Managing virtual teams
We are often told of the benefits of remote collaborative working,
but there are also many stories of virtual team failure and dysfunction.
With the increase in the use of mobile devices and cloud technology,
how can we increase chances of success, and when should we rein in the
use of technology and encourage traditional communication methods? We
offer some practical tips for success and consider the future of virtual
teams in business.
Virtual team challengesTechnological advances allow relatively cheap and easy communication
between team members in different locations and across time zones.
Organisations can therefore leverage global talent, and employees can
take advantage of flexible working. However, equally well documented are
the challenges facing virtual teams. These include poor coordination,
feelings of isolation, cultural misunderstandings, and lack of trust.
Usual SolutionThe usual solution to these problems is for team members to get to
know each other better, ideally with initial and regular face-to-face
meetings. This makes sense, is based on our understanding of traditional
teams, and is a very good idea. However, not only does this defeat some
of the advantages of virtual teams, such as reducing costs, it is often
not logistically possible. How then do we make these teams work? The
usual solution is to try and replicate the 'getting to know each other'
aspect of face-to-face meetings by sharing personal details, photos and
interests, as well as using online ice-breakers. The problem is that
these often can feel artificial and there is no conclusive evidence that
What is the alternative?One option is to focus efforts on the shared team identity
rather than on team members getting to know each other. What is it that
they are working on together, and for what purpose? If all team members
share a clear understanding of the team goal, embedded within a strong
team identity, then it shouldn’t matter that they don'tt know each other
well, or even if they get on with each other. Think of some of the best
sports teams, do they all know or like each other? Probably not, but
they do have a very clear shared identity and sense of purpose.
What makes this attractive when applied to virtual teams is that
communicating these aspects of identity and purpose is much easier than
building complex interpersonal bonds between group members. Our values
and objectives can be transmitted much more easily online than
interpersonal cues that rely more on physical appearance and non-verbal
cues such as gesture and eye gaze for their communication, and as such
are best communicated in face-to-face interaction.
How does this work in practice?When managing the team we should concentrate on what we share, why
we are here, and establishing our shared identity. It is this that
should be the focus of communication and should result in greater
cohesion, motivation to work for 'us', rather than 'me', and,
ultimately, trust. Even the language we use is important – talking about
‘us’ and ‘we’, rather than ‘you’ or ‘I’ will bring the team together.
If we can ‘collectivise’ rather than ‘personalise’ our online spaces
this will further serve to enhance a shared sense of ‘us’.
Another way to strengthen the ‘us’ is to make comparisons with other
groups. Positioning our group in relation to others clearly defines our
group boundaries and strengthens our shared identity. All of this is not
to deny the importance of interpersonal connections. People are social
animals and will naturally try to get to know each other and develop
bonds with other members of the team, but it is questionable whether
this needs to be the basis for virtual team cohesion, or indeed is the
most fruitful. Moreover, these are not merely musings; these ideas are
grounded in the social identity approach, a contemporary psychological
theory of groups that has a growing body of supporting evidence.
What next?If you want to know more about how to get your virtual team working
better together, contact Paul Rogers, Consultant. Paul completed his PhD
on the psychology of virtual teams in 2002 and has published a number
of articles and book contributions, as well as presenting at
international conferences on topics such as cohesion, communication and
trust in virtual teams.
Managing virtual teams | Get Curious | Carter Corson