communicate that have the side effect of mitigating some problems ofcultural diversity. For instance, email as a medium of communication does not transfer accents and carries fewer noticeable verbal language differences than voice communication. Cultural barriers are not removed from the team, they are instead shielded from view in situations where they are irrelevant. In fact, simply understanding the diversity within a team and working on ways around that can strengthen the relationship between team members of different cultures.
Virtual teams save travel time and cost, significant expenses for businesses with multiple locations or having clients located in multiple places. They also reduce disruption in the normal workday by not requiring an individual to physically leave their workspace. This improved efficiency can also directly translate to saved costs for a company.
A company is able to recruit from a larger pool of employees if using virtual teams, as people are increasingly unwilling to relocate for new jobs. A growing amount of talent would otherwise be unobtainable without the employee traveling often. The use of virtual teams also allows the employee to participate in multiple projects within the company that are located on different sites. This in turn helps the company by allowing them to reuse existing resources so that they are not required to hire a new employee to do the same job.
It is common that cultural differences will come up in global teams. Cultural diversity also impairs communication, often due to language barriers and cultural mismatches in the workplace.
Satisfaction among the team members of a virtual team has been shown to be less positive than satisfaction among face-to-face teams. This drop in satisfaction is in part because it is more difficult to build trust without face-to-face communications, a necessary part of high-performing virtual teams. However, effective management and adherence to proper goal setting principles specific to the nature of work virtual teams require can lead to improved team effectiveness. If a team and its corresponding management is not prepared for the challenges of a virtual team, this will be difficult to achieve.
Transactive memory rarely exists in virtual teams, and even when it does it is often not transferred to new members and contextual knowledge is not kept or well documented. Development of this type of common ground is particularly difficult on virtual teams due to the indirect methods and low frequency of communication. While teams that meet in person can develop this naturally, virtual teams will often have to create it artificially and ahead of time.
Virtual teams also highlight a generational gap, as may older executive and senior managers will not have as much experience with computer technology as their younger counterparts. These senior members must then make an extra effort to catch up to the younger generation and understand this new way of communicating.
Another problem unique to virtual teams is that of differing time zones. A part of the team on one side of the world may be asleep during another part’s normal workday, and the group has to work around this. Asynchronous communication tends to be more difficult to manage and requires much greater coordination than synchronous communication.
Team leaders will need more training, specifically in delegation. Given that, team members need to be able to share leadership responsibilities and training programs ought to be developed in recognition and support of that. A contribution to this problem is that few companies have extensive expertise in how to operate and engage in virtual teams, and they create them without understanding how they differ from regular teams.