Pam Estes Brewer, Ph.D., Mercer University
The web is currently loaded with tips for how to work effectively in virtual (remote) teams. However, core characteristics of virtual teaming, based on research and experience, may be more important than helpful tips. Knowing core characteristics can help you make informed decisions about the strategies that best fit your teams’ goals in your environment. Some of these characteristics should seem familiar to you, and others may be surprising.
Many organizations are “accidentally” implementing an important part of their business strategy.
The global market is heavily supported by the work that takes place in virtual teams, and yet very few organizations are preparing their employees for this kind of communication. In a 2015 survey, only 7 percent of engineering professionals reported that their organizations were training people successfully for their work in virtual teams1. Organizations today still rely heavily on trial and error as their employees learn how to communicate effectively in virtual teams. The cost of this approach is, not surprisingly, very high.
Related tip: Provide training in virtual teaming using low stakes projects.
Surveyed engineering professionals report that as many as 83 percent of the virtual teams they work in have international membership1.
Related tip: Combine training for cross-cultural, online, and team communication.
Trust must be present in highly functioning teams. Not surprised? Good. What you may not know is that trust has been linked to the ability to transfer knowledge effectively2-4. Knowledge is the commodity being transferred back and forth in virtual teams. Social communication and performance over time establish trust.
Thus, informal, regular communication helps to establish trust; trust is necessary for effective knowledge transfer; knowledge transfer must be effective in order to have successful virtual teams.
Related tip: Prepare employees to recognize the importance of social communication and consistent performance over time.
The rate at which trust is established online is slower than the rate in face-to-face teams. While virtual teams can achieve the same level of trust as face-to-face teams, it takes longer5.
Related tip: Prepare management and team members to allow time for establishing high levels of performance.
The capabilities and perceptions of a technology can differ greatly among team members, and affect how well that technology is used 6, 7. For example, texting has its own characteristics as a technology. These characteristics are static. However, team members can vary in their views of how useful and appropriate texting is in specific circumstances.
Related tip: Have your team discuss the technologies available to them and any rules they think the team should have about when and how to use those technologies.
The absence of complaints does not mean that all is well with your teams. In the more abstract space of the Internet, team members may be more likely to keep quiet about problems—sometimes because the problems are harder to identify and communicate in cyberspace.
Related tip: Include regular project communication that encourages team members to note problems, especially patterns of problems. Normalize this communication; that is, make sure such reporting is just part of the normal work flow.
Silence can mean very different things to different people8-10; consequently, most people are uncomfortable with online silence.
Related tip: Have your team discuss such topics as silence. Team members should discuss both what various “silences” mean to them as well as how they react to silence. As a team, agree on the approach.
You may notice that in several of the characteristics and related tips above, I recommend that teams discuss their communication expectations. This is called metacommunication. Metacommunication can be one of your greatest allies in establishing and maintaining an effective flow of communication in your virtual teams1. Besides discussing some of the communication issues introduced above, team members should discuss such issues as response time, technology use, and the delivery of criticism.
1. Pam Estes Brewer
International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success
2015, Piscataway, NJ
IEEE Press Wiley
2. Sarker, S
Knowledge transfer and collaboration in distributed U.S.-Thai teams
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 10(4)
3. H. A. Priest, K. C. Stagl, C. Klein, and E. Salas
“Virtual teams: Creating context for distributed work,”
in Creating High-Tech Teams, C. A. Bowers, E. Salas, and F. Jentsch, Eds.
Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association
2006, pp. 185-212
4. N. Panteli and R. Tucker
“Power and trust in global virtual teams,”
Communications of the ACM
2009, vol. 52, pp. 113-115
5. J. B. Walther
“Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction,”
1996, vol. 23, pp. 3-43
6. B. A. Olaniran and D. A. Edgell,
“Cultural implications of collaborative information technologies (CITs) in international online collaborations and global virtual teams,”
in Handbook of Research on Virtual Workplaces and the New Nature of Business Practices
P. Zemliansky and K. St.Amant, Eds.,
Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference
2008, pp. 120-136
7. C. Baehr
“Incorporating user appropriation, media richness, and collaborative knowledge sharing into blended e-learning training,”
IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication
2012, vol. 55, pp. 175-184
8. N. Coupland, J. M. Wiemann, and H. Giles
“Talk as “Problem” and communication as “Miscommunication”: An integrative analysis,”
in “Miscommunication” and Problematic Talk, N. Coupland, H. Giles, and J. M. Wiemann, Eds. Newbury Park: Sage Publications
1991, pp. 1-17.
9. B. A. Olaniran,
“Culture and communication challenges in virtual workspaces,”
in Linguistic and Cultural Online Communication Issues in the Global Age, K. St Amant, Ed. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference
2007, pp. 79-92.
10. L. F. Thompson and M. D. Coovert
“Understanding and developing virtual computer-supported teams,”
in Creating High-Tech Teams, C. Bowers, E. Salas, and F. Jentsch, Eds.
Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association
2006, pp. 213-241.