Most teams has some degree of virtuality, as most teams rely on some electronic tools to communicate. But what happens to your team’s performance when more and more team members work from home, or from some other non-official work location ? Performance does not need to suffer if your remote team has the right processes in place. This article will explain what team virtuality is and two important processes, trust and documentation, that should be in place in every remote team.
Advice for Managers:
- The higher the level of trust among members of remote teams, the higher their performance. One way you can know if there is trust in your team, is to see if team members engage in risk taking behaviors such as giving feedback, helping each other, sharing (confidential) information, and speaking their mind.
- If the level of trust between team members is low and you can not raise it, move towards written forms of communication such as email, slack or messaging.
- If you can’t change the communication channel and the level of trust is low, you really need to increase team trust level. No way around it. You need to develop your team. Read some of my team development posts or reach out to me to discuss my team development packages.
- Worksheet included in this post: “How many boundaries does my team cross?”
What is a remote team ?
Academics are great at coming up with definitions. No article should be published without a precise, sometimes lengthy and awkwardly formulated definition. As academic I therefore consider it important that you understand what I think a team, and specifically a remote team is. Since if we don’t agree, the empirical findings I discuss here, might not be relevant for you.
A team is a collection of at least two individuals who work together on a number of tasks within organizational boundaries and who share a set of common goals.
Important is that team members have a set of shared goals. Without this, they do not have a guiding force. Also important is that there is a clear boundary about who is in the team and whose not. There are thus explicit membership rules. Finally, the team members work together on a set of tasks. This collaboration can be sequential or involve a lot of back and forth. For example, in a kitchen team, the waiter takes orders from clients, and passes this on to the kitchen chef. She in turn divides the order into smaller tasks and distributes these to the kitchen staff. In this team, tasks are done sequential. Surgery teams perform less sequential, with team members stepping in and out of action when required.
A virtual team is a team of at least two individuals who work together on a number of tasks within organizational boundaries and who share a set of common goals. Communication and/or collaboration between team members is mediated by some degree through electronic tools.
Scholars for some time have debated what virtual teams are, and settled on using the word virtuality to indicate that most teams use some electronic means for communication. This definition implies that a virtual team can be co-located in the same office building, but their reliance on email as the main communication tool, gives them a virtual flair.
To be more exact, virtuality is composed of three dimensions:
- Extent of reliance on virtual tools. The more your team relies on virtual tools, the greater its virtuality.
- Informational value derived from communication channels: The lower the information value team members’ derive from communication channels, the greater the team’s virtuality.
- Synchronicity of communication: The more communication happens asynchronous, the greater the team’s virtuality.
Take a moment to think about your remote team, and consider if they score high or low on each dimension. This is important, because in general it is considered that teams that score high on virtuality will have more communication and coordination challenges. To help you make a concrete estimation of your team’s virtuality, we can dig deeper into the concept and describe what predicts team virtuality. Three factors predict the three dimensions of team virtuality: Context, task-media-member compatibility and temporal dynamics.
What are contextual factors ?
Contextual factors are all aspects of the wider environment in which your team is located. Objectively, this is the proportion of team members who are co-located, the number of boundaries that are crosses (e.g., cultural, organizational, time zone), and the size of the team.
In my eyes, the number of boundaries that are crossed deserves further attention. It is more ambiguous than the other contextual factors. To help you understand what this means, it helps to be very practical. Take a sheet of paper and focus on one remote team. The worksheet for this exercise is at the end of the post, in the resource section. Begin with a small team. Write down the names of your team members. Then for each team member, write down the following information: What is their expertise ? For what organization do they work ? What is their ethnic background ? In what time zone do they work ? In what country do they work ? To know the number of boundaries your team crosses, take the total of unique categorize you provide in each column. The more boundaries that are crossed, the more challenges your team faces.
How many boundaries does your team cross?An example of how to count the number of boundaries your remote team crosses
|Tallying up the groups||4||2||3||4||3|
|Laura||Data science||Company A||American||UTC-7||USA|
|Joanna||Marketing||Company A||Asian||UTC - 6||USA|
Task-media-member compatibility is the synergy that results when a tool suits the complexity of a task and fits the preferences and skills of members.
For example, if the task isn’t complex and requires pooled or sequential input from team members, tools with low information value (e.g., email) work well. Imagine the interaction between a content writer and copy-editor. The features of online video conferencing tools such as zoom will surpass the needs of the task.
For other teams, video conference tools or virtual reality headsets might be better suited to receive richer information in the form of non-verbal cues or spatial information.
Temporal dynamics refer to three different types of time: time it takes to complete a task, development stage of team, and rhythm of team process.
While studies demonstrate that remote teams need more time to complete a task, these studies have been conducted on ad-hoc groups in lab settings. This is a far cry from real life remote teams working in companies and hence these results can’t be transferred 100 % to the workplace. In general, if a tool can help reduce the burden of collaboration, a team will implement the tool and increase their virtuality.
The development stage of teams relates to the team’s tenure and its maturation. Teams at the beginning of their development benefit more from face-to-face settings in order to establish processes and familiarity between team members. Once they become more stable, virtuality can implemented.
Finally, the rhythm of a team can be composed into transition and action phase. In action phases team members are executing tasks, while the goal of transition phases is to formulate goals, do a mission analysis, and strategy formulation. Virtual teams are more often seen in action phases.
The two crucial processes for any remote team: Trust and Documentation
Based on a meta-review two processes are important for remote teams to have. A meta-review is always a good resource to check when looking for evidence-based management ideas as they combine effects from different studies.
Trust your Team
Trust is the willingness of one person to be vulnerable to the action of another person based on the expectation that this other person will do certain action that are important to the first person.
In other words, trust exists between two people when they are able to engage in risky behavior. Team trust is when this trust extends to the complete team. Of course, this raises methodological issues of how to aggregate trust at the team level. Across all the relationships that exist in the team, is the lowest value of trust the most important (minimum), the average (mean), the most frequent level of trust (mode), or the highest level of trust (maximum) ?
The key with trust is that it enables team members to engage in risky behavior. At the workplace this is:
- Reduction of defensive control, thus not being all the time on the guard trying to control everything around you
- Increase of open discussion about conflicts and mistakes
- Giving and receiving feedback
- Sharing confidential information
- Helping others
In teams with low levels of virtuality, the level of trust seems to play less of a role in predicting performance. This does not mean than in face-to-face teams, trust does not predict team performance. However, it means that other variables play a bigger role than trust in teams with no or very low degree of virtuality.
With increasing virtuality, the importance of trust increases. Thus, a fully remote team needs to have a high level of trust for team members to engage in information exchange, open discussion etc.
Managers and team leader can increase team trust by modeling risky behavior. Through this they will set standards about what behavior is acceptable and what not. Achieving high levels of team trust also requires of leaders to let go at a moment and watch the team swim. Of course this will only work if the team has been guided and properly taught before.
Another team process that influences the performance of remote teams is documentation of communication. The relationship between team trust and performance becomes less strong, the more communication is documented. Originally, we might consider this to be counter-intuitive. Documentation could be understood as a way to take notes in order to check on employees afterwards. However, while it might be true that in some companies documentation is used in this way, documentation in the research setting was understood as a written report of communication. Hence, every text-based communication channel is considered a form of documentation.
This implies that teams who rely on text-based communication tools such as slack and email need to have less trust between each other to achieve the same level of performance than teams who predominantly communicate using video conferencing software. When communicating using slack or email the textual trace left provides a safety net for remote workers to engage in risky behavior.
The notion that remote teams have it more difficult to perform at a high level is well-established. Contextual process, task-member-media compatibility, and temporal dynamics influence how difficult it is for members of remote teams to work together. Key processes to have in place is trust and documentation of communication. Documentation of processes compensate for a lack of trust.
Resources for managers to download
How many boundaries does my team cross?crossing boarders
Evidence integrated in this post
Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1151–1177. doi: 10.1037/apl0000113.
Kirkman, B. L., & Mathieu, J. E. (2005). The dimensions and antecedents of team virtuality. Journal of Management, 31(5), 700–718. doi: 10.1177/0149206305279113.