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Getting off the ground

By Professor Martha Maznevski, Sue Canney Davison, Director of Pipal Ltd., and Karsten Jonsen, Research Associate  (November, 2006)

Virtual teams, although relatively new to the global business landscape, are already recognized as a boon to international organizations. Without the time, cost and hazards of travel, groups can now share information, chat, innovate and make decisions together.

Creating effective virtual teams has proved to be more difficult than expected. Managers cannot simply create high-performance by assigning members and ‘letting them run’. Without careful structuring, support and attention to processes, virtual teams do not achieve their potential and may not even get off the ground.

Here we focus on four of the most important challenges: effective communication, relationship building, managing conflicts and leadership.

Technology provides for lower richness and social presence than face-to-face context. Team members lose information they are accustomed to relying upon. This can lead to misinterpretations, unfounded stereotypes and misunderstandings. Most communications over technology take place with a lag time between one message being sent and another received. This reduces the immediacy and efficacy of feedback, yet at the same time gives people time to think through responses.

Managers should focus on the processes by which virtual teams must adapt to the situation. They can learn to use a portfolio of technologies to communicate appropriately with accuracy. They can learn to use the lack of richness to their advantage.

Building relationships
High-quality relationships, characterized by trust and respect, cooperation and commitment, are important in all teams. They reduce the level of destructive conflict and improve the team’s ability to manage and gain value from task-related conflict. They increase people’s comfort in bringing diverse perspectives to the task, and enhance the likelihood that people will champion and carry out the team’s decisions. In some respects, high-quality relationships are even more important for virtual teams than for face-to-face ones: teams with good relationships can more easily work apart without concern for the process or outcome.

Managing conflicts
Conflicts in a virtual team setting are as unavoidable as in a collective setting. Although the word ‘conflict’ typically has some negative connotations, some conflicts are widely considered positive for team performance.

Trust is a prerequisite for effective conflict resolution. Owing to the diverse background of team members, the issues leading to conflicts differ between cultures, what is perceived or interpreted as conflict differs, and finally modes for resolving conflicts differ. It is clear that developing a better understanding of conflict processes in virtual teams is vital.

Every team needs an organized workspace, defined roles, a clear task strategy and explicit interaction norms. In a face-to-face team, these processes can be implicitly negotiated by team members as they observe and react to each other’s facial expressions and other non-verbal behavior. In a virtual team there is no such opportunity, and virtual teams that do not manage these processes often fail to get off the ground. It is the leader’s job to promote timely feedback and reflection, and actively build on the team’s strengths as they emerge. The team leader has responsibility to ensure that sponsors are kept up to date and involved in key exercises, as well as engaged as important resources to access different information and contacts.

Facilitating relationships: it is important for team members to engage in dialogue and conversations to build social and intellectual capital. These conversations may take place in the context of formal meetings, but should also be part of the everyday life of the team in dyads and other subgroups. Leaders must help keep team members focused on the big picture and shared goals. Creating smaller task groups is often a good way to do this.

A manager must be able to use the technology the team is dependent upon, such as virtual classroom, net-meeting, e-mail and so on. He/she should engage in prompt and frequent communication regarding ideas, suggestions, acknowledgments, direction and other project-related issues.

Building a rhythm
The above would suggest that teams should get together for face-to-face meetings to discuss and decide on the most complex issues. But the most effective virtual teams do not necessarily use face-to-face time for these major communication issues. Rather they structure their interaction over time with a rhythm created by a regular heartbeat of face-to-face meetings, interspersed with virtual interaction. This drives life-giving forces into the work of the team, trust and commitment to the relationships among members, and time to build and develop a deep level of understanding of each other’s background and knowledge. Some teams never meet face-to-face. In these cases they must find ways to create rhythms with conference calls, net meetings or other media that are as rich as possible.

Technology will eliminate some travel costs and time, but not all of them. Building a rhythm of heartbeats uses the expensive face-to-face time most effectively to help the team.

Empowering the team
Teams can experience empowerment in different ways, which include a perception of meaningfulness, autonomy and potential effectiveness. For virtual teams, empowerment is equally important. For teams that rarely meet face-to-face, empowerment is critical for learning and performance. Teams that lack empowerment and rarely meet face-to-face become more passive and less performing. To implement empowerment in a virtual team, the leader must spend considerable time with the individual team members (for example, by telephone), coaching them, helping them see the larger organizational picture and how the team is aligned with the strategy of the organization.

"Global virtual team dynamics and effectiveness" is a chapter written by Professor Martha Maznevski, Sue Canney Davison and Research Associate Karsten Jonsen, in the Handbook of Research in International Human Resource Management.

Professor Martha Maznevski is director of the Program for Executive Development and the Strategic Leadership for Women program.

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