Chapter 8 – Role of Communication

8.7. In-depth Look: Recent Research on Developing Virtual Teams

In-depth Look

Research related to virtual teams and how they communicate has been slowly evolving over the past 20 years. Researchers have attempted to study how communication is affected using virtual teams,  yet no theories have been fully formed and presented to the academic world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of virtual teams increased exponentially as many organizations made the shift from in-person work to a work-at-home model. As the world exits the pandemic, research around virtual team communication will begin to trickle out of academic institutions. We may finally have a tried-and-true theory behind virtual team communication. Below, is some of the research that has been completed on the topic of virtual teams and what makes them effective.

A Model to Develop Effective Virtual Teams

In 2008, Lin, Standing and Liu released a literature review on virtual teams in the hopes of developing a model for studying effective virtual teams. At the time of writing, virtual communication technology is still evolving. In their review, they found that, in the absence of face-to-face communication, even the most basic of communication has profound effects on the performance of the team (Lin  & Liu, 2008). However, the effectiveness of communication increased significantly when teams incorporated video communication over the use of audio only or text (Lin et al., 2008). Further, without having pre-existing relationships amongst the team, the nuances of communication can be lost in transmission. This was also found to be solved when teams used video over just text or email communication. In addition to communication, (Lin et al., 2008) also found that coordination, relationship building, and cohesion were key components in assessing how effective a virtual team performed. Through their research, they determined that communication was the starting point for an effective virtual team and formulated an integrated model of virtual team effectiveness. Lin, Standing and Liu’s research has set the stage for recognizing communication’s role in virtual teams.

Strategies for Building Effective Virtual Teams: Trust Is Key 

In their 2017 article on strategies for building effective virtual teams, Ford & Ford examined what has been found to be effective by organizations and other researchers. When developing virtual teams, trust within the team should be a main consideration as studies have shown that when members have trust within one another they are more proactive, focused, optimistic, and provide effective feedback.

Trust within this article is defined as an expectation that the other party will perform the required action, without having to be monitored or controlled to do so (Ford & Ford, 2017). This means that first impressions are very important since they can signal trust or distrust, even in the form of minor cues such as replying to questions. The authors divide strategies for building trust into three categories: the organization, the leader, and the team.

For teams, trust is created through acts that show members are reliable, dependable, agreeable, conscientious, and eager to work with others (Ford & Ford, 2017). For virtual teams, it is especially important for all members to trust that other members want to be on the team and there are no freeloaders, otherwise the whole team can fall apart. Virtual teams are not going away. It is important for organizations to use the best strategies to ensure effective teamwork and based on this study – building trust is a key strategy!

A Conceptual Framework of Virtual Team Effectiveness from the Socio-Technical Perspective

While many studies have explored the definition of virtual teams, there is a lack of research indicating what describes an effective virtual team. Huynh and Nguyen (2018) define an effective virtual team as one that is geographically dispersed, shares a common purpose, utilizes communication technology, collaborates, and works with similar communication methods. The main purpose of this study is to propose a conceptual framework on how to study the effectiveness of virtual teams using socio-technical system (STS) and the Input-Mediators-Outputs-Inputs model Input (IMOI). The IMOI model outlines inputs, mediators and outputs. Inputs represent the organizational, team and individual criteria that form the composition of the team while mediators signify factors that can affect the direction of team success.  Outputs can be described as the process of converting team inputs into organizationally valued outcomes. The STS framework states that an organization encompasses both technical and social elements but is also affected by environmental factors. The study proposed that the STS was the preferred perspective when developing a conceptual framework to study virtual team effectiveness.

Thus, with the help of the IMOI model, researchers included five components within the suggested framework including technological readiness, intent to learn, transactive memory system (TMS) and team performance. TMS refers to the reduction in knowledge gaps through information exchanged by employees. Huynh & Nguyen (2018) suggest that the factors included within their framework are multi-relational and can be used to study a variety of virtual team situations. Future recommendations include conducting further research to examine additional social and technical factors that affect virtual team effectiveness.

Adding Knowledge to Virtual Team in the New Normal: From Leader-Team Communication towards the Satisfaction with Teamwork

The COVID pandemic caused many, if not all, businesses to adapt in accordance with the local health unit bylaws. This caused a major shift from the once generally in-person atmospheres and roles to a much more virtual workplace environment.  There was a sudden need for solely interactively based communication strategies, and there was a lapse in employee morale in the process (Vatamanescu et al., 2022).

As time has progressed, companies have implemented the necessary technical and communicative plans as a means to account for this.  While it has taken time, all parties have learned to adapt to these new form of operations.  This was based on providing employees with the necessary tools to work from home, an increase in communicative strategies, and, where necessary, the introduction of new technology to the meet the company’s needs (Vatamanescu et al., 2022).

The downfall of the recent change in events – the loosening of COVID restrictions, has resulted in the transition of employees resuming their role back at the workplace versus at home.  Many individuals have grown accustomed to their current work situation and have an unwillingness to return.  This has indicated a strong need for a focus on the organizational culture within the workplace environment.  In order for the company to progress and continue its level of productivity, the company must also consider the current culture and examine whether there is a need for improvement and training – as the company is unlikely to be successful otherwise (Vatamanescu et al., 2022).

The moral of virtual communication, at this point in 2022, to have harmony in the workplace, communication an extremely important factor. However, the organizational culture must also be strong. Changes and adaptation need to be made. The research has indicated a strong need for companies to ensure that their employees have established an understanding of the current resources in place to ensure their success in their role through open communication amongst their fellow peers and superiors to continue building on virtual communication and teams. Communication is key – companies need to maintain a strong focus on the ways they choose to relay information to their employees, and while also observing the manner in which the employees are engaging amongst themselves, regardless of whether it is in-office or in a virtual setting.

Class of 2022 contribution: Jennifer Scane, Bella Rozintseva, Naomi Nitzke, Julia Porter