Published on December 25, 2019
Reading Time: 16 mins

What is a virtual team?

Virtual teams are the group of individuals spread across different time zones, cultures, languages or, ethnicities which are united by a common goal. 

According to Powell, Piccoli, and Ives, a virtual team is defined ‘as groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks’. 

Generally, virtual teams are formed for a temporary period of time to achieve a critical task say, problem-solving or new product development. 

A classic example is that of the virtual team formed by Whirlpool Corporation in the late 1990s for its new product development division. The experts from the United States, Brazil, and Italy were brought together to form a virtual team to develop a chlorofluorocarbon-free refrigerator.

Studies from the past few years, (starting with one in 2009, which was a study of 80 global software teams, done by BCG and WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management) have shown that well-managed, widely-spread, virtual teams have been outperforming those that share office space. Yet another report by Aon shared that using virtual teams can improve employee productivity by up to 43%.

“Managing a virtual team requires managers to double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly, and leveraging team members’ individual and collective strengths,” says Julie Wilson, founder of the Institute for Future Learning and instructor at Harvard University.

 

Advantages of Virtual Teams

Reduces real estate and travel costs

Employers and even employees save on real estate costs, which means more money in the pocket.

They don’t have to worry about office space or leasing new facilities as their team grows. Even if a team is not entirely virtual, having a partially remote workforce might mean tons of savings for a company. 

This makes an organization more competitive because it can use those savings for more strategic initiatives.

Lower carbon footprint 

Cost savings also mean environment savings. Employees commute less, which means they produce less greenhouse gas emissions. Workers at Xerox save 4.6 million gallons of gas and 41,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions due to teleworking.

Employers also use less office space, which means lower usage of heating, cooling, water, and electricity utilities as well.  

All of that reduces the carbon footprint and contributes positively to the environment.

Enables the recruitment of a talented employee

When a company builds a virtual workforce, the talent pool opens up to candidates all around the world. 

Employers are no longer limited to hiring in their own geographic region and don’t have to worry about relocating people. This gives them access to a much bigger talent pool.

They get to strategically hire resources in other countries to have extended time coverage on business hours (including a 24-hour cycle for functions such as customer service.)

It also assists in promoting proactive employment practices for disadvantaged individuals and groups. 

The Challenges of Virtual Teams

Different Time Zones

One key challenge also when describing virtual teams is working in different time zones. 

Working in different time zones may lead to difficulties in communications as there may be only a short time window for contact, which again can result in delays in different tasks and scheduling. 

More time zones are crossed, less there is an overlapping time window for communication. 

When working from different sides of the world, the window will be almost gone.

Such differences in working times and possible delays may create personal conflicts and frustration amongst the team members.

 

It is critical for both leaders and members to pay attention to appropriate communication, scheduling and use of technology. 

Failures and Misinterpretations in Communications

Team members may come from different cultural backgrounds, have a different level of language skills and therefore understand communication differently. When previous is combined with the lack of verbal cues, tones and body expressions the risk of misinterpretation is evident. 

People may misunderstand communications and get offended by the messages, even though messages in question were initially sent with the innocuous mind. This situation may trigger conflicts that can be difficult to manage.

Yet misunderstandings do not always have to lead directly into the conflict. It may also decrease productiveness. 

If the requirements and specifications of tasks or objectives are misunderstood, people may start developing something on an incorrect basis, and by the time deliverables are reviewed its output may be completely different from what was ordered. 

Such a scenario may cause loss of time, resources and create delays or the worst, failed projects. 

So, what can we do to improve communication? Here are some tips for you:

  1. Match the technology to the task.

Teams have many communication technologies at their disposal, ranging from email and chat platforms to web conferencing and videoconferencing. People often default to using the tool that is most convenient or familiar to them, but some technologies are better suited to certain tasks than others, and choosing the wrong one can lead to trouble.

Communication tools differ along with a number of dimensions, including information richness and the level of real-time interaction that is possible. A team’s communication tasks likewise vary in complexity, depending on the need to reconcile different viewpoints, give and receive feedback, or avoid the potential for misunderstanding. 

The purpose of communication should determine the delivery mechanism.

So carefully consider your goals. Use leaner, text-based media such as email, chat, and bulletin boards when pushing information in one direction — for instance, when circulating routine information and plans, sharing ideas, and collecting simple data. 

Web conferencing and videoconferencing are richer, more interactive tools better suited to complex tasks such as problem-solving and negotiation, which require squaring different ideas and perspectives. 

Avoid trying to resolve potentially contentious interpersonal issues over email or chat; opt instead for richer media to navigate the sensitive territory. 

Long story short, the more complex the task, the closer you should be to in-person communication and sometimes, meeting face-to-face can help.

  1. Make intentions clear.

Most of our communication these days is text-based. Unfortunately, when text-based tools leave too much to interpretation which can cause misunderstandings and lead to unhealthy conflict that hurts team performance.

Intentions get lost in translation for several reasons:

People tend to be less guarded and more negative in writing

When we cannot see the response of the person receiving the message, it’s easier to say things we would not say in person. 

Negativity goes both ways

People on the receiving end of written communication are likely to understand it more negatively than intended by the sender. 

Emotions are sent and received mostly through nonverbal cues, which are largely missing from text-based communication. Research suggests that receivers of an email that is intended to transmit positive emotions are likely to understand that message as emotionally neutral. 

Similarly, an email with a slightly negative tone is likely to be understood as more intensely negative than intended.

People look from different perspectives

In written messages, we often assume that others will focus on the things we think are important, and we overestimate the extent to which we have made our priorities clear. Unfortunately, it’s easy for critical information to get overlooked.

To prevent these biases from causing problems on your team, ensure that you are crystal clear about your intentions. 

Review important messages before sending them to make sure you have hit the right point. 

Go out of your way to emphasize important information, highlighting parts of the message that require attention, using “response requested” in the subject line, or separating requests into multiple emails to increase the importance of each one.

  1. Stay in sync.

When team members don’t interact face to face, the risk of losing touch and getting out of step is greater. 

This can happen for a number of reasons according to the American Psychological Association

First, when teams are not co-located, it’s more difficult to tell when messages have been received and read unless a receipt is specifically acknowledged. 

Second, communication failures can lead to an uneven distribution of information among team members. Individuals might be excluded from an important team email by mistake, for instance, leaving them unwittingly in the dark. 

Third, the lack of frequent in-person contact can create an out-of-sight, out-of-mind effect in which team members become distracted by local demands and emergencies and forget to keep their distant teammates informed. When one team member goes silent, the others are left guessing. Without accurate information, people often expect the worst.

Your team can overcome these challenges by prioritizing keeping everyone in the loop. 

Maintain regular communication with team members, and avoid long silences. Share information about your local situation on time, including unexpected emergencies, time demands, and priorities. 

Seek clarification to better understand others’ behaviors or intentions before jumping into conclusions. 

For instance, check in with your teammate who hasn’t responded to your time-sensitive message — maybe it hasn’t been received, or perhaps something urgent came up. 

  1. Be open and inclusive.

Virtual teams are more likely to have members from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. While diversity can result in a greater variety of ideas, which boosts team creativity and performance, virtual communication sometimes discourages team members from speaking up, making it challenging to capitalize on these benefits. 

Virtual tools reduce the social cues that help team members bond, which can diminish motivation to share ideas and information. People may also hold back when they can’t directly observe teammates’ reactions to their contributions. 

In addition, when virtual teams consist of subgroups at different locations, there is a natural tendency to communicate more within a local subgroup than across the entire team. 

This can be particularly challenging for leaders, who may be criticized for unfairly giving more attention to local team members.

To improve the benefits of your virtual team’s variety, focus on communicating as openly and inclusively as possible. 

Involve the whole team in important communications and decisions. 

Actively solicit perspectives and viewpoints from all team members, especially those in other locations, to demonstrate openness to different ideas.

When working to resolve differences of opinion, seek to integrate the best of the team’s ideas.

A general lack of knowledge among employees about the higher-level technological applications has related to virtual team failures.

Lack of Trust

The paradox in remote teamwork is that trust is more critical for effective functioning, but also more difficult to build than in traditional teams. 

Trust between teammates in the traditional workspace is influenced to a large extent by familiarity and liking; however, in remote teams, people must signal their trustworthiness by how they work with others on a task. 

‘’Some low trust teams might have delivered a high-quality result, they may have experienced significantly more effort to do so than did high trust team.’’

Benoit A. Aubert

 

To help develop trust on a virtual team, encourage everyone to respond promptly to requests from their teammates, take the time to provide substantive feedback, proactively suggest solutions to problems the team is facing, and maintain a positive and supportive tone in communications.

Brahm’s study suggests that trust has an impact on the team’s performance level, meaning that higher the trust level is, better performance could be expected from the team.

 ‘’Indirect relationship between team goal setting and performance transmitted through task cohesion, which is dependent on the level of trust climate.’’

Taiga Brahm

What are the ingredients for trust?

Ability, Integrity, Benevolence

Ability

Ability is that group of skills, competencies, and characteristics that enable a party to have influence within some specific domain.

“Even someone who tends to trust others can have that trust shattered if the trustee does not produce work of sufficient quality and does not deliver on commitments and meet deadlines“. 

Benoit A. Aubert

Integrity

Interactions begin with relational and social communication introducing their personal backgrounds prior to focusing on task-related objects. 

Roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined and set. 

Benevolence

Positive attitudes should be demonstrated by the team members. First impressions are critical and initial messages need to be handled appropriately, while keeping the tone of all messages positive. 

To- Do: Be responsive and supportive.

Cost of Technology 

The successful working of a virtual team is supported by the efficient use of multiple communication technologies such as instant messaging, emails and video-conferencing. 

For providing complete support, you may use multiple tools. The cost associated with these installation and maintenance tools is little on the higher side.

Social Isolation 

Workplace social isolation can be defined as a “lack of satisfying friendship relationships or a lack of access to social networks in the workplace”.

Many members of virtual teams are adversely affected by the lack of physical interactions. Most of the communications in a virtual environment are task-oriented. 

In today’s society where a job is an important social force for most of us because many of our workplace colleagues also constitute our close friends, this gives a not-so-good feeling of social isolation. This, in turn, counter-effects productivity as well as leads to stress.

To Do: Studies have shown that Virtual team members who have face-to-face interactions with others at least twice in a year, may feel less isolated.

On the other hand, if the team’s task is virtual( e.g. salesperson via phone) meeting with customers can help too.

In conclusion:

Effective virtual teams are good at maintaining social bonds while getting the job done. Coordination of tasks has a pivotal role in virtual team performance. Good communication is instrumental to team cohesion and relationship building, which in turn may improve the way the team coordinates its activities

Disadvantages show the risk of misinterpretations, challenging to build trust and team feeling, lack of transparency and information sharing and trust. 

All these challenges can be overcome by following a different leadership/managerial approach, training, greater role clarity and effective communication strategies. 

Considerations related to communication methods and tools, best practices such as regular team meetings, people and communication skills, but also trust was considered to be more critical in a virtual team than in a traditional team. 

The organization both big ones such as IBM, Microsoft, Whirlpool as well as SMEs are reaping the benefits of virtual teams for some time now. 

Richard Branson’s words from some years ago seem like a forecast of today’s workplace “One day, offices will be a thing of the past”. 

RemoteTeam Editorial Team

Master remote work. Build virtual teams.

Get free remote work insights and resources delivered to your inbox, once every week.

Remote Team - An all-in-one HR platform for remote teams | Product Hunt Embed