Published: August 31st, 2004

Virtual collaboration has become standard practice at many organizations. But e-mail tends to be unwieldy, teleconferences are annoying, and videoconferences often look like they’ve been beamed from Mars.

But a recent study of virtual work groups (“Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?” by Ann Majchrzak et al., Harvard Business Review, May 2004) finds how they can be more productive and more effective than teams that always meet face-to-face. The researchers found that success depends on which technologies are used.

E-mail quickly overwhelms team members, as multiple chains bounce back and forth. Videoconferencing is not quite ready for prime time; according to the study, desktop versions have too little bandwidth, and remote locations require too much travel.

But online team rooms, also known as virtual work spaces, received top marks from successful virtual teams. These networked, file-sharing spaces provide a place for team members to access the latest versions of files at any time, carry on asynchronous discussions (without getting sidetracked into multiple conversations), and keep track of deadlines and time lines. In sum, they collect all relevant information into one place.

The best online team rooms in the study were fronted by easy-to-use Web interfaces. Virtual work spaces tended to free up the teams from having to update one another at every phone call. Instead, the virtual teams used their teleconferences for hashing out differences of opinion.

A second technology given a thumbs-up was instant messaging. The teams found IM’s spontaneity useful. Interestingly, the teams tended to install IM themselves if no enterprisewide version was in use. The researchers recommend that companies now suppressing IM settle on standards instead.

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