Virtual Team Paradox #1: Physical Presence Is Necessary

It’s no big secret that virtual teams need to meet face-to-face.  As mentioned in an earlier post, a study completed by Dubé and Robey found that the most prevalent contradiction or tension in virtual teams is the necessity for face-to-face presence. There’s something important about corporeality that allows us to relate to each other, which psychologists haven’t yet figured out, but which most companies realize.  Indeed, Stanford researcher Pamela Hinds notes that for many companies regularly scheduling face-to-face visits is actually a key strategy to building their virtual teams.

As beneficial as face-to-face is, schlepping people in from different locations is rather at odds with the whole point of putting together a virtual team. If face-to-face visits can’t be avoided, then the question is how can teams make the most of being virtual?

1.  According to the Dubé and Robey study, most companies have a mandatory face-to-face kick-off meeting to get things started.  As trust studies have  shown, it’s easier to trust someone that you’ve met face-to-face.   Hinds also mentions  that this also helps build a whole team identity, as it’s very easy to develop an  “us versus them” mentality when people are working from different locations.  Interestingly, in some cases, such as when the project itself or the team is already well-established, the initial kick-off meeting may not be necessary.

2. Another good skill to have is picking and choosing the times to meet face-to-face.  For instance, routine management meetings or first-round interviews can easily be conducted via videoconference, however, some possible occasions when it might be  more appropriate to do a face-to-face are:

  • talking about feelings or emotions
  • delivering bad news, making decisions that affect the whole team or that require whole  team consensus
  • doing unstructured tasks requiring lots of interaction,  interrupting, and handwaving
  • confronting poor, unsatisfactory performance or dealing with conflict
  • cases where a lot of ambiguity needs to be cleared up with immediate feedback

Hinds warns that face-to-face is not a cure-all for everything.  In fact, if one part of the team feels like their work is being threatened by another part of the team, face-to-face is even likely to make things worse.

3.  Using communication media in such a way as to fill in for the loss of  face-to-face interactions.  Out of sight is out of mind, so it’s  important to stick to a routine of coming together by phone, or even better, by videoconference in  order to create a work rhythm which will help keep the momentum of the  project going and also to create a sense of presence of those involved.   The group leader, especially, needs to have a constant virtual presence to  keep the team on track.  Bichierri & Lev-on’s analysis of several computer-mediated experiments found that if people are not communicating and interacting then most likely they are not cooperating.

4. Furthermore, because of the lack of context in virtual communications, people need to be more direct in expressing their needs and feelings and in showing respectfulness.  They also  need to be deliberate in developing human relationships by being more  informal or humorous, sending the occasional joke, and asking questions  about important things in people’s lives that aren’t work-related.

In the talk given by Hinds, one theme that came up again and again was inhibition in communicating with virtual team members.  Coworkers were afraid of causing a misunderstanding, offending someone, or embarrassing themselves because they didn’t know how the other person would react.  The lack of physical work context meant people didn’t know their coworkers well enough to work comfortably with each other which meant they were slower to respond to each other and often made  wrong assumptions.  At one site, e-mails were proofread and checked  multiple times before being sent.  Talk about unnecessary barriers to teamwork!

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Line Dubé & Daniel Robey. 2008. Surviving the paradoxes of virtual teamwork. Information Systems Journal, 19, pp. 3–30

Cristina Bichierri & Azi Lev-On. 2007. Computer-mediated communication and cooperation in social dilemmas: An experimental analysis.  Politics, Philosophy and Economics,6, pp. 139-168.

Pamela Hinds.  April 2011. Deepening relational coordination: Why site  visits matter in global work.  Stanford University, CA.

Kevin Crowston, James Howison, Chengetai Masango & U. Yeliz Eseryel.2007. The role of face-to-face meetings in technology-supported self-organizing distributed teams. IEEE Transactions On Professional Communication, 50(3), pp. 185

Joe Nandhakumar & Richard Baskerville.  2006. Durability of online teamworking: patterns of trust. Information Technology & People, 19(4), pp.371 – 389

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