Virtual teams may not be a novel idea, but new technologies are making it easier than every to collaborate with people scattered across the globe.
In a 2011 survey of Canadian and U.S. businesses by Houston–based Chronos Consulting, almost a quarter of respondents said they were deploying virtual teams to save money. Companies also found it easier to connect with global talent.
But when it comes to the virtual working environment, there's plenty of room to improve on existing technology.
"Virtual teams function really well when they're allowed to communicate easily," says Andrew Gaudes, an associate professor of business at the University of New Brunswick. "When we start looking into the future, it's going to be about how we can make communication among team members more free and easy so that the interaction is more natural," adds Dr. Gaudes, who has worked with organizations to build virtual teams.
Noting that Skype and other video services are growing in popularity, Dr. Gaudes expects to see touch screens that allow team members in different locations to work on the same document together. He also predicts that organizations will increasingly turn to social media. "We have a greater comfort zone with communicating with people without being in the same room because of sites like Twitter and Facebook," Dr. Gaudes says.
Dr. Gaudes joined us earlier to talk about the new far-flung workplace.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: Hello everyone.
The discussion will begin in a few moments. Feel free to punch in your questions below, right now.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: Hi Andrew. Are you there, and ready?
Comment From Andrew Gaudes: Yes I am.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: Andrew, let's start with some basics. More companies are using virtual teams, taking advantage of the best new software.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: How does social media work hand-in-hand with this concept?
Comment From Andrew Gaudes: Hi Dave. Thanks for asking. Virtual teams are really a part of everyday business for many organizations today.
Social media has been great for people feeling more comfortable with exchanges that cross time and distance.
Andrew Gaudes: People in work and in social exchanges are feeling more comfortable with brief bursts of information that are part of social media exchanges, rather than very long constructed messages to send and receive. Of course there are tradeoffs
Not everything sent has been carefully constructed (content wise).
Andrew Gaudes: The benefit is that people are getting the pulse of what is going on around them...due to free communication.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: What are some of the problems people have with communicating as a team over long distances?
Andrew Gaudes: Often you find difficulty in expressing thoughts/ideas that have universal meaning.
Team members have to be sensitive, using language that is not misconstrued by other team members. Sarcasm does not work well in a text-based environment!
Andrew Gaudes: However, we have come a long way from relying on e-mail content for messages being sent back and forth...
Skype is a great example where we are able to utilize multiple cues (signals) from each other to get greater meaning in messages.
Andrew Gaudes: Skype allows us to use text, but also audio, and of course video in our messages.
This promotes richer exchange between team members...and in real time.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: What does the future hold for this trend? What are some of the technological advances coming our way?
Andrew Gaudes: Freer communication...greater ability to work on the same document over distances. For example...
Touch screens that we can manipulate documents together.
Andrew Gaudes: Much like an iPad screen that sees manipulation by several members of the team. This will be a great platform for collaboration that involves more than text-based projects.
Design of spaces, manipulation of audio, graphic design will be great beneficiaries of this technology.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: How far away is that iPad screen that everyone can use together? Or is there an app for that right now?
Andrew Gaudes: The basic ingredients are already out there. It really is a matter of seeing them utilized in such a fashion that supports collaboration...
Andrew Gaudes: However, it will result in larger screens down the road.
Comment From Chris: Are there special security concerns about virtual communication?
Andrew Gaudes: Hi Chris...good question...
Andrew Gaudes: Any communication in a virtual domain poses risk of being scooped by others...
No matter how much encryption we apply, there is always someone out there that has a work-around.
Andrew Gaudes: We try to balance the risks with the benefits of having the right skilled people to work together from wherever/whenever.
Andrew Gaudes: We also have to realize that even face-to-face communication and hard-copy poses risk of security breach.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: Another question from a reader: Are there different personality types who are more sucessful at working in virutal teams. Introverts vs. extroverts? Are younger people more adept at doing this? Can the older crowd join in - with a bit of training?
Andrew Gaudes: Fun question...let me address in several parts.
Andrew Gaudes: Personality types can come into play, but not in the way you would expect. We find that people that have self-confidence are good in virtual teams...and this can cross the intra/extravert boundaries...
Andrew Gaudes: We find that people with higher professional designations, education, rank, so on have greater confidence.
Andrew Gaudes: What we have to do is provide great team leaders that "pull" ideas and reward contributors that may feel "less" than others.
To answer your question of young/old...I'm finding that the gap between the two is closing as time passes. Five years ago I would have said younger is more in tune with the technology that needs to be applied...
Andrew Gaudes: Today though, the comfort zone with collaborating over time/distance has increased across all. For example, the greatest growth in Facebook right now is with middle/late-age females.
Comment From Catherine: What are some ways you can reproduce the benefits of live interaction (e.g. emotional connection, etc.) in a virtual way?
Andrew Gaudes: Hi Catherine...I find from the work I have done with virtual teams has shown that teams that also socialize virtually have a greater bond for their work.
Using Skype for example for real-time interaction with multiple cues...
Andrew Gaudes: One organization I worked with hosted baby showers and holiday parties virtually. A great example where the comfort of collaborating over distance crossed the task-based interaction to include relationship building events.
Comment From Jason: What about doing business in Asia, and specifically China? Have you had any experience with that? Has it posed any challenges, like censorship of Internet communications?
Andrew Gaudes: Hi Jason...virtual teams with members in China presents challenges...
Andrew Gaudes: The challenges are primarily cultural, with differences in expectations, outcomes, procedures in managing a virtual team.
There is benefit in creating a terms of reference for how the team will interact for the duration of the project.
Andrew Gaudes: With dialogue in virtual teams, the structure is different...not necessarily hierarchical, which can create surprise when not expected by members of the team.
Comment From Tina
Is there a danger that social-network-like work interaction means work intrudes into every moment of people's lives and there's no "clear-your-mind" time (or less family time)?
Andrew Gaudes: Great question Tina...The most difficult thing to teach people on virtual teams is how to use the "off" button on the equipment.
For many, being on a virtual team is like having a new toy...people just want to keep using it...
Andrew Gaudes: Balance is critical, for all stakehol;ders, to ensure a successful, long-term virtual team strategy. Otherwise organizations are prone to members getting burned out and not being able to sustain the initiative.
Comment From Sam: If someone's not working on site, is there the possibility they won't feel as connected to, or even loyal to, the company?
Andrew Gaudes: These are great questions! Hi Sam...yes, that's one of the greatest fears of people collaborating away from the office...
We often call these individuals teleworkers, and they worry about being left out of prime projects, promotions, raises, and so on...
Andrew Gaudes: It's incumbent on the organization to ensure employees are kept in the loop. A great remedy is to have collaborators that are out of office to come into office periodically...in a telework arrangement, 2-3 days a week out of office are optimal...
Andrew Gaudes: This, of course, gets more challenging when people are on opposite sides of the globe.
Comment From VancouverScene1: I sometimes have trouble giving my people a sense of teamwork when they're not in the office all the time. Any suggestions?
Andrew Gaudes: Hi VS1...context sharing is a great start.
Try to provide all team members with something they can share or identify with. It could be organizational branding, special virtual team equipment or supplies...when we used mouse pads, having the same mouse pads was just one simple addition to creating a shared context.
Andrew Gaudes: How you share context is really up to your own creativity (such as the baby shower), but having all members of the team identify as a part of something great creates strong bonds.
Comment From Chris: Do you find there's more or less conflict when teams communicate virtually?
Andrew Gaudes: Hi Chris...the potential for conflict is likely the same, but is generated through different triggers...
Conflict in the office is often generated by triggers that are not necessarily work-related (we can ALL think of examples)...
Andrew Gaudes: Conflict in the virtual domain often resides in the content of the work (which actually, is a good place for it to reside, because it leads to greater, richer solutions). We are not preoccupied with how people look, dress, sneeze, etc.
Comment From Randy: What techniques work for virtual collaboration, brainstorming, etc.?
Andrew Gaudes: Hi Randy, the question is relevant for both conventional and virtual teams. Start with a shared goal...something you want to achieve as a group.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: One more from me -- are there topics or areas where virtual teams should not be used, or aren't optimal?
Andrew Gaudes: The most obvious (of course) is assembly-line work...
We fail to realize that a large sector of what make industry run are left out of these opportunities for their work. Virtual teams are limited largely to the knowledge worker, or people participating on committees (that may also participate on an assembly-line)...
Andrew Gaudes: However, anytime we need people to collaborate on projects that involve exchange of ideas we have opportunity to collaborate across time and distance.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: Can you think of any examples of companies that are doing a good job with virtual teams? You can leave out their names if you like.
Andrew Gaudes: One that quickly comes to mind is a large firm that has changed its intranet platform to emulate a Facebook experience. The firm's employees interact on their intranet much the same way one would with friends on Facebook, with the ability to have information about themselves and to circulate correspondence in real-time short bursts...
This is a great example of utilizing social media approach to collaboration in the workplace.
Andrew Gaudes: Another very large organization in France made headlines in December because of their strategy to eliminate e-mail in the workplace, phasing it out over the next few years, turning more to IM as a method of internal communication. Showing the e-mail is becoming the new snail mail.
Dave M., Globe and Mail: Andrew, our time is up. Thanks very much for your time today, and for helping us all learn about this trend.
Andrew Gaudes: The pleasure is mine...thanks to you and all the viewers for their interest in this great topic!