Virtual Teams: A Futile Effort

Albert Einstein is attributed with defining insanity as, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

The latest nomination for the Insanity Hall of Fame would have to go to the concept of ‘virtual teams’. As an article in Friday’s Globe & Mail (and originally published in Forbes) points out, not for the first time, virtual teams don’t work. And yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, business continually endeavours to use them.

Humans are social beings. Hence the proliferation of social media; despite varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the actual experience, the immediacy of interaction and the gratification of having tweets favourited and posts liked feeds a need for reward and acknowledgement that exists in all of us. Some may not actually engage in social media, or entirely ‘get’ it, but all of us want to be recognized, appreciated and valued by others.

The problem with virtual teams is, largely, the problem with social media. It isn’t face to face. As social psychologist Albert Mehrabian pointed out in his book ‘Nonverbal Communication’, most of how we communicate is without words. 38% of our message is conveyed by tone of voice, and 55% is through body language; the words we use represent a paltry 7% of our message. Which means, when we communicate through email, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging or one of the myriad other mechanisms available to us, we are essentially robbing ourselves of 93% of our ability to communicate.

Working face to face, in a collaborative and immediate environment, we build relationships and learn to trust those who are working with us. At a distance, those bonds never establish. The lack of immediacy often reinforces and amplifies the sense of isolation, lack of involvement and perceptions of ‘having to pull the weight of others’ that burden dysfunctional teams in real life, even in otherwise functional virtual environments. While a face-to-face environment can be dysfunctional and ineffective, virtual teams rarely have an opportunity not to be dysfunctional, unless opportunities for regular face-to-face interaction are also built in.

So why do organizations persist in attempting to make virtual teams work, despite the evidence to the contrary? Costs, largely. And a perverse belief that if you insist something is possible, then sheer willpower alone can bring it into being. Given the cost of real estate, travel and bringing several people into the same space, it is perceived as cheaper to try to get people to work virtually in their own locations. Sadly, when you run up the costs of reduced productivity, failed communication efforts and unattained goals, those savings are often illusory.

There is nothing quite so productive as a group of people in a room together trying to figure something out. And there is nothing quite so ineffective as a group of people spread out over the ether trying to find a common purpose.

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