Collaborate online in a virtual team

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Joitske Hulsebosch and Sibrenne Wagenaar – Working in a virtual team differs from working in a normal, co-located team. Building relationships, sharing information, making decisions, working together; these group processes will have new dynamics in a virtual environment. How should you set up a virtual team, using social media to support online interaction? Does working together online have a positive impact on team effectiveness?

Increasingly, knowledge workers collaborate in constantly changing teams on complex projects. These “nomadic workers” are employed by – often – different organizations, and work on the same project from various locations. They often ack the opportunity to meet in person, which forces them to use online tools.

Not long ago we prepared a team hackathon with eight team professionals. We only met physically three times. Most of the work took place online. We agreed to not use e-mail, so our main communication tool was Slack, an online chat environment. We managed task-lists in Trello, which made the progress of the work visible. Sometimes we held group meetings via Skype and we developed a joint roadmap in Google Drive. This was our toolset that gradually developed as we continued cooperating.

Virtual team Teamchange c Martijn Vroemen (Small)

Team tools: big IT-systems + social media

At the start of virtual team collaboration it’s key to determine which activities you want to support online and then identify the appropriate tools. Should you use the company software or go for social media? Many organizations have systems like Enterprise Social Networks, which offer interesting functionalities, but systems like this often limit virtual collaboration outside the company boundaries. Online social media are needed to supplement the bigger system. Think toolset rather than one single tool.

How to introduce online team tools

In most teams people vary significantly in their experience with tools and social media. Some are hooked on Facebook or Twitter, while others wish to stay away from anything ‘internet’. It requires experimentation and experience to decide which tool is appropriate for which type of process. The use of certain social media is usually initiated by someone who is enthusiastic. And then what? Here are some guidelines for the successful introduction of online tools in the virtual team.

  1. Begin with familiar tools. Every tool has a learning curve (though the curve may be lower for people who have worked with many different tools). If you use familiar tools you can speed up the learning curve. At the start, make an inventory of tools that team members are already using.
  2. Choose tools with the whole team. Is it just simply email, or does it includeyammer, skype, chat et cetera. Then discuss the way it is going to be used. For instance: how often are we going to e-mail? Discussing this, and involving everyone allows the team to understand each other’s preferences.
  3. Stimulate an attitude of experimenting. By giving the right example, you can create an atmosphere in which people are challenged to try new tools. Make sure that it’s acceptable to make mistakes and learn from it.
  4. Provide a helpdesk. Offer adequate guidance in the use of new tools by giving regular support. You don’t need to do this yourself. Choose someone who know’s a lot about tools.
  5. Introduce new tools step-by-step. A pitfall of the beginning virtual team is to try and test lots of tools. Make sure that beginners are not overwhelmed by new techniques. Be alert to identify new communication needs, and then suggest the appropriate tools.
  6. Evaluate often and learn from experiences. Monitor how individuals are using tools and how they are feeling about it. Help and coach a lot in the beginning. Don’t let the team task divert you from helping people to use team tools, because they are essential in the virtual team.

Group dynamics in the virtual team

Although tools are important, the real challenge comes from how virtual team members cooperate. The group process within the team changes through virtual work: how do new ideas surface? How to resolve conflicts, and how are decisions made? Some issues:

Nonverbal cues: In online groups people lack nonverbal cues that we normally have during face-to-face meetings Is the team leader nodding when a new idea comes up, or does she give a sceptical look? Online communication is more anonymous and weakens the influence of group norms. This lack of non-verbal communication increases the importance of exact phrasing to ensure clarity. A tool facilitator should keep an eye on the group dynamics, and understand how it is influenced by online tools. Some issues:

Conflict: In virtual teams conflicts can escalate faster (or, on the contrary, are avoided altogether). Take the e-mail, that ended up in the spam folder unanswered. This will quickly lead to misunderstanding and offence. Circumstances are sometimes interpreted as intentional. In virtual teams a lot of energy should be given to creating a positive attitude towards each other. The tool facilitator must be very aware of how words are interpreted, and encourage the frequent checking of intentions. More than in normal teams people should evaluate habitually. And sometimes a physical encounter is necessary to clear the sky.

Informal contact:  In a virtual team people lack the informal exchange at the coffee machine or the chat over lunch. These brief encounters are vital to discuss that one random, but brilliant idea, or resolve an incident. In virtual teams you can simulate this bumping into each other with the aid of online tools. Keep a continuous chat function open, for example, or create a micro blogging group together. If members are using Twitter, encourage them to follow each other. Working in a virtual team requires assertiveness, the willingness to express concerns and not hesitating to ask questions or suggest an idea. These are important skills that virtual team members must learn.

Risk of fragmentation: A lack of involvement is a pitfall for each virtual team. If the virtual team has not met in person, members will invest less in it because they don’t feel connected. Make sure to emphasize the importance of virtual teamwork (listed below). Try to show the attractions of virtual work, such as new skills that will be learned. If needed make sure there are some face-to-face encounters. In larger teams, break up in smaller teams, so it’s easier to build personal relationships. Also, create milestones, deadlines and tangible results, or prototypes. This can – paradoxically – be done virtually: make results visible online, with for instance Trello.

Advantages of the virtual team

Virtual collaboration is a new way of working with a lot of advantages. We list some of them below.

  1. Use a broader mix of expertise: as a virtual team, you can invite an expert from the other side of the world to think along.
  2. Encourage creativity through online tools: some of those spark a completely different way of communication and dialogue.
  3. More space for everyone to contribute: in the virtual world there is space for everyone. With the use of online media, most people will find it easier to speak up, also the shy ones. There is less need for centralised control over the communication.
  4. Co-operation with fewer boundaries: it’s easier to work across departmental or organizational limits, or limitations in time.
  5. Harvest knowledge: with online tools it’s easy to cast ideas and make them available to other people in different places. Think of a blog to collect experiences, a wiki for jointly developing ideas, a forum where team member are invited to upload images.
  6. Work more efficiently: make optimum use of time zones. If team members in India and Europe have completed their task, team members in America can move it forward.

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