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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Virtual Teams: From Merely Working Together to Truly Collaborating with One Another. ::

Virtual Teams: From Merely Working Together to Truly Collaborating with One Another.

Category : Cases, Comments and Current Trends
‘It’s like monopoly on a global scale, with people, factories, offices, and ideas, crisscrossing the world to get the job done in time and on budget’.
In my opinion, this metaphor that a recent CNN article mentioned serves as a fitting description for today’s globally dispersed business environment, and as a great introduction for a blog post on global virtual teams.
As global businesses adjust to these ‘monopoly’ settings, managing global virtual teams quickly becomes the norm. Although they are very attractive cost wise, and may also help to save time , managing global virtual teams effectively is still a challenge. There is limited face-to-face interaction, work occurs across different time zones, and collaboration involves different cultural and language backgrounds – all of which make virtual teamwork and virtual leadership quite a difficult task. This is probably one reason for why entering ‘virtual team’ into any Internet search engine results in a sheer endless number of publications with ‘to do’ and ‘top tips’ lists in their headings. And although the majority of recommendations for managing traditional teams would also serve well for virtual teams (e.g. specify roles, create a common meaningful goal, value all team members), the differences should be evident.
Lacking face-to-face interaction makes virtual teams much more vulnerable to ‘merely working together’ instead of truly collaborating with one another. What happens naturally in groups who see each other daily should be deliberately fostered in remote virtual groups. In this context, a relevant HBR blog article suggests that global team leaders must deliberately create ‘moments’. Drawing from her own practical experience the author Tsedal Neeley argues that there are four types of these ‘moments’, that may help increase cohesion and performance of globally-dispersed teams.

Social interaction as a key to community feelings in virtual teams
First of all, Neeley proposes to structure ‘unstructured’ time. In other words.
  • Deliberately creating opportunities for employees’ social non-work interaction, which happens so rarely in virtual teams.
Indeed, virtual co-workers do not have the ‘kitchen corner’ where chitchats normally take place and employees relax and bond with each other. However, such unofficial bonding is part of team cohesion, which according to social psychologists (e.g. Carron, 1982) comprises not only commitment  to the same goals (task cohesion), but also covers friendships and affiliations (social cohesion). Practically speaking, such deliberate chat can be initiated by a common daily life matter or question, which is brought up ‘by chance’ (e.g. choosing a new personal computer brand).
As an alternative to chats during virtual meetings, social media can be used as another ‘group-feel’ remedy common in our times. Several companies implement virtual communication platforms – blogs, wikis, social networks – which can be used by employees for both personal and work-related communication, thus creating feelings of participating in a community. Indeed, it can be argued that social media can help create a culture, a glue that holds an organization together, not only in traditional, but also in virtual work environments.

Diversity of virtual team members should serve as a benefit 
Arguably, virtual meetings can be less productive because the lack of certain characteristics of face-to-face conversations (e.g. non-verbal communication) may create a less engaging environment, in which participants are less likely to fully contribute to the process. In a way, it is easier to express a different opinion during a ‘heated’ discussion with all the participants in the same meeting room, and also easier to hold back an opinion when involved only distantly. Moreover, the cultural differences in global virtual teams may also add up to the ‘humility’ of personal opinions. Therefore, the HBR blog article suggests creating moments of disagreement.
  • Moments of disagreement should be deliberately created and emphasized, encouraging team members to express themselves openly and value the diversity of opinions.
However, disagreements may be productive only if the diversity of opinions and differences in backgrounds of colleagues are valued. To accomplish that, positive differences should be stressed.
  • Create moments of ‘good differences’
Differences are one of the main assets of culturally heterogeneous teams as I described in an earlier post. However, rather than creating attitudes of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and enhancing stereotyping, the emphasized differences should concern personal factors and not cultural categorizations. Individual differences may refer to work experience, training, mindset and personal skills. Practically, this would imply that a group where Joe is a great negotiator, Martha speaks French, Daniel studied marketing and Ted has experience in beverages markets, will be more productive than a group where French employees are better experts in wines, while British team members are reliable to follow regulations and bureaucracy requirements. Hence, individualize, instead of categorize.

Mutual understanding – a requirement in virtual teams
  • Finally, global team leaders should create ‘awareness’ moments.
Working side-by-side, as opposed to occasional virtual meetings, allows people to observe not only ‘what’ the colleagues are doing, but also ‘how’, namely the context of the work environment. Such information allows for better understanding of colleagues’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. Unfortunately, all that is missing in virtual reality, where such basic things as time zones and documentation handling can become serious challenges. Therefore, either through some site visits, or extended online interactions, global team leaders should continuously try to enhance mutual understanding, and hence foster communication and trust.
Further reading:
Carron, A.V. (1982). Cohesiveness in sport groups: Interpretations and considerations. Journal of Sport Psychology, 4, 123-138.

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