Communication Challenges in Global Virtual Teams

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The purpose of this research is to identify the relationships between the global virtual team (GVT) and the elements of its encompassing organization using the lens of the GVT leadership. These relationships are often displayed most clearly through the identification and treatment of challenges within the organization. In this research, communication challenges will be identified as a basis of identifying actions. Identifying the actions of effective GVTs leaders and mapping those actions to the appropriate entity in the organization may provide a better understanding of how virtual teams function and are integrated within a global enterprise. This information can then be used to improve the effectiveness of global virtual teams as they become an ever more integral part of the business world. 

To realize this purpose, the literature regarding virtual team leadership was searched for findings relevant to this purpose, a set of evidence-based leadership actions and attributes was compiled and those findings were examined using the analysis framework discussed below. The literature searched peer-reviewed academic journal databases in the areas of project management, information technology and systems, general business management and international business. However, because this research also has an application aspect, the literature searched included case studies, industry reports, books, and industry periodicals. The relevant search terms used were: virtual or distributed or global or dispersed and leadership and teams or groups.

The framework developed to analyze the literature search findings on global virtual team leadership actions and attributes reflect the research paradigm of viewing how global virtual teams function within the organization through the lens of the team leadership.  This framework provides a model for evaluating the actions of effective virtual team leaders and determining where those actions need to be directed within the organization. Leadership actions may be directed upwards toward management, laterally towards the entire team or towards other organizational elements or towards a specific individual.

Viewing their actions through this framework can help inform global virtual team leaders of the possible directions and interfaces their actions and their team’s activities touch within the organization. For example, if a GVT leader recognizes a lack of proficiency in a team member’s ability to use the necessary computer and information technology (CIT) tools such as adopting software-defined networks, they might request training support from a support element in the organization. If a GVT leader recognizes a lack of sufficient CIT tools, their action might be directed towards management in requesting additional resources. This framework can give the GVT leader advance knowledge of interfaces and dependencies that may impact his team’s performance. An effective GVT leader can take advantage of this knowledge and proactively address these interfaces and dependencies are addressed before they negatively his team’s performance. In addition to benefiting the GVT leaders, this framework may also benefit the larger organization by explicitly identifying interfaces and thus the degree of integration between the virtual team(s) and the organization. A CIT support team located at corporate headquarters may not be aware of the extent of the services needed by the virtual teams they are supporting. Training programs may have been developed based on the assumption that employees can easily attend face-to-face meetings at one location. In the context of GVTs, training programs need to be designed for remote delivery to sites dispersed around the globe. An effective GVT leader’s actions can help communicate these needs and improve the larger organizational environment in which GVTs work.

The findings extracted from the literature search are summarized and categorized in the following subsections:    

Sufficient resources. Effective GVT leaders need to ensure they have sufficient resources, either direct budgets or authorization for support services. A lack of sufficient resources can cause the GVT to feel isolated and unprepared for their assigned tasks. Additionally, it will lead to an inefficient allocation of human resources; a GVT can not work to its full capacity without the needed resources. For example, periodic face-to-face (F2F) meetings, especially at the start of a GVT’s existence, have proven to be important for team communication and cohesion (Kayworth & Leidner, 2001, pp. 26-30). It is the leader’s responsibility to obtain sufficient travel budget to allow these F2F meetings to occur. An example of a resource request may be authorization from senior management for the GVT leader to expect support from the firm’s communication and information technology (CIT) department for CIT resources such as collaboration tools, server space or videoconference facilities. It is the leader’s responsibility to assess the overall CIT needs of their team and request these resources to their entire team has access to the same CIT resources regardless of their physical location. 

Part of being prepared with sufficient resources is being aware of what resources would be most helpful to your global virtual team. The best way to accomplish this is through consistent attention and feedback. A GVT leader needs to create an open environment where GVT team members feel they can voice concerns. Being able to maintain open communication on an individual basis will also enable the F2F meetings to be more focused and effective. Tiem won’t be wasted clearing up issues of needed resources. Instead, it will be spent addressing ongoing business concerns and program status. 

Linkage to the firm’s goals and mission. Leaders of GVTs need to establish a linkage between their team’s purpose and the goals and vision of the larger organization (Kayworth & Leidner, 2000). By their nature, GVTs are likely to be distributed across organizational boundaries as well as national boundaries. The management of regional divisions may not even realize one or more of their staff is a member of a GVT being run out of the corporate headquarters or vice versa. The GVT leader is responsible to effectively communicate the importance of their team’s purpose to management at regional and corporate headquarters by linking their team’s contributions to the larger organization goals and mission. Doing so will prevent individual team members from feeling detached from the rest of the team and the corporation. Actively working towards a common goal will generate more focused and efficient work. 

Team legitimacy.  Similar to linking the GVT’s purpose to the firm’s goals and mission is the issue of legitimacy. The difference being the legitimacy sought is in the eyes of their peers and other departments within the firm to improve the level of support afforded to their team. While a degree of legitimacy can be earned over time through demonstration of capability, legitimacy can be gained more quickly when senior management publicly communicates the importance of the GVT (Snow, Snell, Davison, & Hambrick, 1996, p. 54). It is the responsibility of the GVT leader to ensure this type of pronouncement is made and to maximize the amount of legitimacy conveyed. This will be highly visible when there are meetings involving both members of the GVT and the office. A team that lacks legitimacy will be aware of others’ views when attending meetings, trainings, or other corporate events. This may lead to low morale and a feeling of disconnect from the overall mission. 

Intra-Organization Elements. Sometimes, the actions and attributes of GVT leaders are appropriately directed to other elements within the larger organization such as computer and information technology (CIT) support or human resources or specialized laboratories and research departments. These are summarized below.

Training support. At the point in time where a new GVT is formed or there is a change in the leadership, the team leader should assess the skill levels of the team members. Following this assessment, the leader’s action should be directed toward the support organizations within the firm who can either provide directly or coordinate for delivery of the required training. This is also true when new members are added to an existing GVT. 

Knowledge management. Access to a company’s knowledge can provide a powerful boost to a team’s ability to achieve its purpose and goals. If a company has a formal knowledge management program, an effective GVT leader will ensure all members of their team have access to this knowledge. If a company’s institutional knowledge is dispersed among individuals or departments, the team leader needs to take action and communicate the needs of his team to the appropriate sources of this knowledge. Additionally, the GVT leader will follow up to ensure these resources are made available to the GVT in a timely manner. The longer a GVT goes without the company knowledge needed to complete a task, the less efficient the GVT will be at accomplishing their goals. 

Communication and information technology. Similar to training, a GVT leader needs to assess the CIT tools available to her team. GVTs rely on CIT tools to stay in constant communication with their corporate office and GVT leader. Without the proper resources, the GVT may lose focus, misinterpret a task or goal, or become disillusioned with the corporation. The success of a GVT is often related to the quality and array of available CIT tools. In particular, the level of richness provided by the communication media tools impacts the ability of the leader and team to establish interpersonal bonds (Snow et al., 1996). The leader’s action needs to be directed at the CIT departments supporting staff at each location of the GVT. To the extent possible, the leader should ensure all team member sites had the same level of CIT tools.

Regular feedback. Working in a global virtual environment offers leaders fewer ways to express their authority and consequently it can be ignored or discounted with less risk to an individual’s job security. One way effective global virtual team leaders can overcome this is by providing frequent feedback on a team and individual basis to keep the team moving forward towards completing its assignment (Huang, Kahai, & Jestice, 2010). However, the feedback must be substantial and regular to be effective. Even positive feedback needs some elaboration beyond just ‘Good work!’ Regularly scheduled meetings should be scheduled and maintained. This may be as simple as a weekly phone call to check in on the status of the task and to offer verbal support and feedback.

Team empowerment. Two different teams of researchers found empowerment was positively related to two aspects of virtual team performance: process improvement and customer satisfaction (S. L. Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999; Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk, & McPherson, 2002, pp. 806-809). This relationship was found to be even more significant for virtual teams than for collocated teams. Bell and Kozlowski (2004) also discussed the importance of distributing aspects of leadership to the team itself. Since global virtual team members are often chosen based on their expertise, competency and possibly prior virtual work experience, it is reasonable to expect they are capable of performing their work with less direction. Effective GVT leaders actions should provide clear direction and specific goals but then allow the team to self-regulate its performance (2002) unless its performance suggests otherwise.

Start with trust. Trust is a commonly referenced factor that impacts a group’s ability to work effectively and maintain cohesion, thus it is not surprising that trust is also important in virtual teams (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002, p. 26). Generally speaking, the ways in which leaders communicate with their teams have a significant impact on the amount of trust created in the team (Dirks, 1999; Sundstrom, de Meuse, & Futrell, 1990, p. 128).  The leader sets the overall tone for trust within a team. If the leader displays a distrustful attitude towards the team, it is unlikely positive trust will be created. Actions such as complaining publicly about individuals’ performance or the team’s communication habits, making negative comparisons to other teams’ performance and sending complaints about the team’s performance to the higher-level managers all serve to create a negative trust situation (Malhotra, Majchrzak, & Rosen, 2007, p. 61).

Positive communications. Leaders who maintain a positive tone in their communications were found to have more effective teams (S. Jarvenpaa, Knoll, K., Leidner, D., 1998, p. 60). This included using private communications when informing a team member of something that needed correction or using reminders rather than threats when prompting someone of the due date for a coming deliverable. Although this can also be applied to team members working within an office setting, it is particularly important with GVT team members. Maintaining a positive connection with the GVT will enable leaders to place high levels of trust that the required tasks will be completely at the needed level of quality and within the needed time frame. 

Structured work environment. A technique used by GVT leaders to establish trust is creating a structured work environment where expectations are made explicit and communication norms are established. Effective leaders must also ensure there are no breaches of confidentiality outside the team. It is more difficult to control access to team communications in a global virtual environment than when the team works together in the same building (S. Jarvenpaa, Knoll, K., Leidner, D., 1998, p. 6). Without a structured work environment, it may be easy for a GVT team member to fall behind on tasks or lose focus on the end goal. 

Shared sacrifice. Lastly, effective GVT leaders ensure the “pain” caused by the distribution of time zones when real-time team communications such as teleconferences or videoconferences are shared equally. The start time of team meetings should be rotated so that all the team members experience the “pain” of attending a teleconference or videoconference at 3 am (S. L. Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999, p. 809). Without the shared sacrifice, those members that are routinely getting the disadvantaged time will become discontent with the situation. This may lead to a number of negative consequences, including disillusionment, inefficiency, and hostility. 

Team socialization norms. In traditional teams, newcomers learn about team socialization norms and group dynamics through passive observation. Team values, hierarchy, experts, expectations and standards are some aspects of team norms important to effective team performance (Kayworth & Leidner, 2001). Leaders of effective global virtual teams assume a responsibility to ensure newcomers are socialized into the existing team.  Effective leaders ensure this socialization occurs by explicitly communicating team norms. One way this can be achieved is by ensuring the newcomer is on the distribution list for email communications. In this way, newcomers can passively read and interpret the communication flow from the decision-makers and the experts. Effective leaders can also function as a mentor with a newcomer or ensure someone on the team takes responsibility. Lastly, global virtual team leaders should ensure a simple online database is created that contains team members’ information, possibly their resumes and a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to explicitly communicate some of the team socialization norms that promote positive virtual team performance (Duckworth, 2008; Montoya-Weiss et al., 2001, pp. 1257-1259).

Explicit roles and responsibilities. Effective GVT leaders must also actively and explicitly define the roles and responsibilities of each team member. Agreement on the final definitions should be arrived at jointly with the team, however, it is the action of the leader that initiates, completes and ensures compliance (Zigurs, 2003, pp. 345-346). Without explicitly defined roles, members of the GVT may misinterpret their placement within the team. This may lead to confusion and avoidable hostility. 

Global virtual teams have the potential to transform and create value in organizations that choose to implement in a thoughtful and holistic manner. GVTs are a unique organizational structure that has the ability to harness resources from across a global enterprise when needed and quickly disburse and reassemble those resources to other tasks and projects. This capability increases a firm’s agility and responsiveness when competing in the dynamic global marketplace. More business is moving to the GVT model because of the clear benefits of the arrangement. Without allowing team members to work remotely, a company may be missing out on the best possible person for the task at hand. Additionally, due to move businesses moving to this model, it is becoming a point of competitiveness. In order to stay competitive in the global market, companies need to work harder to get the best possible people on their team. 

Global organizations that choose to use virtual teams need to be aware of the extent of integration and support required from the larger organization. These are a wide range of communication challenges that can arise with a GVT that may not normally be experienced with an office team. This is due to the nature of a GVT. Being remote naturally puts individuals at a disadvantage because they do not benefit from the teamwork feel that most corporations try to develop and maintain within the office. A GVT leader needs to be aware of all the possible communication problems in order to address them before they become problems. It is the responsibility of the GVT leader to inform and educate senior management, other elements within the organization and their own team members about the unique requirements required for these teams to perform effectively. It is this breadth of organizational distance their actions must span that differentiates GVT leaders from traditional team leaders.

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