Scholars have long speculated the notion of online working as a means of communication with the pandemic having accelerated the speed in which this has taken place. This article looks at the benefits and challenges that come with working in virtual teams and how to maintain meaningful relationships.
- ‘Getting the task done’ is not the only goal when we work together, the undercurrents
of organisational culture and personal relationships a crucial to bear in mind
- Remote conversations must be managed effectively to allow for equity of input, but
space needs to be maintained for spontaneity
- Breadth and depth of experience and the insights that these offer must lead
conversations, not simply the voices that have better technology which allows them
to be seen and heard
Even as far back as the early 1990s management scholars were starting to think about boundaryless organisations, virtual teams and partnerships. At the time, these seemed somewhat farfetched but were certainly a nod to the growing importance of new forms of communication.
The articles of the time acknowledged it was not just that face to face communication was being put “online” but that the new forms required new ways of thinking about the way we are organised and work. Questions were being raised:
How were interpersonal relationships going to work in virtual teams? There were some contradictory messages. One suggestion was that online communications would eliminate cues whereby individuals might find it difficult to convey trust, warmth, attentiveness or other social indicators. In contrast it was suggested that distant communication does not differ, but just takes longer.
If trust is one of the main constructs that can affect the working pattern of teams – whether face to face or virtual, how might this be created and reinforced in virtual settings. One proposed solution was that of the notion of “swift trust” – where the temporary teams formed on virtual platforms come together to perform tasks and then disband and reform again with different people into new teams. The people engaged in such work have to develop a mechanism of trusting the processes quickly and effectively. Therefore, the common tasks that bring people together need to have particular merit for the individuals and swift trust plays a part because one might anticipate working with the same people from time to time on other tasks in the future.
But – does the need for swift trust dilute the potential for strong bonded relationships that may be formed when people gather socially? Afterall, we work for more than the completion of tasks. I think there is an interesting tension between the seeming agility and flexibility of the virtual team that forms and reforms in order to “get things done” with the more conventional view of teams where long-term trusting relationships are formed.
In fact, one could argue that a so-called virtual team, sometimes referred to as high-performance teams is nothing more than a collection of individuals who come together to perform tasks using new forms of communication, separated by geography, locations, disciplines, motives and objectives but bonded by shared tasks. Yet as the nature of the tasks or project changes so the roles, individuals, expectations and commitments also change.
In the increasingly global world, the merit of these virtual teams is to be able to work across time and become connected to local and global issues that might be part of the task being performed.
And if the team requires particular skills, knowledge and expertise that is not available in the conventional team, then there is huge merit to forming virtual teams.
Another of the benefits of the virtual teams may well be that they have no baggage of history between the members and do not necessarily have to go through the conventional phases of forming, storming, norming and performing. Instead, they have to get on with task inception, planning, execution. They do not necessarily invest in each other or the relationships.
There is a lot more that has been said about teams – whether these are conventionally formed or virtual. In my own work on entrepreneurial teams there were probably three main insights;
- When a team is first formed – or shall we say team members are recruited – the conventional method is to look at the resources they bring to the table – experience, expertise, what school they went to, how many years in various industries, jobs and the
like. Various forms of bias get injected into this recruitment process and attempts are made to mitigate for them through taking references. As the team evolves though, we begin to learn how to work with each other, the levels of trust, communication
styles and preferences. If there is time, the team makes an effort to bond informally over dinners and social events or more formally through the use of coaching and consulting. If members of the team do not fit – there seem to be two main routes –
really work on repairing the issue or just starting again. From my experience this has depended somewhat on the personal values of the leadership and the pace of growth demanded by the shareholders.
- In all teams there is a kind of egg structure that no one really talks about – the centre – made up of the core team – perhaps the founders, the family or others – who carry the core values, the pain and pleasure of running the organisation. They come to work
early and leave late. They are the people who have “skin in the game”. And the outer team members and this can be dynamic – either gravitating towards the core or spinning away from it – depending now how they have performed, their relevance to
the organisation at the time and their own motivations and sense of commitment. While they are included in team meetings, strategy development and even in social events, they are never really there at critical times and yet may well hold the key needed
by the core to unlock some thorny problem. It is therefore incumbent in the core team to remain porous at the boundaries, inclusive and embracing of diversity. Easier said than done.
- All teams seem to have five core elements to their success or failure. It starts with a clear vision that is shared and understood and easily communicated into tasks that is understood within the organisation. The team members need to possess social
skills, often underrated, to be able to communicate effectively, keep time, enjoy each other’s company and so forth. Individuals need to know what they are talking about in their disciplines to gain the respect of the others and overall, the team needs to have
the breadth and depth of experience. The final and most important element would be the delivery of promises – without which there is no trust.
And then Covid happened
Over the past year or more it seems to me that almost everything that was written about conventional versus virtual has had to be put in cold storage. There is no debate about which way an organisation needs to go. That decision has been made for us and we have seen a number of huge benefits in being virtual, although it has to be said we do miss the physical interactions too.
This next part is somewhat a personal journey rather than one drawing on any scholarships – as the events are still unfolding but perhaps sharing a few lessons even at this early stage will be of interest.
My lessons are drawn from the world of entrepreneurship and education. The shift has been so dramatic and the learning curve so steep that all the previous lessons of what was good or helpful practice in team formation and development has gone out of the window – or so it seems.
The lessons here are from running Masterclasses for scale up in Latvia, Austria, Finland, India and initiating a new programme for midlife entrepreneurship in Malaysia. In addition, I have been mentoring, investing and supporting new ventures, providing keynote speeches in the UK and elsewhere and having a ball – by not getting on a single form of public transport for 18 months and taking breaks when I can to walk the beautiful footpaths around Cambridge!
The early challenges were of a technical nature; learning how to use Zoom, MS teams, Skype, Google Meets, WhatsApp video, Jitsi and the like. Whatever happened to CISCO Webex?! Integrating these various tools into day-to-day life and adapting to teaching, interactive workshops, conversations, planning, delivering with shared screens, button on mute and video on or off and with or without embarrassing backgrounds, cats walking across keyboards or partners at home making a noise in the kitchen were the early lessons. I still cannot get used to the lack of eye contact – we are drawn to the screen and so the camera can either see some weird angle of us and the viewer on the other side has to put up with our profile, view of a double chin, balding head or strange shadows and lighting. I remain in awe of the CNN news interviewers who are able to stare at the camera so it looks like they are in full eye contact with their guest.
Virtual working also means we spend a lot of time in our chairs and I am not sure we are all investing effectively in the ergonomics of our home working environments and are unlikely to when we get back to “post-Covid” working when virtual working methods will continue. Anyhow that is another topic.
How does our experience match the futuristic predictions of virtual working by scholars? I can talk with confidence about my own experience.
The question about personal relationships. It seems to me that whether one is face-to-face or working in virtual ways the need to build relationships remains a constant, but the way we go about doing it seems to vary hugely. Now that we have had no choice the human mind and spirit have found solutions to this question. We try and create new forms of small talk (starting with the inevitable uncomfortable chuckle with the mute button); ask about Covid welfare and perhaps begin to engage in conversation about people’s experiences through these difficult times. Interestingly, the impact of the pandemic has been to unite the world in a single shared experience that we can all – more or less – share. The differences I have seen is with age groups – the younger people on my calls have not been quite so sensitive or aware of the impact as the older ones, especially those who may have lost family and friends. But this shared and rather sad experience has strangely made the building of relationships just a bit easier. We can empathise more quickly.
Having said that – I still find the use of technology for communication being without soul. You no longer drift into conversations – you start and finish according to calendar timings – you join and you leave – there is no sense of gathering. And because there is no eye contact you can just about see the body language of people checking their smart phones while you are talking – so they are not “there” either. It seems to me there is a lot of research that can be done on the social aspects of
how the world has pivoted to virtual platforms. It is not about should we or should we not – it is just about how we manage.
On the issue of trust building and delivering the task. It seems to me that the virtual platforms are designed for that – what with the multiple channels that sit alongside, such as various project planning, scheduling and other plug-in tools – the entire system seems to be geared to getting things done. While there are socially geared platforms, they sit outside the ecosystem of work environments and so the reason to go on to our work based virtual platforms leans heavily to “getting things done”. And I feel it is this element of the way the platforms work that is causing exhaustion and mind fatigue for so many people.
Forming a team
Earlier in the article I mentioned that the conventional way to recruit team members was based first on checking their credentials and abilities, and only when we started working together did we learn about their trustworthiness and social skills to fit with the team. This is now so different. Team members are hired via the new forms of communication – no one goes to interviews in a physical sense and sometimes the quality of the internet signal or ability to access high quality phone lines may also become a mediating factor between getting the right person and just getting a person. I have heard of recruitment taking place where one of the interviewers was not visible due to signal quality! What happens if the candidate is not visible – actually this may well be a strength to remove an unconscious bias by having cameras turned off! I cannot imagine how this will work but it may well become a norm in the future.
In the company where I am non-executive director, we have just hired a handful of amazingly talented people – all online. Happily, they have been local and as time passes, we are managing to get together. Necessity has forced us to adapt. One of the disciplines this company put in place very early on was daily coffee mornings – half an hour everyday – not to talk about work but to check-in with each other, some light-hearted banter and maybe even the odd quiz or physical activity. I was inspired by how the leadership of this company adapted to the new world – not least in pivoting their marketing and sales approaches.
More recently I have found myself in a Latvian start-up and we are a team of four at this point and none of us have met physically. We are all united by a common purpose of getting rid of plastic waste – but that is it. The mechanisms we have in place to bond include a WhatsApp group where we have started to share personal information and pictures of our holidays. It seems to me that as we have had to cross cultural norms (there are two Latvians, me as an Indian origin Brit and an Iranian also with a British passport) we are gradually starting to understand each other and who we are, what makes us tick. We have weekly one-hour conversations and catch up – a mix between social and work related.
I am also in the midst of assembling a business angel group, where only two of us have met recently, one is a friend from 30 years ago and we have come together to make an investment in an EdTech company where none of us have met! Would I have done that a year or so ago? My memory of the early days of venture capital is that no one makes investments in companies that are more than about an hour’s drive away. Although venture capital was getting more adventurous in searching for
quality deals, it is certainly the case now that I hear of investors from across continents making investments in start-ups and early-stage companies.
There are no corridors or water coolers
In order to get oneself ready for meetings or gather socially one had to walk from place to place – which may have allowed for some time to plan or reflect. That has been taken away by simply clicking oneself from one meeting to the next. And the lack of water coolers means there is no social banter or passing of informal information that may be helpful. In a recent conversation I had to make a specific call to help prepare someone for a meeting with an investor – that sat outside the actual transaction but was some background insight. In the physical world that would have been organic – in the current situation it has been somewhat contrived – sending out a meeting request and making time.
And what about that egg shaped team structure inner and outer team?
The idea of a core team and the periphery continue to be visible in the way I see teams working. And this will endure. No rocket science here – just that the way the members of the inner team communicate may change and of course distance and the reduced physical contact may drive the members apart, or give them relief! We wait to see how core teams sustain themselves and their energy and motivation via the new forms of communication – that to my mind – remain soulless.
Team coherence and sustainability
Of the five elements for a coherent well-functioning team – my earlier point was the need for a shared vision with easily communicated tasks. I think this may come under threat with virtual forms of communication – because a vision needs to have the force of passion and energy to get buy-in and reinforcement. The rather two-dimensional computer screen may somewhat flatten this out – reducing us to some sense of urgency with tasks and projects – but not carry with it the passion of the “big why”.
We then have the point about social skills. Well, this is no longer about turning up on time, well presented, understanding the pecking order of the others in the room, speaking well, being part of a conversation with a flow and being skilled with communication and presentations. It now includes “Zoom skills”; creating the right background, having sufficient and width and all the other technical paraphernalia. We are on a steep learning curve!
Because we can only speak one at a time when we are online, and time can be restricted for meetings because we JOIN and LEAVE, it may be quite hard to draw fully on the technical expertise needed. Especially in situations when someone takes over and prevents full discussions. The spontaneous moment when an interjection might have happened in a physical world that draws on a particular expert is at risk. The same risk applies to teams that have the breadth and depth of experience on board but may well find it harder to share this via the virtual platforms. I think companies will have to find ways to ensure that in our brave new world we do not lose out on this aspect of our teams.
With trust building – interestingly what I have seen is that because all the platforms are task driven – more and more people are focused on getting things done and have the mechanisms for it.
It seems that scholars speculated on the emerging world of work a long time ago and have continued to do so over time, but the seismic shift in the past few months has meant that many of the anecdotal, research-based theories and concepts have become real for almost everyone and we have a much wider and deeper sense of experiences on which to draw.
The bigger questions the pandemic and the merging of various technologies in our day to life may well be more about fairness of access; because we do not all have great internet or the skills to manage the tools; creation of fatigue and stress in new forms by over-loading people because we are yet to work out when to start and when to stop. Exploitation of the work from home approach – where companies can shed costs of offices but perhaps not invest in making the home a viable workspace. Shifting the burden of risk from the employer to the employee with the working environment.
We will no doubt see a huge wave of innovation as has already started, for example the growth of the so-called “gig economy” where zero-hour contracts and highly flexible work arrangements are made possible by the new forms of communication. The growth of Uber, JustEat and other businesses have mushroomed. We will also see innovation in the construction, transport, hospitality education, health and retail.
So, while we continue to learn and adapt to the new forms of communication this is a signal about how necessity is the mother of invention!