As the digital revolution continues to take over the workplace, the concept of virtual teams is becoming more common. However, with the increase in remote and virtual teams comes a rise in other, more complex challenges. I’m sure the terms “global distribution” or “workplace mobility” come to mind when imagining remote teams. However, what if I told you that “variety of practices” was just as important to consider for virtual teams?
Variety of practices is the degree to which people experience technology and work process diversity on their team. Put simply, we all have our own individual preferences of how we use technology and being in a highly virtual team allows us to bring these preferences into our everyday work practices.
In an office environment, we are used to plugging in and getting on with the tasks at hand. The devices, software and tools are all set-up for us by IT, and it isn’t something we need to think about. In a distributed workforce, we are less reliant on a central IT function and more dependent on the way we do things, our preference of tools for instance. This can have a negative impact on virtual teams.
There are several reasons why variety of practices can be damaging for virtual teams. Studies have found that it can have a negative impact on:
- Team participation, which includes team members' meeting commitments and equal opportunity to contribute
- Trust among the team members
- Timely completion of projects
- Team communication
What creates this negative impact?
We now have access to so many different tools to use throughout our daily working lives, that the same task might be approached in multiple ways. Some individuals may gather data in a process they are familiar with, whereas others may take a completely different route. Similarly, team members often switch back and forth between different applications and tools to assemble different pieces of information in one place. This can impact things such as the completion of timely projects because people are constantly switching between different applications.
Loss of knowledge and information when transferring
To keep up with the rapid advances in technology, all tools are regularly upgraded. Sometimes, older process or systems get decommissioned, which causes a disruption in transferring data between tools and can risk an information leak or miscommunication within the transfer process.
Tracking tasks and overcommitting for different projects
Often, people commit to tasks and deadlines that influence other team members availability and in turn directly impact the overall project timeframes. To counter this, more tools get added on to broadcast and track tasks such as documents, presentations, spreadsheets, emails, cloud services, and project management tools. A lack of understanding around how we use these tools effectively can pose the risk of over-committing in an already highly competitive environment, causing disruption within the whole team. This disruption can influence trust within a team when deadlines are missed, and communication is interrupted.
The constant need for people to learn how to use new tools
In highly virtual teams, members are often left to manage their own learning around the new technology, leaving large gaps in knowledge and practice. With the constantly evolving nature of the tools, staying on top of this learning can become an insurmountable challenge and create a disjoint in the stage of peoples understanding of the current technology.
Being aware of these challenges can help you work out how to best tackle them. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Choose tools that can best support your needs
Be clear on what is required from the tools you are looking for. Communicate this with your team and ensure every individual’s needs are both satisfied and aligned.
- Acknowledge the issue you need to solve and be clear on how technology can help
Focus on the support the applications are providing the team. Integrating new technology is not a simple task, so ensure the benefits are adequate and problems are solved by adding this change.
- Once chosen, ensure everyone in the team use it in a similar manner
Individuals will follow their own learning at different stages, but it is important to connect with one another around some of the processes they follow. This alignment within the team will support a more efficient work process and avoid miscommunications amongst team members.
Working in remote teams may offer difficulties, and more and more teams are heading in that direction. But ensuring everyone within the team is aligned and using the same technology to enhance performance and achieve the overall goal will make the distance a little less daunting.
Findings from: Lu, M., Watson-Manheim, M. B., Chudoba, K. M., & Wynn, E. (2006). Virtuality and team performance: Understanding the impact of variety of practices. Journal of Global Information Technology Management, 9(1), 4-23