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Virtual teams success: four obstacles that get in the way

Published 16th August 2017 by Investors in People
Virtual team success: obstacles that get in the way

Virtual teams are becoming more prominent as organisations employ people in different locations, run projects across borders and encourage flexible working in the workplace.

But virtual teams come with their own distinct challenges which get in the way of satisfaction, team cohesion, productivity and success.

If you lead a virtual team, take a look at our article on simple tips for virtual team leadership. In the meantime, continue reading as we outline four challenges facing virtual teams.

Difficulties building and maintaining mutual knowledge

Mutual knowledge is information known by several parties, with each party aware that the others know the information.

Cramton (2001) identifies five obstacles to building mutual knowledge in virtual teams. Co-located teams also experience these problems, but the use of non-verbal communication and shared social spaces allow these teams to more easily overcome them.

  1. A failure to communicate and retain contextual information: communication without context is meaningless, and in co-located teams communicating context takes place through active listening, comparing and contrasting, use of tone and intonation and similar behaviours. These behaviours are much harder in virtual teams due to the reliance on asynchronous communication channels.
  2. Unevenly distributed information: this is the information asymmetry problem and is driven by many factors, such as social categorisation by team members that creates assumptions on how much other people know.  In co-located teams, information can be shared ‘osmotically’ - people pick up on conversations or passively listen to phone calls - but this doesn’t happen in virtual environments. Those who aren’t given information may think they are being ignored on purpose, leading to friction.
  3. Difficulty communicating and understanding the salience of information: high-performing teams have methods to share the relative importance or urgency of particular information, yet communicating importance or urgency using electronic methods is difficult. Although many programs offer methods to mark salience (such as the ‘high priority’ flag in email), there are no universally agreed rules for how to interpret the use of these methods, and they are mostly quite primitive.
  4. Differences in speed and access to information: this can be driven by several situations, such as different time zones, slower internet, or incompatible technology that prevents team members from opening documents that would raise mutual knowledge.
  5. Difficulty interpreting the meaning of silence: the lack of nonverbal communication makes silence harder to tolerate and prolonged periods of silence may lead to lower trust and alignment.

Unhelpful social categorisation

Lea and Spears (1991) suggest that people who communicate via computer-mediated channels categorise people based on incomplete and rudimentary information.

Good relationships with colleagues that aren’t co-located are much harder to maintain, making isolation and loneliness significant risk factors in virtual teams.

In fact, they have a tendency to give disproportionate weight to the meagre social clues they do get about people and put them into social groups based on this information.  

Each individual then essentially develops their own ingroup and outgroups, which can mediate the flow of communication, knowledge and goodwill throughout the virtual team, leading to bottlenecks, stonewalling and associated challenges.

This is backed up by earlier research: Clark and Marshall (1981), for example,  found that people make assumptions on the levels of knowledge others have based on how they categorise them.

In our article on leading virtual teams, we advise leaders to mitigate the creation of these reactive sub-groups and proactively create more diverse sub-groups.

Leaders can start thinking about this as early as the inception of the virtual team. Hofstede (1991) suggests team members from individualistic cultures are better able to shift between groups and generally are less affected by the need for self-categorisation.

Isolation and loneliness

There’s been a lot of research to suggest that quality relationships with work colleagues leads to increased satisfaction and motivation at work. Organisations often try to nurture these relationships, for example by holding regular socials and creating shared spaces.

Good relationships with colleagues that aren’t co-located are much harder to maintain, making isolation and loneliness significant risk factors in virtual teams.

Isolation has been linked to several problems in virtual teams: it may feed mistrust (Jarvenpaa and Leidner, 1999) and lead to ethnocentrism in sub-groups. (Cramton and Hinds, 2005).

Isolation can present in various ways: isolation from the parts of the organisation that do not work virtually (e.g. missing out on regular company meetings), isolation from virtual team colleagues with whom you have no shared physical experience, and isolation from the rest of the virtual team based on your specific tasks or job role.

Communicating importance or urgency using electronic methods is difficult.

Assessment and development can be problematic

Assessment and development of people is far easier when we can see them, interact with them physically, and make use of non-verbal communication. For example, the signs that someone is struggling may not be present in their output, but could be ascertained from a change in how they talk or respond to interpersonal stressors.

Providing feedback can also be difficult in virtual environments. If managers aren’t trained in delivering feedback via electronic channels, misunderstandings are more likely, making it harder to establish a shared narrative and shared plan to move forwards.

This is particularly difficult where technologies like Skype or Google Hangouts aren’t available, because these allow - to some extent - the use of non-verbal communication and active listening.

Leading a virtual team and want to tackle these challenges? Take a look at our tips for leading virtual teams for more information on the simple steps you can take that make a difference.