Fostering Virtual Working Relationships Isn't Easy

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jul 1, 2010

Friendships are a natural beneficial byproduct of the workplace, fueled by physical proximity and a shared sense of purpose. But such relationships can be hard to build when co-workers are separated geographically and rarely, if ever, meet face to face.

According to a Randstad Work Watch survey released Feb. 23, 2010, 67 percent of the 1,017 U.S.-based employees interviewed online said that having friends at work makes their job more fun and enjoyable; 55 percent said such relationships make their job more worthwhile and satisfying.

Respondents said there are business-related benefits derived from friendly work environments as well. Half of the respondents to the Randstad survey said workplace friendships increase knowledge sharing and open communication, while 30 percent said they increase productivity and performance.

Managers were more likely than non-managers to count a stronger commitment to the company (40 percent vs. 28 percent) and increased productivity (38 percent vs. 26 percent) among the benefits of workplace friendships. Perhaps that’s why 49 percent of managers told Randstad that they support or encourage the development of friendships in the workplace.

Virtual Friendships Are Hard to Grow

According to a recent report published by intercultural training consultancy RW3 LLC, nearly half (46 percent) of those working on virtual teams—defined as a group of people based in different locations who work on projects together via phone, e-mail and video rather than face-to-face—said they have never met fellow virtual team members, and 30 percent met only once each year.

The report, The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams, is based on data gathered in an April 2010 survey of nearly 30,000 randomly selected employees of multinational corporations. Respondents included 1,592 employees based in 77 countries. By country, the largest groups of respondents came from the U.S. (23 percent) and U.K. (18 percent). The majority (55 percent) of respondents represented organizations with more than 50,000 employees.

The report notes, “Virtual teams face many of the same challenges that all teams face, but language difficulties, timeanddistance challenges, the absence of facetoface contact and, above all, the barriers posed by cultural differences and personal communication styles make virtual work far more complex.”

The top challenge employees experience personally when working on a virtual team is the inability to read nonverbal cues, noted by 94 percent of respondents. Nearly a third of respondents (32 percent) said this is “very challenging.”

Other significant personal challenges include the absence of collegiality, cited by 85 percent, and the difficulties in establishing rapport and trust, noted by 81 percent.

But virtual meetings don’t do much to help; 90 percent of respondents said they have insufficient time to build relationships during virtual team meetings.

“We have found that wherever possible, it is valuable for virtual teams to have periodic facetoface meetings,” the report authors noted. “But even when such meetings are part of a team structure, it is still important for team leaders to be cognizant of these challenges and to leave time during meetings for building rapport and collegiality, which have a significant impact on team trust.”

“There are several ways that the absence of trust manifests itself,” according to the report. “It can be a lack of trust in the perceived competence of team members or a lack of trust in their dedication and commitment to the team. Both of these aspects are often rooted in cultural behaviors and can be addressed effectively by properly structuring communications and by setting aside time for dialogue.”

Other Challenges

Time zones presented the greatest general hurdle to virtual teams—cited by 81 percent of respondents—followed by language (noted by 64 percent), holidays, local laws, and customs (59 percent), and technology (43 percent).

According to RW3, compromise is the key to overcoming a number of virtual team challenges: “For example, it is a good idea to equally distribute the hardship of scheduling meetings on a global clock so that the time zone issue is not borne by one culture alone,” the report noted. “Successful global teams also distribute holiday schedules to each other in advance, and they address language difficulties by following up phone conversations with written communications.”

When asked to compare experiences between virtual teams and face-to-face teams, respondents found virtual teams more challenging in a number of ways: 73 percent of respondents said it was more challenging to manage conflict, 69 percent said it was more challenging to make decisions and 64 percent said it was more challenging to express opinions on a virtual team.

However, some said virtual teams have advantages. For example, 10 percent noted that it is easier to manage conflict on a virtual team than it is a face-to-face team; 14 percent said it is easier to generate innovative ideas virtually.

Respondents shared a number of practices they use to enhance virtual team relationships such as:

  • Hold a virtual lunch each month to build rapport among co-workers.
  • Use online chats, videoconferencing and audioconferencing in addition to one-on-one conversations and e-mail.
  • Post profiles of team members that outline their expertise and how they fit into the overall organization.
  • Be sensitive to the level of engagement team members are likely to deliver if they are asked to meet just as they wake up or at the end of a long day.
  • Ask participants to refrain from multi-tasking during calls.
  • Break through silence by asking each person to describe their thoughts and reactions at a particular moment.

“Companies need to be aware of the influence of culture on work styles and to develop procedures to assure intercultural effectiveness,” Charlene Solomon, executive vice president of RW3 said in a May 24, 2010, statement. “They need to establish specific rules for respectful interaction that are already assumed to exist among members of more conventional, co-located teams where all of the participants are all from the same culture. They also need to pay greater attention to team structure and must carefully monitor and adhere to the work rules they have created,” she added.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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