Remote Possibilities: Virtual Teams Enhance Group Dynamics and Boost Productivity

by Dr. Michael Wolter, Program Director, Management and Leadership

Creating environments where individuals work remotely allows leaders to develop a competitive advantage and the organization to consistently reinvent itself, creating a diverse workforce in the process. The challenge for leaders of these organizations is not finding technological resources to support these environments, but training supervisors to effectively manage and motivate across the digital divide.

To remain competitive in a globalized market and increase their adaptability to changing 21st-century conditions, organizations are making strong strides in implementing technological structures to support virtual teams. Wakefield, Leidner, and Garrison (2008) shared that to provide 24/7 customer support, organizations are utilizing virtual employees, dispersed across multiple geographic locations but reporting to a single manager. These virtual team members use technology-mediated methods to maintain communication, and can interact synchronously and asynchronously.

This allows organizations to recruit talent on a global scale; provide flexibility within the organization; increase production through work accomplished outside of “normal” work hours; access a globalized work environment; realize cost savings on physical resources and travel; and offer better support for disabled employees.

For years, businesses have been revamping their organizational cultures and structures to integrate virtual employees on various levels of “remoteness” (Staples & Zhao, 2006) Individuals who work virtually rely heavily on technology in the absence of face-to-face communication. And while technology facilitates the collaborative efforts of virtual employees to achieve organizational goals, it does not fully replace in-person interactions.

Virtual teams share a number of common challenges: limited face-to-face interaction; geographically dispersed team members; and operating in a spectrum of time zones and cultures. Unlike with initiatives designed for on-ground employees, leaders of virtual employees need specialized skills for engaging their staff, optimizing processes, maximizing technology, and successfully using environments to foster productivity.

Virtual team leaders depend on interactive, interpersonal communication technologies. Given the seemingly infinite amount of technologies available, managers must decide which are right for their organizations.

Technology-based communication tools that support virtual teams range from basic web-based applications to complex integrated client–server setups. Yildiz (2008) stated such tools enable virtual employees to share information in real time on a global scale. In addition to videoconferencing, telecommunications, and instant messaging, other technological resources available to virtual employees include Office 365, wikis, Google Drive, and Open Office. Webster and Staples (2006) determined that these resources empower organizational leaders to increase the hiring of virtual employees and facilitate incorporating teams into organizational cultures. The authors shared that this can increase staffing numbers while maintaining overhead costs.

To achieve institutional goals, supervisors of virtual employees must ensure that staff members are trained to operate the technology and to replicate the results of face-to-face interaction through digital media. The levels of knowledge, empowerment, interpersonal communication, and collaboration have been greatly influenced by the use of technology employed within organizations (Hunsaker & Hunsaker, 2008).

Nonverbal cues are a critical factor in face-to-face interactions among employees. Until recent years, face-to-face interaction among virtual employees was somewhat limited. Supervisors were responsible for providing strong communication environments, regardless of the location of their employees. Supervisors of virtual teams are entrusted to develop positive relationships in additional to creating a solid framework for processes, goal achievement, and developmental feedback.

To be successful, supervisors of virtual employees must direct operational goals effectively. Research has shown that virtual employees who are provided with well-defined objectives are more motivated to achieve these goals (Locke & Latham, 2006). Technological advancements have required organizations to vigilantly provide continuous training to keep virtual employees up to date on technological changes.  A lack of appropriate training can hinder the achievement of organizational objectives.

Organizations must take advantage of opportunities afforded to them from educational institutions through degree, certificate, and continuing education programs. They must attract staff with skills in technology and virtual communication. Part of this process can be incorporated into talent acquisition through virtual interviews, enabling recruiters to eliminate candidates who are not well versed in current technology.

Current employees need to accept that virtual teams are becoming the norm, not the exception. Organizational leaders must find ways to create and maintain cultures of professional development that support the skills and technology needed to be successful in using virtual employees. Organizations can develop mentoring relationships between seasoned employees and younger —more technologically savvy — ones. Veteran staff members can share their hard-won experience, while younger employees can share their skills on incorporating technology into everyday interactions.

The learning curve in understanding technology and virtual teams can be daunting at first, but the benefits greatly outweigh the initial challenges. Virtual employees can enjoy more flexibility during their working hours. Employers can recruit highly skilled experts from outside of their local geographic locations. Virtual teams, once accepted into the organizational culture, enhance internal communication, promote higher level skills among employees, and create stronger foundations for effective organizational communities.

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Dr. Michael Wolter has worked in the corporate, retail, non-profit, social services, and education sectors throughout his occupational career. His experience in higher education started in residence life, and he transitioned into career services after a few years. After starting his doctorate, Michael became a faculty member at Goodwin College and has not looked back. Michael is passionate about working with adult learners and strives to develop a learning environment that fosters growth for the student as a whole, not just academically. Michael specializes in fostering a mentoring environment in the classroom and with his advisees. He is also a strong advocate for incorporating technology into the classroom to provide a flexible, interactive learning environment for students balancing work, family, and their educational journey. Michael loves his position and opportunity to be a member of the Goodwin College Community.