Virtual teams

Communication, Collaboration and Leadership in Remote Teams: The Global Case Study Challenge TEAM

GCSC Team

GCSC Team

16/02/2021

If TEAM stands for Together Everyone Achieves More, we can certainly say this is true for the #GCSC team! We are a totally virtual team practicing just what we preach! We have been working as a team for a year and have not yet managed to meet up in person, not even once! While we haven’t yet met in person, we still have a fantastic team dynamic, absolute trust in each other and each one of us takes full ownership of both their individual and team responsibilities.

What are global virtual teams?

At this point in 2021, the vast majority of us know what a global  virtual team (GVT) is. The term ‘Emergency Remote Team’ was coined to describe teams forced into the remote setting, teams that would otherwise work in a co-located context. These teams differ from deliberate remote teams, consisting of “interdependent individuals who predominantly use technology to communicate, collaborate, share information and coordinate their efforts in order to accomplish a common work-related objective”

This definition, at first glance, may seem simpler than it is! Over the past two decades, numerous studies and authors have deliberated over how to define what a “virtual team” is, with much disagreement over both the degree of ‘virtuality’ and the term ‘team’. Some authors define virtual teams as “groups of geographically and culturally dispersed co-workers using a combination of communication and information technologies to accomplish an organizational task”. Others put less emphasis on the team’s geographic and cultural dispersion and define them as “a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time and organization boundaries using technology”. Regardless of which definition you prefer, there are several commonalities that virtual teams have and that we’ve all been enjoying – to a greater or lesser extent – over the past year.

What Opportunities do GVTs bring?

Over the past months, you’ve probably been either singing the praises of virtual teams or bemoaning the fact that they’ve been invading your private life and disrupting your work-life balance. Maybe at this point we should out ourselves as non-believers in work-life balance, but instead true believers of work-life integration. Work takes up far too much of our time (and energy) to consider it as separate from our lives, which is why we much prefer to think in terms of having ‘work’ well integrated into our lives. Okay, we are still working on the ‘well’ part of that equation, but you know what we mean! 

Depending on the organizational context and setting, there are a number of benefits that GVT’s bring. The first benefit, that the interculturalists among us like to refer to, is the fact that virtual teams contribute to diversity of thought, problem-solving, innovation & creativity, while at the same time bringing new perspectives. Additionally, Duarte & Synder (2006) point to the fact that organizations can adapt more quickly to the global economy, help leverage talent, improve work-life balance and job satisfaction, as well as reduce travel and mandatory relocation. All of which contribute to an organization’s agility, resilience and ability to effectively navigate fast-changing environments. While the reduction in travel is perhaps not something interculturalists are singing and dancing about, for obvious reasons, the environmental impact of reduced travel is certainly significant.

What characterizes effective GVT’s?

Authors such as Brown et al (2006) would have us believe that effective virtual teams understand their shared goals and objectives, know what is expected of them, have the technology they need to accomplish their tasks, know how to use it, and are motivated to use the technology to perform their jobs well. This says nothing of the team leader, who is often crucial in leading the team in the virtual environment, which let’s face it is not an easy task! When we think about the #GCSC team, we would have to add how important effective communication is (synchronous and asynchronous) and also having a strong team dynamic: both we consider as a prerequisite for success. As members of the #GCSC team, the Global Case Study Challenge is actually only one of our many daily job-related activities. Individually we all have several other commitments, which is why it’s hugely important for us to be totally transparent and open about where the #GCSC is on our list of priorities at a particular time. The fact that we actually achieve this level of transparency is due to a fantastic sense of commitment to the project, our willingness and interest in engaging with each other (both professionally and personally), and a determination at an individual and group level to take ownership of the project. In short, we’re totally passionate about what we’re doing and completely convinced of its value and impact!

A recent study (2020) by Buffer on the State of Remote Work among 3500 participants showed that a humongous 97% of remote workers would recommend remote work to others. Among the top three benefits identified of working remotely were the ability of having a flexible schedule, the flexibility to work from anywhere and not having to commute. Among the top challenges were the collaboration and communication, loneliness and not being able to switch off! As a team, we think we can verify all of the above.

How can virtual teams develop trust?

Well, trust building is clearly easier in teams, which are passionate about their common goal and are open and curious enough to get to know their team members. This also partly requires a team leader with the drive to leverage the strengths of each individual member of the team . In our case with the #GCSC, we start off all our meetings with a ‘check-in’ to pick up on how everyone is doing – work-wise and personally. Initially we purposefully scheduled time for this, but soon our check-ins burst the seams of our timeframe…which was ok if we had time! If all four of us had a free schedule after our meetings this was great, if not we had to be very clear about our timeframes. This is also why it’s so incredibly important for virtual teams to plan for team-building time regularly. This can be a simple coffee-call or dinner-call, some fun ice-breakers during a meeting, or simple pre-meeting check-ins. When people on a team all work in the same place, the level of social distance is usually low(er). Even if they come from different backgrounds, people can interact formally and informally, align, and build trust… just by meeting at the coffee machine, watercooler or copy machine! They arrive at a common understanding of what certain behaviors mean, and they feel close and congenial, which fosters good teamwork. Coworkers who are geographically separated, however, can’t easily connect and align, so they experience higher levels of social distance and struggle to develop effective interactions. This is why it’s so important to consider enough time to build relationships and trust with your team, e.g. using the check-in technique during meetings or organising virtual team buildings. Be creative!

How can global virtual teams build trust?

Consider the following simple but effective tips from the Huffington Post.

1. Timeliness. What constitutes a timely reply to an email? Do emails with certain subject lines take priority? What is the “end of the business day” for teams across different time zones? Establishing expectations can help the team benchmark communication performance. The goal is to get teams to trust that teammates will reply in a timely manner to emails, voicemail, and deadlines. 

2. Completeness. Are responses to requests sufficient? This includes deadlines, next steps, or specific instructions for follow-up. Managers can provide templates for instances where they feel responses are inadequate.

3. Reliability. Consistent quality, timing, and interaction build trust with virtual teams. Teams work best when they can count on one another to regularly deliver high levels of performance. 

We can only reinforce the points above from our personal experience with the #GCSC team that these three elements are crucial in trust building! Team cohesion is high and we all contribute, not always equally… but fairly, to the success of the project.

To sum up, the success of our #GCSC is based on the flexibility as a team; relies on the fact that we are goal & relationship driven; hinges on us having clearly aligned common goals as well as transparent individual goals, is dependent on us having a high degree of internal trust and a clear communication plan (Whatsapp, slack, trello…), and it requires us all to be tech-savvy!

#GCSC Recommendations for GVTs

  • Devote time to developing relationships
  • Focus on trust
  • Create team charter/rules (communication and other rules)
  • Create an agenda before each meeting and stick to it
  • Send summary notes after meetings and to-dos linked to individuals
  • Rotate time-zones where possible, to include everyone
  • Encourage active participation during meetings
  • Consider and deal with language issues (accents, language levels, power and language issues)
  • Encourage asynchronous discussions

… and don’t forget about the fun in your GVT work!

Global Case Study Challenge team meeting

Literature

Brown, Huettner, and James-Tanny (2006) : Managing Virtual Teams: Getting The Most From Wikis, Blogs, And Other Collaborative Tools, Jones & Bartlett Learning, online here.

Duarte, D. L., & Snyder, N. T. (2006). Mastering virtual teams: Strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

David B. Nast (2017): Trust and Virtual Teams, published with the Huffington Post

Buffer & AngelList (2020): State of Remote Work report

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