8 MIN READ
Working in a Virtual Team
Using Technology to Communicate and Collaborate
Marissa is a skilled professional who works as part of a virtual team. Her teammates are all experts, and she enjoys being part of such a diverse and intelligent group. However, she finds the virtual side of her work challenging.
She collaborates closely with two colleagues on specific tasks, but she has found it hard to build relationships with other teammates. Many of Marissa's co-workers are located in different countries, and they rely heavily on email, instant messaging, and video chat to communicate.
She has often caught herself jumping to conclusions or misinterpreting emails, because she's unable to communicate with her colleagues in person. As a result, team interactions can be strained and unsure, and conflicts can arise, which has resulted in some tension within the group.
If you're part of a virtual team, then Marissa's situation may sound familiar. Virtual teams are commonplace. But, while they offer flexibility, increased job satisfaction, and higher productivity, virtual teams also come with a number of challenges that, if not addressed, can undermine goals, relationships, and team effectiveness.
In this article, we'll look at how you can work successfully in a virtual team.
Virtual Teams Today
In a study published by the Academy of Management Executive, the authors describe a virtual team as a "group of people who work independently with shared purpose across space, time, and organization boundaries, using technology to communicate and collaborate." As such, virtual teams allow organizations to bring together people with the best expertise, regardless of where they live.
The number of people engaged in virtual work continues to rise each year:
- The Telework Research Network states that there are currently 2.9 million full-time virtual workers in the U.S. This is a 61 percent increase since 2005.
- One survey found that 44 percent of U.S. companies plan to increase their virtual workforce in the coming years.
- A study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management reports that 37 percent of organizations have experienced an increase in the number of requests for "flexible work arrangements."
- Statistical Indicators Benchmarking the Information Society (SIBIS) found that 13 percent of the total population of the EU can be classified as virtual workers.
- Alongside Germany, the U.K. leads the EU in the number of virtual workers. The BBC estimates that 1.3 million U.K. people work virtually full time, and that 3.7 million people do so part time.
Virtual teams can consist of professionals who work from home full or part time, others who take part in mobile work (coming to a fixed office but working outside this space for part of the week), or people who work at a remote location.
Working in a virtual team presents many challenges. When you can't see your colleagues face-to-face, and you can't have the social interactions that build relationships and rapport, it can be difficult to establish trust. If it isn't managed correctly, this lack of trust can undermine everything that the virtual team is trying to achieve.
Another major challenge is communication, especially when a virtual team includes members from different countries and cultures. Communicating by email, IM, or telephone can be difficult, because there are no visual cues (such as body language or facial expressions) to help people understand one-another and build trust.
Last, it can be more difficult to voice your opinion in a virtual team, and it can be harder to resolve team conflict, which can increase misunderstanding and tension.
Working Effectively in a Virtual Team
There are many tools and strategies that you can use to work successfully in a virtual team. We look at these below.
Effective communication is important within a virtual team. Open, honest communication not only helps you avoid misunderstandings, but it will also increase your effectiveness.
To find out how well you communicate, and to get tips on how to improve your weakest areas, take our interactive quiz, "How Good Are Your Communication Skills?" Next, use the 7Cs of Communication as a checklist to make sure that your emails, presentations, and IMs are as clear and courteous as possible.
An important part of communicating clearly is knowing how to listen. Always use active listening skills when someone else is speaking, and never multitask when you're listening. Give the other person your full attention; not only will you understand them better, it's also a sign of respect and courtesy.
Tools such as Skype® and other virtual meeting platforms present different communication challenges. Keep in mind that your team members' internet connection might not be as fast as yours, so speak slowly and clearly. Try to speak as if everyone is in the room with you, and encourage people to ask for clarification if they miss something, or if the sound quality is poor. Also, try not to interrupt when others are speaking.
If you work in a global team, learn good cross-cultural communication skills. Our article on Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas helps you avoid unintended or embarrassing mistakes with team members from different countries.
When communicating with IM or email, be aware that messages can be misunderstood, particularly if they have emotional content. Agree with your team that it's OK to use emoticons, and then use them to clarify any message where the emotional meaning could be taken the wrong way.
At times, you might need to raise issues with your boss or colleagues, or participate in other sensitive discussions. When this occurs, think about how you're going to communicate.
Giving feedback and delivering bad news is best done in person. However, when this isn't possible, use Skype voice, video chat, or phone, rather than email or IM. When your team members can hear your tone of voice or see your facial expressions, they're less likely to misinterpret what you're saying.
When you're part of a virtual team, it can be tempting to let issues – or perceived unfairness – slide by. However, if you don't speak up and voice your concerns, these issues can become bigger problems over time. You owe it to yourself and to your team to be honest about any issues that arise. Often, it's best to voice these concerns when they happen. Be assertive, and learn how to manage your emotions so that you stay cool, calm, and collected.
Last, learn good conflict resolution skills, so that you can manage conflict within your team objectively and fairly.
Use social networking tools such as Facebook®, Twitter®, or LinkedIn® to connect with team members. These tools can give you an insight into their personality, home life, and interests. (See our article on maintaining a positive online reputation to make sure that you're sharing information in a way that isn't likely to damage your career or reputation.)
Also, ask your boss whether you can meet your team in person, at least once a year. This can be an expensive and time-consuming suggestion, but spending some time together will help you build trust, and it will strengthen your relationships, particularly if these are sometimes strained. Assembling the whole team could also create unexpected opportunities or breakthroughs, especially if everyone sits down for some creative thinking or team-building sessions.
When you work in a virtual team, you have to make an extra effort with relationships. An important part of establishing relationships with teammates is building and maintaining trust.
Trust evolves differently in virtual teams. In an office setting, colleagues build relationships and trust through social interaction and collaborative work. Researchers call this benevolent or interpersonal trust. However, in a virtual team, colleagues build trust through reliability, consistency, and responsiveness – this is called ability-based, or task-based trust.
To build trust, start by keeping your word. If you agree on a deadline, or you make a promise to call a teammate, follow up on what you say. When you demonstrate your integrity and work ethic, your team members will learn that they can rely on you.
Respond promptly to emails and other requests. A quick response shows your teammates that their needs are important to you.
Last, be sensitive to your colleagues in different time zones. If a meeting is scheduled early or late in their region, keep in mind that they might be less vocal or engaged than other team members. If possible, schedule important meetings and deadlines for times when you're both in the office, and don't expect an immediate email response from a colleague who isn't yet at her desk.
Coping With Isolation
It's normal for professionals who work virtually to experience feelings of isolation. You might also feel as if your organization has "forgotten" you if you often work remotely.
If you are experiencing these feelings, take active steps to combat them. If your organization has a blog or forum set up to connect and support virtual workers, spend time using these platforms. If you do not have access to a support platform, ask your boss about creating one. These platforms can help everyone on the team, and they might even support online brainstorming or creative thinking sessions.
Make an effort to engage and socialize with others outside of work. Meet a friend for lunch, or join a group focused on a hobby that you care about. There are also many forums and online communities devoted to virtual workers; making connections on these sites can help you to build a network of friends and colleagues who can empathize with your situation.
You might also feel disconnected from your organization when you work virtually. This is especially true if you're left out of the decision-making process. Or, maybe you feel that your standing or reputation in the organization has been diminished since you are not there every day.
Avoid these drawbacks by staying visible, and use the PVI Model to uncover ways that you can stand out from the crowd. Check in with your boss regularly with project updates, and suggest improvements or future projects that might be valuable to the organization.
Virtual teams are increasingly common. Although this form of work can be productive and efficient, it can also be difficult. Communication barriers, feelings of isolation, and a lack of rapport are all common in virtual teams.
You can work successfully within a virtual team by communicating clearly and honestly with your colleagues. Keep your promises, and respond promptly to their requests or needs.
Connect with colleagues through social media to help build relationships. If you feel isolated working virtually, reach out to others who perform the same work, or meet with friends to socialize.
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