Do virtual teams work?

12 Oct 2006

Astrid Duftborg (pictured), executive director of Dublin-headquartered charity organisation GeSCI (Global E-schools and Communities Initiative), believes her organisation wouldn’t function without the internet. “We use every tool that’s available over the internet to do what we do,” she proclaims.

GeSCI was established in 2003 by the United Nations ICT Taskforce to deploy technology to help raise standards in the developing world where 350 million school-aged children do not attend school. With a team of nine in Dublin and six more in locations ranging from Namibia and Ghana in Africa to Delhi and Jaipur in India, Duftborg’s team relies on a panoply of technologies — ranging from internet PCs and instant messaging to BlackBerry email — to operate smoothly.

“We wouldn’t be sophisticated technology users but we are in need of communications of all kinds to do the work we do. Most of our work is done by email but we conduct frequent conference calls and I carry a BlackBerry,” she explains.

Duftborg, a Swedish national who has been stationed in four African countries, and her team are typical of the growing prevalence of “virtual teams” who are dispersed across continents and oceans but rely on internet and mobile communications to work together on a daily basis.

“We have to be available and communicate over different time zones so carrying a mobile email device is vital. We also have an intranet system connecting everybody in the organisation. Ultimately, the internet is the major tool for our work,” says Duftborg.

While Irish employees of multinational companies are well versed in the art of virtual teamwork, Irish businesses focused on export markets, for example, are increasingly deploying virtual teams. Overseas-based executives are using technologies like virtual private networking and voice over IP products like Skype to maintain a constant link with the head office in Ireland.

While businesses get to grips with the concept, however, the growing prevalence of virtual teams may in some cases be doing organisations more harm than good, Cisco claims.

In many organisations the old barrier to flexible teleworking — actual trust in what the home-based worker is up to — is repeating itself, research from the company suggests.

Cisco researchers found that an over-reliance on email, a failure to respond to messages and the use of inappropriate modes of communication can damage trust and hamper the progress of critical projects.

When virtual teams neglect the need to socialise, make visual contact and establish up-to-date communication guidelines, the trust they form is often fragile and easily compromised, leading to conflicts and the breakdown of relationships, researchers stated.

The Cisco study, ‘The Psychology of Effective Business Communications in Geographically Dispersed Teams’, carried out by occupational psychology specialists at Pearn Kandola, examined the trust-eroding phenomena that plague many virtual teams.
Carolyn Shearsmith, an occupational psychologist at Pearn Kandola and co-author of the report, explains: “Despite the increasing globalisation of companies there is still a significant resistance amongst the old order to virtual teams. They are not seen as productive and this is due to a struggle to communicate effectively.”

Shearsmith recommends that companies strive to put in a level of personal, cognitive trust in how virtual teams relate to one another and this can be driven by the use of videoconferencing.

By comparing the pros and cons of computer-based communication with face-to-face interactions, the report identifies new rules for communicating that will help virtual teams to work together successfully.

Users of electronic communication can take up to four times as long to exchange the same number of messages as communicating face-to-face, the research found, particularly as non-verbal cues can account for up to 63pc of the social meaning within face-to-face exchanges.

Trust can be fragile in virtual teams because of ‘behavioural invisibility’ when teams cannot observe each other, a lack of social interaction and the ‘virtual silence’ caused by not responding to emails and voice messages.

Cultural differences can also become exaggerated within virtual teams. Multicultural teams can take up to 17 weeks to become as effective as teams whose members are of the same culture, Cisco claims.

“Because people aren’t sitting together physically, companies need to put in a set of behavioural guidelines so that everybody can adapt their behaviour,” says Shearsmith.

Karl McDermott of Cisco Ireland says that a key strategy taken by Cisco is the creation of one-stop portals from which virtual teams can work. “Basically, in a single view you can tell what a person’s favourite mode of communication is, whether it’s instant messaging, email, voice over IP, SMS or mobile phone. In terms of people working more flexibly in or away from the office, the portal strategy is a definite plus.”

One firm believer in virtual teamwork and flexible working is Martin Murphy, general manager of one of Ireland’s largest employers HP.

Martin warns that in the years ahead the retention of skilled and experienced workers is vital. This requires a more progressive attitude on the part of employers in terms of using technology but also on the part of the Government in addressing infrastructure deficits such as broadband and poor PC penetration, he suggests.

“Employers do not want to lose good workers who for lifestyle reasons may leave the workforce. People will want to work more flexibly and instead of spending two hours every morning in traffic they want to be able to work from home one day a week.”

Citing HP’s attitude to home working, Murphy said: “Culturally the biggest thing that makes HP stand out is supporting people who work hard. We have a great workforce who have stuck with us through tough times. We have almost tripled our revenues in Ireland in the space of three years.

“From the front office to the back office, everyone has contributed and as an employer it is paramount that we do everything we can to retain those people. This will be an issue for all employers going forward. As the M50 gets re-engineered people will tire of spending two hours a day in their car getting to work.

“We are a progressive employer and I think we’ve paved and led the way in the mobile working field,
supporting virtual teams and creating a broadband contribution scheme for employees.”

Duftborg believes that issues like trust and cultural differences need to be mitigated by regular meetings between executives. “While all of us are dependant on email and the internet, it is very obvious to us that we need to meet face to face on a regular basis.

“It is seldom that we are all together at the same time but you can’t rely only on email and the internet, especially as we come from different cultures. This throws up lots of different dimensions to communicating: ‘no’ doesn’t always mean no and ‘yes’ can mean no.

“Knowing people means you have to meet them regularly,” Duftborg synopsises.

In terms of the various technologies at her disposal, Dufborg says that voice over IP (VoIP) is becoming increasingly important. However, technologies like video conferencing, interestingly, are not currently used a lot. “We schedule conference calls and regular meetings but we haven’t used video conferencing all that much. You have to bear in mind that in many of the countries we operate in, technologies that we take for granted in Europe are not that frequently available.”

Cork team creates islands of opportunity
CAPE Verde Development is a Cork-based property development firm focussed on providing four- and five-star properties to global buyers in the up-and-coming tropical island location of Cape Verde off the coast of west Africa.

The company employs 13 people but the majority of the company’s directors and salespeople are constantly on the road, either based in Cape Verde itself or in target markets throughout the world. The company maintains an office in Kinsale where sales are processed and legal and taxation work is conducted.

The group of investors behind the project recently announced plans to build more than 12,000 apartments and villas on two Cape Verde islands as well as four golf courses designed by professional golfer Ernie Els. The Irish company has invested more than €30m in the project.

Because of the dispersed nature of the workforce, Cape Verde director Tom Sheehy believes the term “virtual team” is an apt description of the company. “We could have people in Spain and Portugal and elsewhere at any one time. I use a BlackBerry, a Wi-Fi laptop and my mobile phone to keep in synch with the team.

“We touch base most days by phone as well as by email through the day. Working as a team we know each other very well and we know how each person works and their movements. However, it is important for virtual teams to get together regularly. Normally we would get together once a week or meet somewhere when we are on the move and overlap.

“I think it’s important to meet physically. Knowing who you’re talking to at the end of the phone line is a huge advantage. “With senior management constantly on the move, a lot of it is down to trust and our ability to get on with each other and know one another’s systems of working.”

Sheehy says that the company has created a booking engine similar to that of an online travel portal and the company’s executives on the move log in and use this to not only boost sales but mitigate the danger of properties being booked by two potential buyers at the one time.

“At any time that we are on the move we can see what has been sold and who has paid their deposit. If any unit is purchased an alert is sent to the various managers.”

On virtual teams, Sheey says: “It’s definitely the way we’re going to have to continue to work. We’re going to be opening in Germany before Christmas and we’ll be relying on internet and mobile technology to keep everything moving.”

Where on the web
Belfast-based Ken Thompson’s shared know-how on team dynamics, virtual collaboration, emerging technology and bio-teaming
A US website focused on enabling organisations to have smart, creative, and productive people — regardless of whether they are in the same time zone or 14 hours apart
A free online management library that includes tips on managing virtual teams as well as a panoply of business dilemmas, ranging from finance to staffing
The University of North Texas has an entire Centre for Collaborative Organisations and this site has papers on leadership and teamwork.

By John Kennedy