Do Virtual Teams Work? Study Finds Widespread Challenges

Global teams that work together virtually face challenges that can reduce their productivity, according to a new study.
Global teams that work together virtually face challenges that can reduce their productivity, according to a new study.

It's no surprise that an increasing number of companies are conducting business abroad, using phone calls, email and video-conferencing technologies to communicate. But even with virtual "face-to-face" contact, it turns out that physical absence still brings significant challenges, according to a new study from RW3 CultureWizard, a New York-based consulting firm specializing in intercultural training.

According to the report, which is titled "The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams" and is scheduled for release Wednesday at the American Society for Training & Development conference in Chicago, factors such as language difficulties, distance, time-zone differences, cultural differences and personal communication styles all combine to make virtual work more complicated.

As the trend of virtual teams spreads, it could be reducing the effectiveness of the global workforce. After all, communication problems reduce productivity, says Charlene Solomon, executive vice president of RW3 and co-author of the report. And, as she puts it: "The challenge of communicating is exponentially more difficult when you remove the ability to see someone."

Virtual Trouble

How bad is it? Only 60% of the 1,592 respondents who filled out the survey, which RW2 sent to more than 28,000 randomly selected employees of multinational corporations around the world, considered their teams to be successful or very successful. That stunned Michael Schell, chief executive of RW3 and co-author of the report. "There is no place in the business world where 60% is good enough," he says.

RW3 has seen some of the problems firsthand in its consulting role. In one instance, senior leaders at a large global firm were so uncomfortable leading teams virtually that they avoided calling meetings, Soloman says.

Virtual teams face challenges such as insufficient time to build relationships, as well as problems with the speed and method of decision making, different leadership styles and colleagues who don't participate, according to the survey. All this makes conflict management, decision making, expressing opinions, delivering quality output and generating innovative ideas more difficult, according to the report.

The most commonly cited personal obstacle to working effectively in a virtual workplace, with 94% of respondents agreeing, is the inability to read nonverbal cues. The absence of collegiality, difficulty establishing rapport and trust and a sense of isolation were also high on the list. And different time zones, languages, local laws and customs and technology problems don't help either.

RW3 Suggests Training

In spite of the challenges, the reliance on virtual teams is only likely to grow, according to Dennis Garritan, managing director of private equity firm Palmer Hill Capital.

Not surprisingly, RW3, which specializes in online training, suggests that training and support could help solve some of these problems and improve global collaboration. The company plans to release a new virtual-teams tool later this week as part of its e-learning programs. "I'm convinced that barriers that impede work can be overcome," Soloman says.

One suggestion is that teams working across different time zones rotate the times of their virtual meetings so that the same group isn't always inconvenienced, Schell explains. That could help reduce the 81% of survey participants that consider the different time zones a major hurdle.

Responses from the Field

But not everyone agrees with all of the survey's conclusions. While Garritan calls the report's finding that human behavior still drives workplace success "oddly satisfying," he says virtual technology might actually help people communicate in some cases.

As people try to do business across different cultures, misreading face-to-face cues during in-person meetings can be "deadly," he says. A former colleague lost an account because of such a misreading, he adds, claiming that a virtual meeting would have avoided that problem. He thinks that younger and future generations will be much more comfortable using virtual technology.

Meanwhile, Brooks Holtom, an associate professor of management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, says the study would have been enhanced by comparison with groups that work in the same location, and by more information about the respondents, such as their positions or level of training. (In response, Solomon says the research, which indeed didn't include a control group, was never intended to be an academic study.)

Despite some concerns about the research, however, Holtom says the findings are "all completely plausible" and the recommendations have merit. "Given the increase in the use of virtual teams worldwide, there is a definite need in the marketplace for this type of training," he says.