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Impulse 7 - Can you hear me?

ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Iris C. Fischlmayr describes different challenges playing a role in virtual team work.

Abstract Introduction A holistic picture of factors influencing virtual multicultural teams Factors having influence on virtual multicultural team collaborationConclusionRecommendations for PracticeQuellen & Literaturverzeichnis

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Abstract

This article describes different challenges playing a role in virtual team work, i.e. collaboration in teams, which mainly communicate via electronic media. We cannot always just add “virtuality” as a dimension to what we already know about face-to-face teams and their pro ces ses. Obviously, different geographical areas, different time zones or different cultural back grounds of the team members render this modern form of global collaboration a de manding job. Additionally, recommendations how to overcome these challenges are provided.

1. Introduction

With ongoing globalization and the rapid development of modern technology, communication with people from all over the world has become a daily matter. Using e-mail, Skype, chat, Facebook, Google + or Twitter in order to get in contact with others is no longer an exception but an everyday-life activity. Also the business world takes advantage from communicating and collaborating over different geographical areas via information and communication technology (ICT). More and more, this is done with virtual teams or – as they are composed by members stemming from different cultures – virtual multicultural teams. Gibson & Gibbs (2006) name the following characteristics as crucial for virtual teams: geographic dispersion, dependence on ICT, dynamic structures and national diversity. Thus, this leads to the following definition: virtual (multicultural) teams (VMTs) are working teams whose members are sitting at different locations, use electronic media to communicate, and are originating from different cultures. The teams in question do not have a stable hierarchy, or a fixed structure, and an unstable number of team members or relationships.

The collaboration via ICT does not exclude face-to-face contact, on the contrary, most teams also meet in person from time to time. But as Malhotra et al. (2007) have brought it to the point “…to work together through electronic means with minimal face-to-face interaction” (Malhotra et al., p. 60). Especially at the beginning, meeting each other in person is of particular importance in virtual collaboration in order to establish a basic relationship and mutual trust. Knowing each other, and having met before an interaction over electronic media also strengthens the commitment and the we-feeling in the team, two aspects known as crucial elements enhancing team performance. Regular follow-up meetings after some pure “virtual collaboration time” serve the same goal and should mainly be used to sustain these feelings. Due to irregular and individual meeting periods in each and every team, as well as due to different aims of the single teams, there are no pre-defined or recommended periods when virtual and face-to-face meetings should be displaced by the respective other one. In the last years, virtual teams found their impact in scientific as well as popular scientific literature and are also referred to as “geographically dispersed teams”, “global teams” (Chen et al., 2006), “computermediated teams” (Wilson et al., 2006) or “global virtual teams” (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). Although a lot of research has been conducted so far, the concentration has foremost been on single aspects only. Exemplarily, trust in virtual teams (e.g. Jarvenpaa et al., 2004; Krebs et al., 2006; Rusman et al., 2010), collaboration and communication (e.g. Pottler & Balthazard, 2002; Köhler, 2009), leadership (e.g. Ford & Lawler, 2007; Malhotra et al., 2007; Zoller & Fairhurst, 2007) or conflict (Griffith et al., 2003; Hinds & Mortensen, 2005; Kankanhalli et al., 2007) as well as culture (e.g. Huff & Kelley, 2005; Fischlmayr, 2006; Gefen & Heart, 2006; Staples & Zhao, 2006) can be named. Hereby, the argumentation and theoretical background of the researchers is mainly built on results and findings from face-to-face teams and their team processes by adding “virtuality” on top. Only rarely, empirical research in the field is conducted in order to know more about the very nature of single influential factors in virtual teams. Summarized, we can state a shortage of theoretical and empirical foundation regarding a holistic picture on factors that influence virtual team collaboration (also stated by Hertel et al., 2005).

2. A holistic picture of factors influencing virtual multicultural teams

Due to the above-mentioned lack of empirical foundation as well as the missing holistic picture, research directly in the field has been conducted. Through a “bottom-up” process, typical behavioral influences occurring in virtual multicultural teams should be detected. Doing so, written reflections comprising between three and five pages about experiences made in virtual team projects have been used. In those individual essays, students have noted their immediate reactions, learnings, critical situations, etc. The essays have been analyzed with the help of Grounded Theory. This method seemed appropriate as it rather looks at primary data instead of formulating and testing hypotheses based on existing assumptions.

2.1. Grounded Theory

The central characteristic of Grounded Theory is constant comparison. For the “inventors” of that method, Glaser & Strauss (1967), this means as a first step, finding out key words and crucial topics in the broad qualitative material (that should be collected as “unguided” as possible, thus without direct and concrete questions). This is done by line-by-line analysis in most of the cases. “Codes” (key words) that are related to each other and occur under the notion of one and the same topic, are subsumed under one category (broader issue). The aim is to find relationships between those concepts and categories in order to know more about reasons, consequences or factors having influence on that particular topic. Reading one text after the next means adding new codes and categories all the time and at the same time comparing them to the already existing ones. As soon as no new codes are emerging and no more changes are being carried out, so-called “theoretical saturation” (as required by Grounded Theory) is reached (Goulding, 2002). With the help of that procedure a systematic development of theory and empirical data can be guaranteed (Lamnek, 1995; Goulding, 2002). Thus, Grounded Theory is especially applicable when little is known about complex social phenomena. The resulting theory might later on serve as a basis for further studies in the field.

2.2 The Database

In order to find out more about influential factors in virtual teams, data have been collected in two different virtual team projects with business students from different cultures.

Project 1:
Over several years, the Richard Ivey School of Business (London, Ontario, Canada), ESADE, (Barcelone, Spain) and Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria) have been participating in 5-7 weeks lasting projects where different tasks (case study with three different roles and a creative task) had to be completed in teams. At the beginning, students were assigned to teams consisting of 6-9 students, 2 to 3 from each country. This allowed an interesting mix of cultures in the teams as students were coming from Austria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and USA. Communication across cultures was conducted via e-mail, Skype, MSN, or sometimes also phone. Twice per project, teachers also organized a three-way-video-conference with 15-minute-slots for each team.

At two crucial points of time, namely, after the first task and after the completion of the project, students had to write the individual reflective essays covering their insights, learnings, team experiences etc. On the whole, 218 written 3-5 page essays have been analyzed. The results from the essays are completed by participant observation (done by the single teachers) as well as peer evaluations (also 218), and some clarifying qualitative interviews. This ensured an approach in the sense of triangulation, thus looking at one phenomenon from different perspectives and with a mixture of methods, as also suggested by Grounded Theory.

Figure 1: Figures having an influence on virtual team collaborationand its effectiveness

Project 2:
The second virtual team project VIBU (“Virtual International Business”) bases on an online business simulation game called RealGame™ and was (and still is) conducted among students from all over the world. Initially, participants came from the Johannes Kepler University, Linz (Austria) and the Turku School of Economics (Finland) only, over the years, more and more universities joined the simulation. In the meantime, the program has been developed in a way that allows to have 200 participants, is played over 4 different time zones and over 18 hours. Depending on the number of time zones and hours played, 6-10 students form one team, which represents a company. The companies compete with each other and are at the same time dependent from each other. During the simulation, team members have to continuously and on a real-time basis make decisions that typically occur in an international production company. Participants can thus easily gain insight into the consequences of each action conducted, so for example short-, mid- and long-term effects in finance, in the balance sheet or in cash management, stock keeping, effects of slight changes in delivery terms etc. Besides the learnings from the game, students have to cope with challenges such as coordinating their shifts over different time zones, having participants from different cultural backgrounds, or communicating via electronic media only (mostly Skype and Skype chat).

Usually, the simulation is played twice with having the temporal distance of a week or two in between. In addition to being asked as a group, to reflect on their company´s performance and the team processes, each participant has to write two reflective essays. One is due between the two sessions, the other one after the second round. As in Project 1, these written reflexions comprise 3-5 pages and contain individual insights, experiences, evaluation about the team processes etc.

As several other universities worldwide have restrictions in sharing the student papers, only those of the students at Turku and Linz have been analyzed for the study in question. All in all, 268 JKU and 130 Turku essays served as a basis for the Grounded Theory analysis. Again, participant observation, the analysis of some online chats as well as the team papers (mentioned above), completed the information.


3. Factors having influence on virtual multicultural team collaboration

Applying the Grounded Theory method on the above-mentioned database revealed some factors playing a role in virtual multicultural collaboration. In the following paragraphs, the most important ones will be described in more detail. Some of them are related to each other and their sub-influences are not separable from each other that easily. But still, the attempt is to show crucial factors, their effectiveness, their sub-factors as well as their functioning in virtual teams as opposed to face-to-face ones.

3.1 Isolation and Ignorance

Going through the essays line-by-line it could be stated that students complained about feeling excluded, about being ignored by others, about facing isolation or simply not being a part of the group. Having a closer look at it, this meant that in chat conversations, students having English as their mother tongue typed faster than the non-natives and thus, had a competitive advantage over the others who did not have enough time to
answer. Students with lower Internet speed were automatically excluded due to a time lag in writing and answering, especially in synchronous communication. Some others were simply ignored and excluded – the reason might lie in their shyness and personality. On the other hand, some team members excluded themselves actively by not answering, by not being available or by simply doing some free riding. Often, team members felt ignored although no particular intended actions were set. Due to technical problems or different cultural behavior they felt isolated or excluded without any “reason” set by anyone else.

The fact of being ignored is also referred to as “ostracism” in psychology (e.g. Sommer et al., 2001; Williams, 2001; Masclet, 2003). Occurrence of the phenomenon is manifested in refusal to talk to someone, not paying attention to the speaker, showing gestures that reflect an unwillingness to answer or simply not answering to concrete questions (Ciarocco et al., 2001). That behavior might be rooted in disinterest, anger, pressure, conflict avoidance or others. In most of the cases, the ignored person feels angry, rejected, hurt or even feels weak and thus, faces psychological consequences. In the long-run, being isolated or ignored again and again or just over a long period of time, might lead to self-isolation, loss of friends, weak self-esteem or even helplessness (Williams, 2001).

Ignoring someone over the Internet, has consequently been named “cyberostracism” (e.g. Williams et al., 2000; 2002). That form of ignorance or isolation is manifested in activities such as giving no answer to an email, putting someone on a black list, deleting someone from the list of people being replied, ignoring comments in a chat, giving an answer to a totally different question than posed initially etc. Besides the results already cited, cyberostracism is said to be able to even cause depression and loneliness. In the past, the phenomenon of cyberostracism has not been discussed on a group level, nor has there been any contribution on its meaning for virtual teams.

Analyzing the database according to Grounded Theory more in detail the following picture can be drawn (see also Figure 2):

As main reasons for ostracism weak language skills, lack of technological skills and expertise, weaknesses in communication and cultural differences can be made out. They occurred in the form of not sharing information with others, isolating someone on purpose, not answering to direct questions or ignoring one´s comments, suggestions or remarks. As a consequence, lower levels of participation and commitment, increased social loafing and sub-grouping could be observed. Individual persons reported about frustration, anger, a feeling of powerlessness, or increased selfquestioning. On a team level, the presence of ostracism resulted in decreased performance, weak results, lower trust levels and weaker team spirit.

Additionally, it can be added that ostracizing someone can be done on purpose or even unintended. Thus, people might feel ostracized although no one sets active steps into that direction. Intended or not, the consequences remain similar – what makes the topic particularly tricky. Summarizing, on a team level, ostracism might have severe consequences on team processes, team cohesion, commitment and thus, also on performance and results. Especially in virtual teams, ostracism is likely to occur and plays a huge role for the collaboration.

3.2 Diversity and Culture1

Culture as such was seldom mentioned in the essays but in some cases, students reported about different working styles of team members with different cultural backgrounds (e.g. relationship oriented cultures did some small talk beforehand in order to establish trust; highly task oriented cultures such as the US or Germany divided tasks into clear packages, set deadlines and did not lose a single minute for personal conversations), about their idea of the purpose of team meetings (is it for work or relationship building and team cohesion?), or about different ways of communication (e.g. lots of small talk; very direct and clear sentences; e-mails without any personal line, etc.). Especially students having had courses on cultural sensitivity or cross cultural management before, referred to particular cultural dimensions or expressions stemming from culture-related knowledge (e.g. “I see myself as polychromic and US students as monochromic2 or „Maybe they did not want me to lose face”). In contrast, some explicitly mentioned the non-influence of culture, “Culture is no issue; in virtual […] teams it is never an issue”.

Figure 2: Reasons, Forms and Consequences of Ostracismn in the Internet

In even more cases, culture per se was not mentioned but its influence came out in a hidden form between the lines, e.g. in behavior, communication, attitudes etc.

First and foremost, the topic of communication turned out to be culture-based. There, (1) the different communication styles “They did not want to make small talk but they only wanted to talk about business and the work we had to do.”, (2) the preference for certain communication tools “We tried Skype but the Finns were not interested. Thus, we had to communicate with them by e-mail, it was much more difficult.”, and (3) language skills, i.e. natives versus non-natives “I think there was some in participation in our group as some members spoke English better than the others.” were mentioned.

As a further culture-based difference, power issues were found, amongst them leadership resp. the need and wish to have a leader. Here, some cultures have clear preferences for strong, autocratic leaders (such as France, US, Spain) “The only thing why I participated was that we had an autocratic leader.” or “A leader is important for projects that need to be structured. One person has to be responsible for the decisions. It is impossible to make group decisions with very big teams.” Others (such as Sweden) made a clear decision against a leader and did not see any need for having one “There has not been any leader because of our equal knowledge about the matter and small size of the group.”

Decision-making was another topic where cultural differences occurred. Whereas some cultures such as Sweden are striving for consensus and democratic decisions, it was stated by the students that “Western cultures decide quickly, easily, and in cooperation, the Eastern European countries have difficulty in using their skills even if they have a good education.”, or “The US students decided quickly, the French analyzed much.”

Last but not least, trust is highly culture-based. Here, only the accumulation of all the essays paired with certain line-by-line reading allowed finding patterns. Neither was trust mentioned explicitly very often, nor was there any reference to culture differences. But statements such as “After we had played a while we started to make decisions independently.” Or “I personally like to know the people who I negotiate with.” gave more information about the trust topic.Figure 3: Culture-based differences

Referring to the literature, culture is said to have a huge impact on teams, for sure particularly on multicultural teams (e.g. Cox, 1993; Watson et al., 2002) but also on virtual teams (e.g. Duarte & Snyder, 2001). Although there is no clear opinion about its influence – whether cultural diversity increases (e.g. Richard, 2000; Driver, 2003) or decreases (e.g. Watson et al., 1993) team performance – authors agree that culture has an impact on work behaviour (Erez & Early, 1993), communication styles (Hall, 1976), information & knowledge sharing (Dahlin et al., 2005; Ardichvilli et al., 2006) or the meaning of teamwork (Gibson et al., 2001).

3.3 Power

One might assume, and so did the students – at least on the surface – that power is distributed rather equally amongst students. But during the analysis different sources and forms of power executed in the virtual student teams came through. But what is giving more power to people in virtual teams?

First of all, personality, better knowledge, certain expertise (in particular technical skills) and above all, having a better command of the team language (in that case English) revealed as power bases. These forms are similar to what French & Raven (1959) name “informal power” and subsume expert power, power based on personality or power based on charisma. But for sure, also formal power, which is related to formal positions, hierarchies and professional roles (French & Raven, 1959), plays a role in virtual teams resp. in giving more power to team members of virtual teams. In the essays, status, organizational background (thus, the university they were coming from resp. its reputation), or the role distribution in the teams (independent whether there is a clear role division or roles emerged over time) were found as reasons for giving more power to single team members.

When it comes to the development of power, literature gives only vague ideas. One exception is Popitz (1969) whose examples and explanations describe why and how a minority can gain power over a majority. As reasons he names better organizational skills, and/or productive superiority (based on cooperation, solidarity and mutual trust). Exactly the same was observable in the virtual teams in the study as well. Those team members who started to organize the group collaboration, the tasks and the schedule, were automatically functioning as a sort of leader or had at least more power over the others. This is closely related to information sharing, as mostly these people had the superior position over the existing information and the decision about information sharing as well. The same was true for team members (or even sub-groups) who knew better how to “produce” the piece in question (case study, a real product in the creative task, etc.).

All in all, power bases and power development in virtual teams are comparable to the findings of face-to-face teams or power in general. It is just the importance of single reasons that makes the difference (e.g. technical expertise is one of the main sources of power gain in virtual teams and so is information sharing).

3.4 Information Sharing

As seen above (“isolation and ignorance” as well as “power”), information sharing plays a crucial role in virtual teams. Even back in 1971, Irle stated that selective communication of information is a strong power tool. In the virtual teams under study, the emerging or defined leaders were playing around with information. One leader, for example, withheld information intentionally, another one stored the data on his computer only and did not share it with the other members, and still another one selected carefully whom to give which piece of information in the team. “She was sitting on her information […]. She has already written her part and left without having any conversation with the rest of us.”

Especially in virtual teams, information sharing becomes a crucial issue. This is also confirmed by the literature (e.g. Cramton & Orvis, 2003). Even if known from face-to-face teams as well (Pfeffer, 1992), this factor has much more influence and importance in the virtual context.

3.5 Communication

The importance of communication in virtual teams has been stated in several articles (e.g. Kayworth and Leidner, 2000; Pottler & Balthazard, 2002; Robert et al., 2009). Also in the reflective essays, communication turned out to be an influential factor in virtual teams. Its occurrence can be observed in the form of language resp. linguistic skills, the communication style, and technology.

Due to the lack of face-to-face contact and thus, the lack of facial expressions and non-verbal communication, it is obvious that communication plays a crucial role in virtual collaboration. Students in the virtual team projects recognized that fact as well, by explicitly referring to the importance and influence of communication. In their opinion, and that was clearly reflected in the essays as well, language resp. linguistic skills were even named as THE crucial factor in virtual teams. Language skills were mainly related to being a native speaker or not. As already stated under “power” and “isolation and ignorance”, natives actually have more power and a better position in a virtual team and even more, they sort of isolate non-natives, either consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes non-natives do isolate themselves as well, for sure, by just not having the self-security to speak up and to interfere or ask for clarification.

The communication style is mainly associated with cultural differences as already stated amongst these factors. Hereby, lowcontext versus high-context (c.f. Hall, 1976) was found to be a distinguishing differentiation. Students from the first group (e.g. from Finland, the US or Germany) avoid personal messages, keep their sentences short and precise, come to the point quickly and do not use small talk. Moreover, sometimes they do not even address others with any personal greeting. In high-context cultures (e.g. Russia, Asian countries, Spain, France, Latin America), talking about the weather, the different schools, the students´ weekend plans as well as their private lives is common. But briefly summarized, communication styles do have an impact on virtual team collaboration and its efficiency.

So does technology. As stated in the chapter  of “power” as well, the outstanding importance  of technology resp. technological skills or expertise is apparent in virtual teams. The special issue of expertise in technology is highly relevant for virtual teams. Apparently, the students in the teams who had no permanent Internet access were in a weaker position compared to the other team members. Those with higher familiarity with the Internet and the communication tools were given a competitive advantage. Their everyday use of and experience with computers allowed them to type faster. This did not give the other students enough time to answer the messages. Tensions and dominant behavior were the consequences. A confirmation is found in Pfeffer (1992), who states, that advanced technological knowledge enhances the power of a subgroup. For Maier et al. (2001) media and communications skills are the key qualifications for collaborating virtually.

3.6 Trust

In many scientific pieces of work, trust has been identified as an influential factor in virtual teams (Piccoli & Blake, 2003; Riegelsberger et al., 2003; Brown et al., 2004). It is characterized as “the glue that holds virtual teams together”. In older articles, preferably conclusions from face-to-face teams have been made in order to explain trust in virtual teams, empirical research was scarce for a long time. In the last years, the topic was approached by finding out the roots, functioning and composition of trust in virtual collaboration.

Also in the essays, the issue of trust came up – in some cases it was mentioned as such, in others one could identify it between the lines. Examples for the occurrence of trust in the reflexions are “I absolutely want to know the persons I am dealing with personally.” or “A big issue plays trust between partners. When we cannot meet face to face we must have trust to people with whom we work.”

Basically, there are two different types of trust: affective and cognitive trust. Whereas the former is about emotions and relations, empathy and social bonds, the latter deals with professionally with one´s integrity and ability (Greenberg et al., 2007). In face-to-face situations, people tend to have initial trust first, thus show a certain willingness to trust someone from the very beginning on before even having met. When establishing social bonds, when recognizing sympathy, affective trust is likely to occur. Over time, by perceiving the other one as for example, sticking to deadlines, handing in work in the promised quality, being reliable, a rather professional trust is built up, namely cognitive trust. In virtual teams, initial trust does usually exist. Whereas in face-to-face teams, affective trust is mostly high and cognitive just occurs over time, virtual teams cannot rely on affective trust due to missing face-to-face contact and thus, missing emotions and feelings based on empathy and social bonds. Therefore, affective trust is and remains low3. Cognitive trust, on the contrary, is likely to increase over time, given certain reliability on other team members. At certain points, e.g. in the project this was close to deadlines, cognitive trust might decrease or increase depending on whether the other parts fulfill the expectancies and stick to the norms and rules in the team. These findings are also supported by the literature, for example by Kranawattanachai & Yoo (2002) who state that due to a lack of social contact, the existence of cognitive trust even plays a higher role in virtual teams than affective trust and than compared to face-to-face teams.

If team members do not meet beforehand or do not have the chance for a trust-building meeting, the need to have a big amount of initial trust in order to make the collaboration function (e.g. Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999;

Kranawattanachai & Yoo, 2002). The positive side of the strong task focus that is consequently inherent to virtual teams is missing conflict due to personal issues as they are likely to occur in collocated teams (Meyerson et al., 1995; Kranawattanachai & Yoo, 2002).

3.7 Leadership

In many of the teams in the study, leaders just emerged due to their expertise, knowledge prior experience or personality. In others, there was the clear decision of not having any leader at all. In still others, the contrary was the case: there was a clear wish of having a strong leader.

As in virtual teams, the symbols of power that are often inherent to leadership are missing, and as almost all leadership theories base on a face-to-face interaction, a closer look was put on different leadership styles in virtual teams. Obviously, virtuality cannot just be added as a component on the top as electronic communication as its tools change the basis for power and leadership completely. Thus, a leader in a virtual team has to earn the power by personality, charisma, communication style or expertise. This is why in many teams a type of transformational leader emerged. This type of leader is characterized by charismatic power, and by the focus on the interaction between leaders and followers. A typical transformational leader according to Bass & Avolio (1990) has a strong vision and appeals to higher needs, ethics and morals of the team members. He strives for making both, himself and the followers, exceed their limits in order to strive for “higher moral values” (e.g. clear vision, self-control, intellectual stimulation, inspiration) and for the common interest of the team. Transformational leadership turned out to be accepted easily in virtual teams as – although it originates from one single person – it leads to a positive interaction among the leader and the follower.

But what was most interesting and astonishing was a spontaneous sharing of leadership that showed for example like that: “The power was equally shared in our group and nobody was dominating. As I already said, I believe that this structure was great for the game because it didn’t lead to any conflicts.” or “There was not one single leader role in our group. Each person, instead, was leading a different part of the game and we worked together from this.” Shared leadership means that power is shifting in the team and every member is or might be leader at one and the same time. It bases on social relations and networks as well as a discourse between the actors. In a highly dynamic process, team members are their own leaders and accept each other due to existing equality (Pearce & Conger, 2002).

Thus, leadership gets a completely new dimension in virtual (self-managed) teams that is not likely to occur in face-to-face teams due to many more traditional power bases that exist.

3.8 Team Processes and Team Characteristics

Several other team processes and team characteristics are also having an influence on virtual teams and their efficiency. A short overview should give an idea about the different factors:

(1) Group Cohesion & Commitment
Driskell et al. (2003) state that virtual teams have different interaction patterns than face-to-face ones and cite lower team cohesion as the most prominent example. The same is true for following a common goal as well as creating a feeling of belongingness which both remain at lower levels in virtual teams (Wiesenfeld et. al. 1999). Also in the essays, related concepts such as participation and commitment were brought up. The team members complained about free riders and missing active participation of others.

(2) Conflict
Obviously, conflict has an impact on team processes and affects the efficiency of a team. In the student teams, conflict aroused mainly due to sub-group building and behaving somehow superior. In the particular case, some native speakers just took over the lead, overruled the ideas of the non-natives, gave them the feeling to be inferior and neglected the input of the other team members. For the non-natives this meant frustration, decreasing motivation and erosion of trust. Other sources of conflict identified in the essays were personality, culture and different preferences of handling and structuring the project – again, these factors are interwoven as for example the last reason named is also related to culture (as has been highlighted in the chapter “culture” as well), and almost all have something to do with power.

Literature states that conflicts in virtual teams are tricky, as they remain hidden for a longer period of time compared to face-to-face teams (Griffith et al., 2003). Regular face-to-face meetings, a guided initial phase where norms and rules might be established as well as naming a coordinator or moderator could help to reduce the potential of conflicts.

(3) Social Influence
From studies on face-to-face teams different typical forms of social influence are known4.

1) Normalization – norms are created by changing one´s opinion or behavior in a way that others follow (Moscovici and Ricateau, 1975). They are a sort of regulation for behavior by making future behavior more predictable and foreseeable.

2) Majority influence and conformity – as they strive for harmony, participants in a team tend to stick to team norms and rules, do not exceed any limits or break any ranks and do not contradict others. In the case of having a different opinion, they feel strong cognitive dissonance but act according to the group as they see conformity and harmony as the main aim of a group and would furthermore do everything for being integrated in that group (Moscovici and Ricateau, 1975).

3) Minority influence – in case of a deviant opinion, some people (or even single persons) might influence and even change the opinion of the majority. By emphasizing their meaning again and again (and this is an easy task if you are really convinced about it) they succeed in creating uncertainty and even a rethinking (Moscovici, 1979; 1985).

4) Groupthink (Janis, 1982) – the strive for conformity, we-feeling and high group cohesion might result in unconsidered, mainstream opinions of a group. By collaborating over time, striving for conformity but also by the perceived oressure for uniformity, group members start to feel invulnerable and hold stereotypes about all other people not being part of the group (out-group). This feeling might lead to limited ideas about alternatives, missing reflexion of results, underestimation of risks, or misguided information search. As a consequence, decisions become more and more alike, paths and patterns reveal and results are not reflected.

In the virtual teams, above all the avoidance of conflict could be made out. Highly driven by strive for conformity, different opinions and different working habits were tolerated as compared to face-to-face teams. Normalization was followed by creating common norms and by striving for consensus in decision-making. Consequently, rather majority than any form of minority influence could be observed. Deviant opinions have been adapted in order to come up with one common solution. But although single team members refrained themselves from rigid points of view in order to enhance team cohesion, it remained quite low due to irregular and asynchronous contact. One might conclude that synchronous media help to increase team cohesion and commitment.

The phenomenon of groupthink has not been observed in any of the virtual teams, perhaps due to the short duration of the projects. But in some cases, subgroups were built, for example students who were sitting in one location, team members coming from the same country or “cultural cluster” (even if not having known the other one beforehand), native speakers, students from highly ranked universities (especially in the US and Canada). In those subgroups, a clear use of “we” and “they” could be observed – in other words: in- and out-group thinking, and thus maybe a sign for groupthink.

(4) Initial Phase

Crucial for the further collaboration and also for the efficiency of the teamwork is the initial phase. In the essays the importance of a smooth start has been pointed out. Especially the very first contact was seen as decisive as it determines trust building. This is accelerated by “the exchange of cultural and personal information as it allows getting a picture of one another. Only then, relationships can be established.” Videoconferences, formal relationship building tasks as first assignments to be completed or even becoming Facebook friends were seen as helpful and supportive, especially retrospectively.

Also Gluesing et al. (2003) or Hertel et al. (2005) refer to the starting phase of virtual team collaboration as being crucial for effective ad successful teamwork. The reasons being quicker integration of the single team members, clear ideas about the assigned tasks, exchanging personal information, as well as clarifying roles and responsibilities. As already mentioned before, initial face-to-face contact would make an optimal start but if not possible, videoconferences or informal meetings over Skype (for example) alternatively serve similar purposes.

 

4. Conclusion

One might argue that the use of student samples does not allow formulating implications for the business world. The contrary is the case as behavioral factors – which were under research in that case as well – have proven to be comparable between managers and students in former studies (e.g. Reber & Berry, 1999). Moreover, student data allow having deeper and more intense insight into a topic, as broad data collection is much easier amongst them. As the sample consisted of business students, certain sensibility and thinking patterns related to business might be assumed anyway. Besides all the similarities, there are for sure some differences as well that might create a need for different considerations in the business world. There, the question of power is certainly highly related to resources, department belonging, hierarchical positions and organizational structure
as well as culture. Regarding team characteristics, age and gender are supposed to play a higher role in business than in student teams where participants are at about the same age and more gender equality is given. Furthermore, they do not have the “burden” of a common history in most of the cases. Due to these factors, roles and leadership positions are often predefined and given in virtual teams in business. But again, despite of all these differences, the benefit of these insights is much more valuable than the limitations.

Besides the factors mentioned in this article, many more have occurred and influence virtual team collaboration. But due to their numerous appearances as well as their importance in impact on the collaboration, there has been a limitation on exactly the referred ones. The attempt was to draw a picture of several factors and their sub-factors, which influence virtual teams and their effectiveness. For sure, many of them are interrelated, not separable from each other, not so easy to identify or not occurring in a pure form. However, a holistic picture was provided and showed the complexity of the topic.

But what can we conclude now?
First of all, virtuality cannot just be added as a component to what is known from face-toface teams. This step is in most of the cases valid for the factor “culture”, i.e. culture might be added as one more factor to monocultural teams, but not for virtuality (as might be seen in figure 4 as well). Secondly, categorizing the single factors playing a role in virtual team collaboration reveals the following picture: Obviously, technical
issues, the role of technology in communication or the different communication channels come up in computer-mediated collaboration and do typically not have any impact in collocated teams. Most of the behavioral influences occurring in face-to-face teams are observable in virtual teams as well. Their importance and appearance might be a different one, though. In virtual teams, however, some factors not highlighted as being of particular importance in face-to-face teams, have revealed as crucial in virtual ones. Exemplary, the issues of isolation and ignorance (“cyberostracism”) as well as information sharing can be named here. Other factors, on the contrary, have the same or at least a similar importance in both types of teams but still, their appearance and consequences are completely different. As examples for that case, leadership or trust might be listed.

Furthermore, working virtually means being independent from geographical barriers, and thus saving travel time and money, and being independent from working times – but also being dependent on time zone differences and technology. This brings along new challenges also for the social life and the work-life balance of the team members. Separating work and non-work becomes hard, work might be done everywhere and any time and the nature of work changes rapidly. All people involved should thus provide tolerance and understanding.

Last but not least, the dynamic nature of the field has to be highlighted: researchers show increasing interest in the topic, the business world is more and more using ICT also in daily work routines, global companies start implementing virtual shifts to have a competitive advantage through 24/7 work, the development of ICT is rapid and unpredictable. This progress will certainly have an impact on the picture drawn yet. Above all the younger generation (“digital natives”) and their entrance to the business world might lead to a total evolution of the field.


5. Recommendations for Practice

Based on the findings from the empirical study as well as on what we know from theory, recommendations for making virtual collaboration more efficient in practice can be formulated:

  • Whenever possible, a face-to-face meeting should be the initial activity in a virtual team. There, business per se should not be the main aim and content but relationship and trust building. If meeting in person is not possible, using “rich” media such as given in videoconferences or web conferences might be supportive as well.
  • In order to maintain and increase commitment, regular face-to-face meetings should be planned. Again, if not possible, meetings via video or web conference in certain periods of time help to strengthen team cohesion and the we-feeling. Its enforcement can be reached via the use of synchronous media (such as chat, audio calls, video conferences or web meetings).
  • As cognitive trust dominates in virtual collaboration, establishing and maintaining it should be an important aim. This is done via sticking to rules such as answering to e-mails within 24 hours, informing the team members about any absence that is longer than 24 hours (e.g. national holiday, being abroad for holiday, business strip without being sure about an Internet connection, etc.), sticking to deadlines, clarifying which aim to fulfill at which point of tie and by whom, etc. These steps also serve to avoid cyberostracism.
  • Other measures to reduce the danger of ignoring or isolating someone is to contact him again in case of no answer, ask questions, show interest, help people with a weaker command of the team language, or support them in the case of technical problems. Furthermore, blaming the other ones for “not answering” or “not contributing” should be avoided as they might have technical problems or misunderstood the question or task. In order to not being ostracized, every team member should look at his own behavior and be aware of unintended ignorance as well – it is not always the fault of the others when someone feels ignored.
  • Possessing “virtual” skills, thus knowing about the use of the technology, knowing how to communicate via the single electronic media, being aware of the pitfalls in virtual communication (such as misunderstandings through missing face-to-face contact, or through having written language only, as well as through cultural differences in meanings) or knowing how to communicate in front of a webcam, is crucial for successful virtual collaboration.
  • In order to avoid cultural misunderstandings, creating awareness and sensitivity at the beginning of the collaboration would be helpful. This might be done via cultural sensitivity trainings and enforced via exchanging culturespecific information amongst the team members.
  • Each and every member should put special emphasis on equality in terms of speaking time, task distribution or information sharing. Supporting each other, showing understanding, and encouraging more silent team members as well as those with poorer language skills, is a good way to make virtual team work efficient.
  • In the case of having a leader, his task is to care about exactly those issues: to formulate team rules and to supervise their use, to ensure that every team member has the chance to express his opinion, to encourage more silent ones to speak up, to spread information to everyone, etc. A special (cultural) sensitivity should help to avoid any processual influences based on diversity. Even better than having a “traditional” team leader would be installing a coordinator or moderator – this function might for sure rotate among the team members.
  • But above all, reaching a common aim, working together effectively, and having a good team atmosphere should be the utmost goal of every team member.

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