What Can We Learn from Ten Years of Virtual Team Research?

Topic(s): work environment, work-life balance
Publication: Journal of Management (2015)
Article: Virtual Teams Research 10 Years, 10 Themes, and 10 Opportunities.
Authors: L.L. Gilson, M.T. Maynard, N.C. Jones Young, M. Vartiainen, M. Hakonen
Reviewed by: Lia Engelsted

With over two thirds of global organizations using virtual teams, and that number expected to grow with continuing advances in technology, it is critical for practitioners to know the research on virtual teams. The authors of a new research review (Gilson, Maynard, Jones Young, Vartiainen, & Hakonen, 2015) summarize the last ten years of virtual team research, reviewing approximately 450 articles and focusing on 243 empirical studies. These are their key findings:

VIRTUAL TEAM RESEARCH FINDINGS

Topics receiving a lot of attention in virtual team research include virtual team leadership, trust, team processes, and outcomes for measuring team success. For example, team members were more satisfied and perceived their leader as able to decode messages more effectively when their leader was geographically distant from the team. Virtual team members perceived relationship-oriented leaders as intelligent and creative, while task-oriented leaders were perceived as more authoritarian and confident. Virtual team leadership styles influence the motivation of workers to perform and how a team adapts to challenges.

Trust has a positive influence on virtual teams. Communication practices, responsiveness, knowledge sharing, and feedback all impact the trust within a team. Swift trust, or the kind that quickly forms in short-term relationships, is important to teams that have tight deadlines. Trust is formed through early communication, knowledge sharing, and perceptions of team members’ abilities. Lack of trust in team members and technology can lead to reduced knowledge sharing.

TEAM PROCESSES FOR VIRTUAL TEAMS

There are three types of team processes: action, interpersonal, and transition processes. Action processes include communication, coordination, and knowledge sharing. One study found that as teams become more virtual, action processes like team coordination decline. Interpersonal processes refer to interactions between individuals and research tends to focus on conflict management. Studies have found that geographical dispersion and less motivated workers can lead to conflict. Some of the things that predict team success include efficacy, team commitment, cohesion, team empowerment, and psychological safety. Research is generally lacking on the processes involved in team transition periods.

The outcomes most studied are team effectiveness and team member satisfaction. The research is mixed on the effectiveness of working in virtual teams. One study found that it takes longer for virtual teams to come to a decision. Virtual team members are satisfied as long as teams can manage conflict effectively, have reliable technology, are committed to goals, and demonstrate learning behavior. The mechanisms for enhancing virtual team success include: perceptions of quality and connectedness to the team, early goal formulation, positive social environment, predictable communication patterns, structured procedures, group-based rewards, and training interventions.

OTHER PRACTICAL FINDINGS ON VIRTUAL TEAMS

  • One study found that introverts trust the virtual environment less than extroverts.
  • Teams that heavily rely on technology have reduced perceptions of productivity, which negatively affects team functioning.
  • Negative consequences of collaboration through technology include information delay, increased misunderstandings and miscommunication, and team members seeking less information. The positive outcomes include better adaptability, especially when increasing team size.
  • Cultural diversity, which is when team members come from different countries or backgrounds, can decrease team identification because of language barriers and cultural differences, but may also lead to improvements, as members from collectivistic countries may have more favorable perspectives on team processes.
  • There are cultural differences in technology preferences (e.g. Brazil prefers richer technology like videoconferencing, compared to the United States, who prefer email and chat).
  • Geographical dispersion can form subgroups within a virtual team. Subgroups within a team can negatively influence the effectiveness of teams.

The authors also identified ten areas for future research, such as investigating whether younger generations and familiarity with technology affect virtual teams differently, and keeping pace with new and emerging technologies, such as 3D virtual environments, social media, and various collaboration tools. In conclusion, the research on virtual teams has made sufficient progress over the last decade, however there are still opportunities for further study.

 

Gilson, L. L., Maynard, M. T., Jones Young, N. C., Vartiainen, M., & Hakonen, M. (2015). Virtual Teams Research: 10 Years, 10 Themes, and 10 Opportunities. Journal of Management, 41(5), 1313-1337.