Assessing the Quality of Collaboration in Virtual Teams

For those who are interested in virtual team collaboration, the concept of teamwork is crucial. But rarely is “teamwork” actually defined. Just as the adage goes, we know it when we see it, but we may have trouble explicitly saying what makes for good teamwork. This week, Surinder sent me an academic journal article by Martin Hoegl and Hans Georg Gemuenden that has great practical application for defining what good collaboration or teamwork consists of. The authors call their concept “teamwork quality”, and define it in terms of 6 facets. They are:

  1. Communication
  2. Coordination
  3. Balance of member contributions
  4. Mutual support
  5. Effort
  6. Cohesion

The authors found evidence that teamwork quality is related both to team performance (defined by quality and efficiency) and personal success of team members (defined by satisfaction and learning).

This post, based on that article, has two pieces. First, I will briefly define and describe each facet of teamwork quality. This should be useful for people in the field to assess the quality of their virtual teamwork. Second, I will discuss some ways to foster teamwork quality when the team is virtual, something the authors of the article don’t specifically discuss. Please note that the term “teamwork quality” in this article does not include the nature of the team’s task or the quality of interactions with others outside the team — it is only about the processes within a team.

1. Communication: How frequent, informal, direct, and open is your team’s communication?

Generally, more frequent communication is productive, but this should be relative to what is sufficient or necessary for the task. The authors describe informal communication as being more spontaneous. Direct communication happens when people talk to one another rather than relaying information through someone else (e.g., the leader). Open communication means that people feel very comfortable sharing information with one another.

Virtual team recommendations:

  • Communication is one of the real challenges for virtual teams, and one of the ways virtual teams are most different from face to face teams. Virtual team leaders (and members) must make a conscious effort to keep communication flowing, particularly if teams are geographically dispersed.
  • With a little creativity, even informal communication is possible in virtual teams – at IBM, employees have informal communication in a virtual space even when they are not in the same geographic location (read about that here).
  • The guideline about direct communication might need to be tweaked in virtual teams. Though virtual team members should communicate directly, they might need to keep others informed about the communication. Too often, this ends up taking the form of annoying cc’s in email; we discourage that and recommend the use of a discussion board or a blogging tool to not only communicate directly with others but to also keep others informed.
  • Virtual teams must also think about how to optimize the amount of time spent on the task with the amount of time spent capturing and documenting information, and that balance point is very different than in a face to face group.

2. Coordination: Is there harmony among individual contributions to the team task?

The authors talk about how teams have to develop and agree upon a common strategy for accomplishing the goal, including clear sub goals. This can be a challenge, particularly for a complex task.

Virtual team recommendations:

  • A team compact is invaluable towards establishing these guidelines. The compact can always be adjusted if necessary, but its value is in compelling the team to sit down and discuss roles, expectations, and protocols. Both the master plan and specific sub-tasks are laid out in a team compact.
  • After Action Reviews then help the team assess whether those goals are being met, and provide guidance for any changes that might be necessary.

3. Balance of member contributions: Is the expertise of each member being maximized to achieve the task?

Balance of contributions doesn’t mean that each member must have the same number of ideas; it means that as each person’s expertise is needed for the task or project, it is contributed. The authors seem to assume cross-functional teams.

Virtual team recommendations:

  • If team members are unfamiliar with one another, don’t forget to organize a list of “assets” each can offer the project/team. Then team members can elicit expertise and contribution from one another, not just wait for others to step forward.

4. Mutual support: Is there a cooperative mindset within the group?

Research shows that a cooperative, rather than competitive, mindset is useful for tasks in which team members are dependent upon one another. Behaviors of mutual support might include showing respect for one another, willingly assisting other team members, and developing each other’s ideas (as opposed to trying to outdo one another).

Virtual team recommendations:

  • Make sure team members are personalized; that is, they should get to know each other’s personality and professional skills early in the team lifecycle.
  • In a team compact, acceptable behaviors for effort and motivation are laid out, and that might include norms for these supporting behaviors. Having a compact puts structure in place that can help the team deal with any slips in mutual support.
  • Make sure the reward structure doesn’t work against your team. A virtual team leader can help to motivate team members even with intrinsic rewards (reminders of how the project is good for their career, a sense of accomplishment, etc).

5. Effort: What are the norms regarding the level of effort each team member contributes to the task?

The effort norms must be agreed upon by the whole group. One major benefit of shared norms about effort is that it helps to avoid dysfunctional conflict (that which works against team goals).

Virtual team recommendations:

  • A team compact lays out expectations about effort, and often lays out ways of dealing with a member’s lack of effort.
  • Members of a virtual team often can’t see the product of each others’ effort, so there may need to be a system in place that provides clear signs or results of effort expended for others to see. Your organization might have technologies in place to help with this, or you might have to get creative.

6. Cohesion: How much does the team feel connected and like a unit?

The article’s authors talk about three aspects: interpersonal attraction of team members (people like each other), shared commitment to the team task, and team spirit or pride in being part of the team project.

Virtual team recommendations:

  • Many virtual teams have a degree of shared leadership, since members are often of similar hierarchical levels (equals) and they often have specialized knowledge or expertise. Shared leadership often leads to a sense of ownership and commitment on a project.
  • Leaders of virtual teams can also set the stage for cohesion by smoothing out the team process (we talk about how in many other posts) and motivating team members.

RELATED POSTS: Leading in Face-to-Face Versus Virtual Teams, Rethinking the Value of Virtual Worlds for Virtual Team Collaboration, Manipulate Perceptions to Improve Virtual Team Performance, Leading to Increase Commitment in Virtual World Collaboration.

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6 Responses

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  1. Smart, helpful blog re virtual workforce

    […] Assessing the Quality of Collaboration in Virtual Team […]

  2. Bruce Lewin
    Bruce Lewin at |

    Hi there Betsy,

    This post really helped me in researching and writing a piece on collaboration – thank you very much! I’ve tried to ping this post from my own blog, but I’m not sure how reliable pingback/trackback is, so I thought I’d say hello the old fashioned way!

    btw, my piece is called ‘The Tension in Collaboration’ and is online at;

    http://www.fourgroups.com/blog/archives/24/the-tension-in-collaboration/

    Best wishes,

    Bruce

  3. The Tension in Collaboration | Four Groups' Blog

    […] Self managed and virtual teams […]

  4. Collaborative Assessment
    Collaborative Assessment at |

    […] Assessing the Quality of Collaboration in Virtual Teams […]

  5. Collaborative Assessment « e-Learning Expressions

    […] Assessing the Quality of Collaboration in Virtual Teams […]

  6. oche
    oche at |

    I am writing a research paper on influence of social media platforms on performance of virtual team. This is my first research. How can I get standardized questionaire that measures the phenomenon

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