ORGANIZATIONS ARE INCREASINGLY asking employees to work on geographically dispersed virtual teams, in which team members rely largely on technology to interact. Virtual teams offer significant advantages to companies: They support strategic business initiatives such as globalization and outsourcing; they can include the most technically qualified team members, regardless of their location; and they can save the company money due to reduced travel costs.
However, because collaborating virtually brings its own unique set of challenges, it’s important for business schools to pay attention to students’ virtual collaboration skills in their teamwork-based courses.
RULES OF VIRTUAL ENGAGEMENT
In our research, we have found that virtual teams perform best when they engage in the following three behaviors:
They select the right tools to ensure proper communication.
Virtual teams face greater potential for misunderstandings. But different types of communication tasks have different levels of complexity and need for interactivity. High-performing virtual teams match the technology they use to the requirements of the communication task.
For example, if team members are simply sharing routine information, then email is effective and efficient. But if they need to solve a complex problem or resolve a stalemate among team members, they will require a richer and more interactive communication medium. Whether it’s Skype or a web conferencing platform, the medium should allow them to see their teammates’ nonverbal cues.
They establish common ground.
By this we mean that all members need to share the same understanding about what is happening in the team. The members of high-performing teams realize that a lack of nonverbal cues could lead to misunderstandings, so they make sure to clarify their meaning in all of their written communications.
They also work to understand how local constraints might impact the work of some of their team members. For example, when a team member does not immediately respond to a request, it could be because of a local technology problem or emergency. To create common ground, all members of the team will proactively share information about personal situations that could impact their participation. More important, they suspend judgment if another team member behaves in a way they do not immediately understand.
They take steps to build trust.
They spend extra time to get to know each other. They also engage in responsive behaviors that signal their trustworthiness to others, such as avoiding lengthy silences, keeping team members informed of progress and issues, providing prompt and substantive feedback when it’s requested, and taking the initiative to solve problems as they arise.
CRITICAL TO THE CURRICULUM
Because these three behaviors are so critical to successful virtual teamwork, we believe business schools should help students adopt them before and during virtual team projects.
We both incorporate projects into our own courses to improve the teamwork of our students. For example, Hill includes a three-step approach in her undergraduate, graduate, and executive education courses. First, she presents and encourages discussion of our research on effective virtual team behaviors. Next, she asks her students to reflect on areas where they could improve their individual effectiveness as virtual collaborators. Finally, when students first form their teams, she asks them to write “team charters,” documents in which they collectively set out the ground rules for how the members of their team will interact.
Bartol often asks her students to use our research to design interventions that can help rectify common virtual team problems. For instance, when students report that their teams are affected by unresolved task conflicts, they ask other members of the class to diagnosis the problem. Frequently, the class finds that the team needs to move to a richer communication medium than email in order to resolve conflicts. In other instances, students report a lack of engagement by some members of their team; in that case, the class might recommend that the team design an intervention to build common ground.
By adopting these practices, students can be prepared to face—and, we hope, avoid—the pitfalls of virtual team collaboration. The fact is, even though more companies are using virtual teams, many employees are not prepared for geographically dispersed teamwork. If business schools incorporate instruction on these critical behaviors into their team-based courses, they’ll teach their students the ground rules for virtual collaboration—and position them to be members of high-performing teams.
Sharon Hill is an associate professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C. Kathryn Bartol is the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business in College Park. Their article “Empowering Leadership and Effective Collaboration on Geographically Dispersed Teams” was first published online July 14, 2015, in Personnel Psychology.