From office neighbours to online collaborators: could becoming a virtual work team be an opportunity disguised as a hardship?
Scientific Newsflash and Courses of Action
Working from home is forcing many work teams to continue their activities online. Working conditions specific to virtual teams—fewer physical and social interactions, less supervision but more autonomy, the use of technology tools for communication, coordination and work—can interfere with the proper functioning and efficacy of online work teams. How can our teams overcome adverse situations in such conditions?
This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke and is supported by the Chief Scientist of Québec, with the Fonds de recherche du Québec.
Patrice Daneau is a PhD student in business administration (DBA) at the School of Management of the Université de Sherbrooke. His research interest focuses on employee roles and behaviours to promote organizational health.
The contents on a purple background are the doctoral student’s recommendations.
Virtual work team
Members of a unit of an organization
- who are pursuing a common organizational goal;
- whose work is performed through the use of information and communication technologies;
- who are physically, geographically and temporally separated from one another.
Adverse situation experienced by a work team
An adverse event (e.g.: a technology, communication or coordination problem, insufficient preparation for a meeting or passiveness or poor contribution by a team member) that gives rise to negative emotions (e.g.: anger, frustration) and that can interfere with the team’s functioning or spirit or its ability to meet set goals and achieve expected results.
The ability of a team to adapt, change and get through an adverse situation while maintaining high performance, strengthening relationships and learning lessons.
ACCORDING TO THE STUDY, WHAT CAN VIRTUAL TEAMS DO TO OVERCOME ADVERSITY?
The resilience of a virtual team can be developed on a daily basis through three action mechanisms:
- promoting inclusion so that every team member feels respected, valued and important in achieving collective success;
- helping to improve the work climate and providing support;
- reflecting on one’s behaviour.
Promoting inclusion so that every team member feels respected, valued and important in achieving collective success 
- From the outset, define objectives that need to be met and establish rules, based on each person’s constraints and context (e.g.: technology used and frequency of use, how to use chat so that it’s not a source of interruption and frustration, managing virtual discussion turn-taking, required response time) rather than leaving the team with undefined expectations.
- Find ways to integrate members who are not as visible (e.g.: begin every videoconference by letting everyone take a turn to talk about their experience and provide a progress report) and acknowledge everyone’s contribution to the team’s success (e.g.: point to the specific contribution of each person in meeting a goal).
- Accept that differences between team members (for example, their level of comfort with technology tools) may sometimes cause tension.
Avoid sidelining a member or creating alliances on the pretext of differences, difficulties or constraints (for example, a member who slows down the meeting because they are having trouble displaying a document).
- Encourage continuous training and skills development (by providing training or coaching, for example) and have more experienced team members act as mentors.
- Ensure that you maintain quality interpersonal relationships despite distances (g.: inquiring about a co-worker, providing support by lending an ear to a co-worker who is experiencing difficulties, expressing appreciation), and give everyone the space they need to express themselves and stand out (e.g.: giving up one’s turn to speak to let a teammate share their idea, reframing a co-worker’s idea to make it clearer for the others).
- Identify your difficulties (family situation, for example), the resources you need (e.g.: time, specific support to perform a task, coaching), and aspects that you would like to develop (such as technological skills).
- Acknowledge the adverse situation that is being experienced and identify the negative emotion that you are feeling. Express what you are feeling so that you can make a positive impact, by choosing the most appropriate method of communication (for example, by making a video call instead of writing an e-mail, which could be misinterpreted).
- Be empathetic and listen without passing judgment to understand and recognize the emotions, ideas, intentions and viewpoints expressed by the other team members.
- Frame the situation in a different way (e.g.: a co-worker who fails to attend a meeting without prior warning), giving it a more nuanced meaning and sharing a more subtle understanding (rather than focusing on how it will delay your own work, for example), taking into consideration the positive or satisfactory aspects of the situation with respect to meeting goals and reaffirming your trust in the team (e.g.: this team member has tried very hard to balance work and their situation, and the meeting can be postponed so that they can be fully present and prepared; we have time and their contribution is valuable).
- Inquire about the emotional state of team members on a regular basis (e.g.: how is telework going so far?) and pay attention to early warning signs of potential problems (such as a significant delay in responding to e-mails).
- Identify and state your needs and concerns and develop solutions.
Reflecting on one’s behaviour
- Take time to think so that you can assess the needs of the situation (e.g.: task interdependence requires that I adjust to my co-worker) and examine the impact of your actions.
- Observe yourself and think about how you react and behave in adverse situations (am I really the manager or teammate that I would like to be?).
- Let the dust settle on adverse events and choose the right time (e.g.: wait until the beginning of the next meeting rather than solving disagreements in the heat of the moment) to conduct a team review of the issues and evaluate what you’ve learned (how could the meeting be managed more effectively?)
- Look for ways to capitalize on your strengths during a difficult situation (for example, you can offer to support a less experienced teammate) and refrain from moaning about the constraints imposed by the situation (e.g.: a co-worker’s issues not allowing you to achieve the expected outcome).
- Understand the needs of the team (by reassessing the distribution of tasks among team members, for example) and identify resources that can be mobilized (e.g.: analyze each team member’s interests and strengths for a fairer, more efficient distribution of tasks).
- Have a fair and realistic view of your skills and influence within the team and think of a way to contribute to help overcome adversity (by, for example, writing a remote connection guide for team members who are less comfortable with collaboration platforms).
- Be proactive (for example, by providing advance notice of your constraints) and devote more effort to making yourself visible and available to make up for physical distances (by conducting regular follow-ups, for example).
TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC NEWSFLASH
Daneau, P. (2020). From office neighbours to online collaborators: could becoming a virtual work team be an opportunity disguised as a hardship? Global-Watch Scientific Newsflash, available at www.global-watch.com
Flash written under the direction of France St-Hilaire, associate professor of Human Resources at the Université de Sherbrooke’s School of Management.
TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLES BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDIES
Degbey, W.Y. & Einola, K. (2020), Resilience in virtual teams: Developing the capacity to bounce back. Applied Psychology. Online First Publication. doi:10.1111/apps.12220.
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 Definitions adapted from Degbey and Einola (2019)
 Including all the members of a team contributes to its synergy and allows it to adapt to adversity and emerge stronger, while exclusion weakens a team and restricts its growth potential.
 Cultivating a positive emotional state (by expressing gratitude or optimism, for example) stimulates the resilience process (e.g.: enhances reflection, creativity, problem solving, team spirit, relationship quality and synergy) while a negative emotional state (such as anger or hostility) hinders the resilience process (e.g.: team members are less attentive, less prepared to do the right thing at the right time and find an appropriate solution, deterioration of interpersonal relationships).