Teams without Borders

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Even in the best of circumstances, nurturing a spirit of teamwork among co-workers is a difficult feat. Conflict, poor communication, different attitudes and perspectives—these are just a few of the myriad issues that can cause a rift among team members. Those difficulties increase in the world of the virtual workforce, where team members often don’t even share the same continent, let alone the same viewpoint.

Thanks to advances in telecommunication and information technologies, it is becoming more and more common for companies to assign worldwide teams to even the most complex projects. Such arrangements can deliver tremendous benefits, allowing businesses to leverage global expertise, tap into lower cost labor pools, localize products and work around the clock. In many cases, however, the opportunities have not been matched by an understanding of how to carry out interdependent work under such conditions. So says Catherine Cramton, associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Management.

Cramton has been studying distributed workforces for 10 years. Her research, she says, has shown that people frequently do not understand the context and situation within which their remote partners work. “There can be differences in the quality, accessibility and features of equipment, dissimilar measurement processes and standards, and differences in the distances people must travel to accomplish tasks. There may be competing responsibilities, different pressures from local supervisors and co-workers and when working across cultures, different holidays and customs. Lack of understanding of local situations and contexts is a barrier to effective teamwork. People often don't understand why their remote collaborators are reacting as they are because they don't understand their collaborators’ situation.”

Managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges of leading a successful virtual team. Without the signs that are telling clues of escalating internal tension—like the angry stare, or the raised voice—leaders can be caught unawares by sudden strife.

“Leaders of distributed teams need to be willing to make open-minded inquiries when early signals of tension appear across locations,” says Cramton. “Assuming things are fine or assuming things will blow over isn't generally a good idea.” Signals of tension aren’t always there. Tensions escalate quickly in distributed situations because of the lack of opportunities for correcting contact. Some conflict is a natural part of distributed work—because of misunderstandings, differences across locations and other factors. So leaders should be ready to work out conflicts quickly and constructively.

Lack of communication also hampers team-building efforts, says Cramton. “Our research has shown that people can be hesitant to call or e-mail someone whom they have not met previously, particularly if it is someone of a different culture. They aren't sure how the person will react to their approach or when it is a good time to call. People sometimes procrastinate and try to get the information they need in some other way. This generally has a negative impact. Work slows down or information is less than complete.”

Diane Danielson, founder and CEO of Website, says that proper communications were critical during the recent development of a proprietary software system. Based in Boston, Danielson worked with a software development team in India and a public relations team in New York for the project. She kept all the team members apprised of the project’s status—but avoided bogging them down with unnecessary communication—by adopting a simple rule: “I cc’d everyone on e-mails,” she says, “but I used "bcc's" when they didn't have to reply and cc's when I thought they should give input or acknowledge they read the email. They knew the code. “ Davidson says that she also made sure to share any good news with everyone. “ I let the tech team know what our pr team is doing and vice versa, so that everyone felt they had a stake in everything.” Danielson says that team members have told her that working on the project was one of the best experiences they had.

While e-mail may be an important part of virtual teamwork, nothing is quite as valuable as good old-fashioned face-to-face communication. “Our research suggests that site visits are very important and useful to furthering collaboration,” says Cramton. “This means something different from a team kick-off meeting in a central location. We think it's really important for collaborators to visit each other's home base, at least once. Site visits provide an opportunity for people to meet face-to-face, if they have not done so before. People tell us they communicate with each other more frequently after a site visit. They also get a better sense of how their colleagues work and what information they need. In addition, site visits allow people to soak up important information about their colleagues' local context and situation. Sometimes a glance around a room can explain more than months of communication across distance.”