As work is increasingly carried out by teams whose members are spread across the globe, learning leaders are challenged to design and deliver learning solutions that meet the needs of virtual teams, but also develop leaders who are comfortable and capable in the virtual environment.
The new paradigm of work in the virtual team environment consists of team members working from anywhere at anytime in real space or cyberspace.
In a 2004 article, Anne Powell, Gabriele Piccoli and Blake Ives defined a team as a collection of individuals who are interdependent in their tasks; share responsibility for their outcomes; see themselves and are seen by others as an intact social entity embedded in one or more larger social systems; and manage their relationships across organizational boundaries.
In traditional organizations, team members are colocated, meet face-to-face and come from similar business units with a common cultural background. As teams become virtual, membership becomes more cross functional, more geographically dispersed, more culturally diverse and more temporary. These teams are assembled in response to specific needs and often are short-lived. The need for distributed virtual work is created by the dispersion of work around the world and the integration of knowledge, products, process and activities across the organization.
Virtual teams bring together critical contributors who might not be able to work together because of time, travel or cost. However, there are tradeoffs in the virtual world. In the absence of face-to-face communication and interaction, virtual teams have less understanding of each other, potentially contributing to misunderstandings and conflict. To overcome these challenges, virtual teams rely heavily on information and communication technologies (ICT) such as e-mail, instant messaging, videoconferencing, computer-mediated communication systems, cell phones and voice mail.
The ultimate challenge for team leaders is to create a level of collaboration and productivity that rivals the experience of the best colocated teams. Leaders of these virtual teams must be able to facilitate team cohesiveness by taking full advantage of existing and emerging ICTs.
Virtual vs. Traditional
Leadership consists of guiding, encouraging and facilitating others in the pursuit of a common end. In this framework, a leader must have the ability to encourage and coerce team members to follow the leader voluntarily. The leader must create an environment in which members can accept and execute their responsibilities with confidence.
Leaders in the traditional world manage by planning, organizing, controling, motivating and communicating. In many cases, there is no need to meet face-to-face. In other cases, work teams can use any mode of communication available, from the cell phone to computer-mediated communication. But questions remain. Are these new virtual teams as effective as the standard face-to-face teams? Is there a different way to lead these teams? More importantly, how do we develop and train these new virtual leaders?
There is a plenty of academic research comparing face-to-face teams with virtual teams. The results are that virtual teams are at least as effective as face-to-face teams, and according to Powell, Piccoli and Ives, under some conditions, they are even more effective. Leader development leading to high-performance teams leads to successful organizations in this new virtual environment.
In a 2000 issue of Leadership Quarterly, Bruce Avolio, Surinder Kahai and G.E. Dodge wrote that leaders will need to play a more proactive role in creating the social structures that foster the implementation of ICTs. Virtual leadership is a social-influence process mediated by ICTs to produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behavior and/or performance with individuals, groups and/or organizations. The key is integrating human beings and information and communication technologies.
Virtual leadership can occur at any hierarchical level in an organization and can involve one-to-one and one-to-many interactions within and across large units and organizations. It may be associated with one individual or shared by several individuals, as its locus changes over time.
A 2004 study highlighted in the Harvard Business Review suggested virtual leaders need to use traditional face-to-face meetings occasionally. The research highlights the use of an initial face-to-face meeting to start off a team. This initial meeting is then followed with weekly meetings and intensive communication with ICTs. If a meeting is not possible, the research suggests leaders should use telephone/videoconferencing followed by individual telephone contact.
Virtual leaders must have a high level of skill in both written and verbal communication. To build trust and satisfaction in the team, the virtual leader must be able to express the goals and objectives of the team clearly, concisely and unambiguously via e-mail, Web conferencing, telephone communication and videoconferencing. The leader should minimize conflicts by proactively drawing out any issues or concerns before they escalate into serious problems.
Communicating regularly with each team member specifically and the team in general can ensure team members do not feel isolated or disconnected. The more leaders know about what team members are doing, and the more information that can be shared, the more successful the team will be. The result should be a strong virtual team that is successful, productive and trusting.
Online discussion threads become very important. These discussions are the basis for developing a shared mental model for the team. Team members discuss their ideas, strategies and comment on other members’ discussions.
When communicating virtually, it is much easier for misunderstandings to arise. The ability to listen, understand and validate what is being communicated is essential. The leader must rely on subtle changes in voice tone that signify the speaker’s emotions, rather than being able to see the person’s body language. Emotions also can be seen in e-mail communications. Some are more subtle than others, but flaming typically is seen if an individual is upset.
Team performance will be higher when members are skilled and understand their task roles. Leadership typically is responsible for assuring that members have the skills and understand the tasks. Leaders are responsible for the vision, planning, engaging the team, coaching, training, team learning, networking and promoting, among other skills.
The socialization that occurs with face-to-face communications between members, both within and outside formal meetings, serves to strengthen the commitment of team members to the organization and the work team. For virtual teams, however, being dependent on technology for coordination and control reduces communication cues considerably and makes socialization activities more difficult.
Colocated team members can draw from many experiences during the project life cycle when evaluating the trustworthiness of their fellow team members, and many experiences help develop their commitment to the team. Virtual team members can’t see what their teammates are doing; they can only see the outcome. Thus, it is important that virtual teams schedule face-to-face meetings. Socialization brings trust and binds the team.
Dissatisfaction among virtual team members about work processes stems from the delay in communicating and providing feedback because of geographical distance and time differences. The lack of socialization often can make virtual team members feel isolated and that they are not part of the team. This is especially true when some of the members work locally and others virtually. On the other hand, in traditional teams, members typically interact with each other on a regular basis. The leader in the virtual team is the primary link in the network and needs to provide frequent electronic and verbal communication.
Leaders armed with the knowledge that trust explains a large percent of variance in team commitment need to do more to build trust relations in both colocated and virtual teams. Research on virtual teams demonstrates that greater commitment leads to better performance and satisfaction and lower turnover rates. Leaders of virtual teams will want to emphasize activities that encourage trust and introduce ways to enhance it to keep team commitment high.
Virtual teams need ICT-based team-building exercises to aid in establishing shared norms and specification of a clear team structure. Early meetings are important to establish the team’s direction and establish trust. Designs that foster knowledge sharing either by meetings or virtual ICTs ensure the team has a mutual understanding of problems and issues.
Team cohesion and trust are important. Face-to-face communication among virtual team members early in a project fosters interpersonal relationships, yielding increased trust and cohesion. Communication is the key to a successful virtual team.
The degree to which the virtual workforce is satisfied and productive is directly related to whether or not leaders are communicating electronically and on the telephone. Team members feel trusted, satisfied and productive when the leader communicates frequently with e-mail/conferencing and calls them on the telephone. In contrast, members whose leader communicates less are less satisfied and feel more negative impacts. Furthermore, when leaders resist working virtually, team members are less willing to work virtually and also are less satisfied and productive.
The virtual team leader needs to create a compelling challenge for the team. In this regard, the team needs to know it is important and is about to embark on an important project. The leader can create involvement by guiding the discussion through straw proposals, distributing them in advance, listening to feedback and then synthesizing and incorporating the feedback into documents — a shared mental model — that are accessible to team members.
Achieving collaboration requires a disciplined approach early on. The team leader needs to be able to manage performance by creating structures — such as discussion boards, priority lists and agendas — and routines — such as weekly meetings and daily follow-ups — and assigning them to team members. The team’s acceptance of these structures and routines demonstrates commitment and adds significant value to bolster the team’s credibility.
Furthermore, maximizing the information flow ensures the development of strong relationships between team members. The team leader can then support the success through e-mail, face-to-face or telephone communication by coaching, providing feedback and personal development to individuals or groups of team members.
Leading a virtual team means managing the whole spectrum of communication strategies and project management techniques, as well as the human and social processes, in ways that support the team. With the increasing relevance of distributed communication systems, team leaders will need to integrate these virtual practices into their team-building strategies and learn how to continually improve the virtual group process.Filed under: Technology