Nothing beats ‘being there’ — Cisco

25 Sep 2006

The growing prevalence of virtual teams that may have never met and who use technology to work together across oceans and continents 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 in many global organisations that are having to rely on virtual teams of professionals, 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, the researchers inferred.

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, told “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 recommended 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 63 percent 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. The virtual silence from someone not responding to messages can disrupt the work flow and even arouse suspicion that the silent party is shirking work.

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.

Individuals in “high-context cultures” (those in most Asian, South American and Middle Eastern cultures and, to a lesser extent, French, Spanish and Greeks) tend not to express feelings and thoughts explicitly whereas individuals in “low-context cultures” (North Americans and most Europeans) do.

Therefore, people from high-context cultures can often perceive those from low-context cultures as too talkative and obvious. Conversely, those from low-context cultures perceive others from high-context cultures as sneaky and mysterious.

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

Karl McDermott of Cisco Ireland said that a key strategy taken by Cisco is the creation of one-stop portals that virtual teams can work from. “Basically, in a single view you can tell which 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.”

By John Kennedy