How To Get The Best Out Of Virtual Teams

Now that remote working has become the way forward, here's how to perform better in that work environment

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By Vaibhav Joshi

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Most of the official communication in the modern workplace happens via emails sent by workers using personal computers. In such a situation, working from home has become an increasingly common work situation. Several companies have fully virtual teams that carry out daily duties from remote locations. While this is gradually becoming the norm, employees have to learn to get accustomed to being part of a virtual team. Here are some simple science-backed tips that can help.

Do Remote Teams Really Work?

Before we start off explaining how to be at your best when part of a virtual team, it's important to talk about how successful the format is. A 2009 study from the MIT Sloan Management Review noted the advantages of fielding virtual teams. "We found that virtual teams offer tremendous opportunities despite their greater managerial challenges. In fact, with the appropriate processes in place, dispersed teams can significantly outperform their colocated counterparts," wrote the authors.

Start Out Small...

Whether they're in remote locations or in constant physical contact, one of the key elements of a well-functioning team is familiarity among the members. This was backed up by a study conducted by Cornell University researchers published in Communication Research in February 2016. The study, which was conducted over 14 months across 11 universities, suggested that smaller virtual teams allow for familiarity to emerge between team members.

"The key is having a cohesive team and a limited number of contacts in the communication network," the author says. "This allows team members to benefit from the strength and relationships within their team and not have their team interactions diluted by a larger base of network contacts," said the author.

...But Don't Become Best Friends Just Yet

Although familiarity between teammates can foster cooperation and result in better performance, science suggests putting a limit on how close you get to your virtual teammates. Researchers at the University of Connecticut surveyed 363 people from 68 teams and asked them about their colleagues' professional and personal lives, and found that becoming too familiar could actually decrease the productivity of the team.

Titled "Do I Really Know You -- And Does It Matter? Unpacking the Relationship Between Familiarity and Information Elaboration in Global Virtual Teams," the study was published online in Group & Organization Management and will appear in print in early 2019. "Unfortunately, even when you put the very best people on virtual teams, studies have borne out that they don't perform as well on complex and ambiguous tasks as in-person workgroups," said Lucy Gilson, head of the UConn management department. "It seems meeting face-to-face, even once, improves the work dynamic."

However, the study authors distinguished between professional and personal knowledge where previous research tended to lump familiarity into one category. They concluded that professional familiarity, such as a teammate's job history and technical skills, plays a significant role in shaping subsequent levels of team success. However, more personal knowledge such as their favourite food or sports teams can hamper productivity.

Your Keyboard Can Determine Your Role

Most teams need a leader to take charge of the group. Whether one is appointed or unofficially elected by the group remains to be seen. If you think you suit the role in your virtual team, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa and published in The Leadership Quarterly in October 2016 suggests that those who are capable of typing quickly tend to emerge as leaders more than their slower team members.

"Individuals who can type faster are able to more quickly communicate their thoughts and drive the direction of a team in a collaborative work setting, whereas individuals with lower abilities lag behind their counterparts," the authors explain.

Vaibhav Joshi

Entrepreneur Staff

Features Writer, Entrepreneur Asia-Pacific

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