There’s an element of teamwork in every career, and most of us are used to collaborating with colleagues, clients and other stakeholders on team-led tasks. But what about working with people you never meet face-to-face? How can members of a ‘virtual team’ – who come together only through a digital space – guide a shared task to a successful outcome?
Thanks to today’s technology, teaming up with professionals from different countries, timezones and cultures is on the rise. Virtual teamwork has multiple benefits, from accessing talent and resources from outside an organisation to enabling a project to take advantage of richer cultural commercial expertise. Think of global gaming – videogamers from all over the world pool their digital talents to achieve greater glory than they could alone, and all without ever meeting face to face.
In 2016, Deloitte found that 72% of C-suite executives believe that virtual teaming capabilities across cultures will become “significant and normative” in the next five years. Being able to work collaboratively via technology is fast-becoming an essential skill, which is one of the reasons we focus strongly on group work on our Online MBA.
Here we investigate the factors that make for successful virtual teamwork.
Build personal relationships as well as professional partnerships
Smaranda Boros, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and one of the leads on the Doing Business in a Global World course of our Online MBA, has conducted years of research into virtual teamwork. She has noted that trust – or a lack of it – is often cited as one of the biggest hurdles to success. Trust can be quickly established when people work together in person, thanks to largely subconscious physical signals we’re used to reading. But collaborating online means that this has to happen in other ways.
“Real teams spend huge amounts of time getting to know each other, up to 60% when you do content analysis of the conversations,” she says. “People understand that you need to build team identity before you can create trust.”
Allocating time within a project to build personal relationships can help to create trust within a virtual team. Professor Boros recommends having a ‘virtual coffee corner’; time and space for team members to chat informally, share interests and swap anecdotes, just as they would do face-to-face. This developing warmth and familiarity can help team members trust each other back in the workspace, can ease any awkwardness, avoid misconceptions, boost camaraderie and act as a reminder that there are real people behind each interaction.
Use technology as a facilitator for collaboration
Effective virtual teamwork relies on a team’s perception of the technology that makes it possible. It’s important that each member of the team recognises the power of the digital space to form connections and fuel creativity.
By choosing an online programme, our Online MBA participants are already empowered by digital study, but we also do all we can to demonstrate the abilities of our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and other online platforms throughout the course. Supporting participants in adapting to working together via technology is part of that; we include an introduction to managing the practicalities of virtual teamwork on the Doing Business in a Global World course before encouraging teams to make group assignments their own.
As Professor Boros says, the aim is to “create an online space that helps people see the same reality.” Regardless of the tech you use to achieve it, the key is to enable all team members to contribute to a shared mindset.
Establish a common mind and a common heart
Perhaps the most important aspect of successful virtual collaboration is that a team is driven by a shared goal, and that each team member understands the impact of their participation. We can see football teams or surgery teams as examples of common hearts and minds in action; each team member knows what the team is trying to achieve and what they must do to ensure it happens.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] SMARANDA BOROS: So how can we make our virtual teams a success story? By making sure the team members have a shared mind and a shared heart. SEAL teams, surgery teams, football teams, they all have in common the fact that they have the shared understanding of what their task is and how to work together. Think of a football team. All those hours of training secluded from everyone else means that they work together in such a way that they know at any point in time where the other one will be and what they will do.
This is the shared understanding of the process. Shared understanding of the goal means making the project your own. Your company gives you an assignment, but how you're going to do it, how far you're going to reach, will you sacrifice if push comes to shove, quality time, or your personal effort and do a lot of sleepless nights? All these are things that the team needs to be in agreement on at the beginning of the process. Even trivial things, such as are we using imperial or metric measures, need to be specified, or you will end up in the Mars Climate Orbiter story.
The group projects on our Online MBA provide a shared objective, but there’s far more that participants can do to create a feeling of unity in a virtual team. Building on similarities between team members, sharing day-to-day experiences, introducing games that highlight good (and not so good) teamwork and even establishing a common terminology or shared music playlists can all help to generate a team ethos. The more invested team members are in the team, the harder they will work to make its task a success.
“We must learn to travel in virtual space, touch base with people, try to create team identity, and try to actively build trust,” says Professor Boros. “The more time and effort invested, the higher the reward.”
It’s also important to celebrate early wins and team successes and to jointly reflect on things that don’t work so well within a project. Recognising high and low points and what contributes to them can help participants realise their shared accountability for a task, creating a common sense of pride and achievement, or determination to improve the outcome next time around. With pointers on creative and light-hearted ways to bring issues of potential conflict out into the open, the programme helps virtual teams address any differences with humour and humility. There are several group tasks on our Online MBA, so learnings from each one can better inform the next, as well as providing a source of experience to draw upon within your own role or business.
Virtual teamwork offers a rich and exciting way of achieving business objectives, as we hope our Online MBA proves. As technology continues to allow virtual teamwork to keep developing, our course can help you hone the expertise and experience you need to contribute to productive digital collaboration.
If you believe your career could benefit from new skills in virtual teamwork, please complete the online form on the right to request further information.