Virtual collaboration has become standard practice at many organizations. You probably know from your own experience, however, that e-mail tends to be unwieldy, teleconferences are annoying, and videoconferences often look like they’ve been beamed from Mars. Meeting face-to-face is presumed to be the best way of doing business, even if not always possible.
But a recent study of virtual work groups finds how they can be more productive and more effective than teams that always meet face-to-face. Two academics and two consultants queried 54 virtual teams on what made them successful (“Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?” by Ann Majchrzak et al., Harvard Business Review, May 2004).
The researchers found that success depends on which technologies are used. E-mail, while essential in today’s workplace, 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 by successful virtual teams was instant messaging. The teams found IM’s spontaneity useful. Interestingly, the teams tended to install IM themselves if no enterprise-wide version was in use. The researchers recommend that companies now suppressing IM settle on standards instead.
It’s often pointed out that non-verbal cues are an important dimension of face-to-face meetings. For virtual teams, the absence of body language and facial expressions is actually a boon to productivity, the researchers said. Virtual meetings are more democratic than face-to-face discussions; participants don’t feel the effect of hierarchy as much.