According to a 2010 survey by RW3, 80 percent of corporate managers work virtually at least part of the time. But a surprising proportion of virtual team members — 40 percent — believe their groups are underperforming.
The study (pdf) is quite broad, delving into many areas, including this graph, which shows unequivocally that almost everything is more challenging in virtual teams:
Any of these alone would be worrisome, but the cost benefits of virtual teams have won the day, so management will simply have to invest time and energy into countering the problems that come along with virtual work.
94 percent of those surveyed said the greatest problem with virtual teams is an inability to read nonverbal cues, the single greatest difference from face-to-face interaction. A higher reliance on video communication is the likely counter to that, as the authors reported:
When asked how they would make their virtual teams more successful, some respondents expressed a need for more time. Others cited the need for a common language, time zone, and currency. These comments, however, constituted only a fraction of the total. The largest number of comments cited a need for more frequent face‐to‐ face contact to cement better relationships among team members. In a related vein, many participants identified a need for better communication, and they frequently suggested the use of better collaborative technologies – especially video‐conferencing.
Clearly, management isn’t inclined to let these virtual workers meet on a regular basis:
I think it’s a shame that the authors did not break out how many of the respondents use video, and did not cross tabulate that with the questions regarding difficulties.
The other dimension not covered in this study are the collaboration tools used by the virtual teams. Having relied on work media for my work in the past decade, I know that these tools can decrease the barriers inherent in virtual work, especially after protocols and etiquette about their use is learned by team members. As the authors relate
There also were numerous comments that only can be interpreted as expressions of frustration about poor project management – usually evidenced by a lack of organization or a clear understanding of shared objectives and responsibilities. Finally, comments about the lack of initiative, cooperation, and meeting etiquette among team members pointed to a need for more careful selection of virtual team members.
My bet is that virtual teams fall into three general groups, based on the level of capabilities of the tools that they use:
No Fidelity — Virtual teams that rely on a weak collection of minimal work tools, like telephone, email, and paper-based communication. This leads individuals to contrive their own ways of tracking critical information, expectations, goals and so on. These pre-web work situations are likely — I believe — to have the greatest problems with the social side of virtual work, as well.
Low Fidelity — Teams that have adopted early web-based solutions, like online document repositories, chat, portals and intranets, are making their business processes more streamlined, but are largely lacking shared ways to track work socially. And they particularly fall short on the possibilities of social interaction that we see on the open web today.
High Fidelity — Virtual teams can adopt the best that today’s web has to offer and at a very low-cost: video/audio conferencing and advanced work media tools can bridge the social gap inherent in virtual work. These go beyond just patterning business processes: they support the deepening of social interaction — the creation of social density — which makes groups more productive and satisfied with their work. Video is an essential aspect of this, especially solutions that emulate team meetings.
The benefits of gaining even 5% improvement in virtual team performance is gigantic. My sense is that the right combination of communication and social tools — high fidelity work experience — can tap this huge productivity potential of underperforming virtual teams, and there is no other answer aside from lots of pricy and time-consuming travel. I expect that the adoption of work media tools is growing to a large degree because of this need: to make virtual teams more productive, by making them more social.