Virtual teams are abstract and ambiguous. By their nature are challenging to manage. Thanks to greater proximity and limited social interaction, problems take longer to identify and solutions take longer to implement. While there are several benefits to virtual teams, there are trade-offs, such as weaker group dynamics and limited accountability toward goals. Davis (2004) suggests that the distance inherent in virtual teams (a) amplifies dysfunction, (b) dilutes leadership, and (c) weakens human relations and team processes. Virtual groups can be especially challenging in the areas of goal definition, task distribution, coordination, and member motivation.
Teamwork requires interdependence and the belief that others are equally committed to the task and will competently do their part (Aubert & Kelsey, 2003). By far, the greatest challenge for virtual teams is developing this kind of trust. In organizational contexts, levels of trust are determined by assessing the ability, benevolence, and integrity of other group members (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995). In virtual groups the lack of face-to-face interaction makes it difficult to carry out this assessment. Therefore, virtual teams struggle to gain a level of trust that maximizes group potential, even though building this trust is critical to the success of the team.
When group members interact in person, they are able to observe each other and draw conclusions about any conceivable quality, including intellectual ability, past experiences, interpersonal style and personality type. This initial assessment team members do leads to the development or absence of trust. For example, in a face-to-face meeting, Bob might observe Suzy speak with great insight and experience about directing a peer mentoring program for middle school children. In addition, she speaks in a manner that demonstrates her passion to help children. Bob also notices how willing Suzy is to make copies of her program manual to share with the group and the respect with which she interacts with office secretaries. All of these observations lead Bob to believe that Suzy is, indeed, a team player with ability, benevolence, and integrity. In a virtual environment, Bob might not be able to come to the same conclusions. Virtual members have less information from which to make assessments.
Creating Shared Vision
In addition to developing trust, virtual groups may also have a difficult time creating a shared vision. Shared vision includes both understanding of goal and member commitment to that goal. In a virtual team environment, it can be more difficult to assess the level of buy-in from team members. Because virtual members typically interact less frequently and with less visually, they do not have the opportunity to observe important nonverbal cues such as tone, body language and facial expressions. In contrast, an administrative team that meets every morning with established rituals and behaviors will have an easier time cultivating a shared vision for their team.
Communication is more of a challenge in virtual teams than in face-to-face teams. Since trust is difficult to achieve, members are more reluctant to express their opinions in virtual discussions. Contributions in a virtual environment lack the non-verbal and social context to understand others accurately and to be understood. Teams take longer to make decisions and arrive at a shared understanding. In a face-to-face meeting, an idea can be acknowledged and agreed upon through nods, smiles, or verbal responses. Puzzled looks, shrugs, raised eyebrows and the like, signal a lack of understanding or non-verbal requests for more information. Virtual environments lack these rich social and visual cues.
Even the most sophisticated computer mediated communication channels are not able to capture the richness of face-to-face exchanges. It is certainly more difficult to communicate complex information over the phone or through email than in person. Even video conferencing has its limitations. For example, consider the experience of going to a college football game or hearing a symphony perform. Live action includes the sights, smells, sounds, and various intangibles that cannot easily be put into words. Even watching a game or musical performance on TV does not capture all the details of the experience. Listening on the radio or reading a review does even less to convey the nuances of a live performance. Likewise, virtual environments are limited in capturing all the detail and “feel” of face-to-face meetings.
Diversity (A Benefit and a Challenge)
Virtual teams, by their nature, tend to be more diverse than face-to-face teams since they often span multiple geographic locations. Greater geographical distances can translate into differences in regional, national and organizational cultures. Diversity possesses the potential for increased creativity and problem-solving, but it also creates a context for miscommunication and misunderstanding. So, in addition to the challenges noted above, virtual teams also have to contend with the lack of a common set of assumptions and social norms that facilitate effective communication (Hinds & Weisband, 2003). Members might not even be communicating in their native language. Yet even with a common language, different words and phrases have different meanings from culture to culture. The potential for communication problems is great.
Virtual teams offer a number of benefits. Furthermore, virtual teams are an essential asset to today’s workplace. Today’s leaders need to understand the challenges of virtual teams in order to maximize their potential. G360 Surveys has a proven track record of increasing productivity for virtual team through the administration of 360 degree assessments. If you think your team could benefit from 360 degree feedback and consulting, get in touch with our team today.