Developing Relationships in Virtual Teams

Due to advances in technology, a growing number of people are telecommuting to work and school. According to the Telework Research Network, the number of telecommuting workers in the United States will rise to 5 million by 2016. This represents an increase of nearly 70 percent since 2011. A similar shift to telecommuting is taking place among college students. Ambient Insight, another research organization, has forecast that more than 18 million U.S. students will be taking some or all of their classes online by 2014.

The surge in telecommuting will also like mean that more employees and students will also become members of virtual teams. These teams will be comprised of working professionals representing a variety of different geographic locations and thus different time zones. In addition to telephone and e-mail, many virtual teams rely on sophisticated collaborative technology, including teleconferencing, video-conferencing, video chat and instant messaging.

Challenges of Virtual Teams

Virtual teams face unique challenges. Team members may find it more difficult to establish rapport and trust with team members in remote locations. This is especially true when team communication is limited to virtual meetings. Building consensus for decision-making is frequently cited as another challenge for virtual teams since team members may have different perceptions about how decisions should be made. In addition to these interpersonal barriers, virtual teams must overcome challenges related to differences in time zones, native languages and cultural expectations when conducting business.

Technology may present its own set of challenges for virtual teams, especially when team members use different hardware platforms and a variety of communication tools. E-mail and phone calls may be sufficient for relaying fact-based information, but face-to-face communication is still the best way to build trust and foster team collaboration. Virtual teams have a much higher chance of meeting their goals when they’re provided with a virtual environment that supports face-to-face communication and real-time collaboration.

Tools for Virtual Teams

Applications that consolidate virtual team communication, provide multimedia tools and run on multiple platforms can provide significant productivity gains for virtual teams. An example of this type of application is Adobe Connect. This web conferencing system, which is based on Adobe Flash Player, runs on most types of mobile devices and desktop platforms. Adobe Connect provides integrated video conferencing that supports unlimited webcam streams, allowing every member of a virtual team to participate in face-to-face meetings. Real-time collaboration capabilities are also provided, including private chat, shared content preparation, whiteboarding and virtual breakout rooms.

Tips for Developing Strong Relationships Amongst Virtual Team Members

A key ingredient a virtual team’s success is the development of strong working relationships between team members. Here are three tips for improving virtual team relationships, as suggested in a white paper produced by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA.

  1. Don’t rely on phone conversations and e-mail. Spontaneous online chats and scheduled video or audio conferences will help team members establish rapport. During scheduled meetings, ask team members to avoid multitasking as much as possible.
  2. Respect cultural differences between team members. Since team members from different cultures may have different opinions on how decisions should be made, set some ground rules up front that can be used to guide the decision-making process.
  3. Choose a technology platform that will provide equal access to every member of the virtual team. Make sure that team members receive enough training to take full advantage of the conferencing system and that technical support is available if problems arise.

For more information on successful virtual teams, please see the white paper, “Developing Real Skills for Virtual Teams.”

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