How to make virtual teams work

Not many decades ago, working in teams meant sitting together in a room, working side by side. Today, the definition has evolved concurrently with the development of both technology and the globalisation, and more companies now rely on a geographically dispersed workforce, making teams virtual. But as the team definition has evolved, so has the amount of criticism and challenges with it.

From traditional to virtual teams

Research made back in 2014 by Human Behaviour Research Institute, Ferrazzi Greenlight, shows that 79% of business teams work in virtual teams across offices. The appeal of forming virtual teams is clear: For companies to succeed in a global world and stay competitive, it is no longer enough to create a team with members from next door. Instead companies have to build teams that offer the best functional expertise from around the world.

But as the decision of forming virtual teams may come as a natural development to companies, a big difficulty is to maintain the quality and the satisfaction within the virtual teams. Further research made by Ferrazzi Greenlight shows that most people working in virtual teams consider virtual communication less productive than face-to-face interactions and around 50% admit they feel confused and overwhelmed by the tools they are supposed to use to communicate through.

Related: 5 ways to optimise virtual teams.

Increased social distance

Associate professor in Organizational Behaviour at Harvard Business School, Tsedal Neeley, are fully aware of the problem, explaining that when changing from traditional teams to virtual teams, the social distance is increased, which often causes team members to feel misunderstood, distrusted and confused.
In the last 15 years, Tsedal has spent time researching, teaching and consulting, about how to prevent this from happening. She has discovered that the choice of communication tool has a vital influence on the team’s social distance and can, if chosen and spent right, reduce dissatisfaction among workers.

Related: Once upon a time my colleague sat next to me.

Choice of communication tool for teamwork

But what kind of communication tool is the right one to choose? Tsedal explains how business related communication tools today are divided into two categories – instant communication and delayed communication. Instant communication is videoconference and teleconference, which is valuable when team members are in need of immediate conversations. Here both context and emotions can be perceived. Delayed communication is email, for instance, which is valuable when teams want to share information in a more efficient and simple way. However, with emails there is often no contextual cues, which in some cases can be an impediment in reducing social distance.

Many might think, that videoconference or teleconference are better tools to reduce social distance than emails, because of emails’ lack of emotional and contextual clues. So the final choice must be obvious, right? But companies who rely on email in their daily work life, do not always get the opportunity to use instant communication because of the limited time. Especially in the shipping business, shipping teams work in high speed and communicate with hundreds of people every day – they often do not have time to set up a videoconference or a teleconference. Email, on the other hand, is preferred because of the easy and efficient way to communicate.

An email system with team functionality

So what can shipping teams do to increase contextual clues and thereby reduce the social distance while still remaining their preferred choice of communication tool? It is without a doubt, impossible to fully reduce the social distance as the communication is through a screen. Luckily, some software companies who develop email systems has captured the problem as well, making it their primary mission to help teams communicate in the most social way possible.
Nordic IT has developed MARK5 to help teams work easily together and share everything, with the ability to register team members’ every move: Who has read an email, who has replied to it and what is the answer, making teams aware of everything that is going on, preventing misunderstandings, distrust and confusion.

Related: Q&A with Nordic IT Development.

To sum up: It is not easy for teams to convert successfully from traditional teams to virtual teams. But it does not have to be as difficult, as some believe it to be. As long as teams remember to thoroughly consider their choice of communication tool, the social distance can be reduced significantly, making virtual teams work just as good as the traditional ones – or maybe even better.

The way we work changes all the time. It is a natural part of developing as a team and as a company while staying competitive in a global business environment. But as the above issue clearly clarifies, changes are often greeted with a certain degree of scepticism. It will probably always be like that, which is why it is so important to keep in mind that changes are a part of evolving. And without evolving humans and technology will be stuck in the past, with no possibility of becoming something better.

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