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3 Tips for Working in Virtual Teams

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — With more companies conducting business globally, communicating electronically is a necessity for most, but there are several guidelines that can help when working on projects via e-mail or the Internet, says a Purdue University expert.

Michael Beyerlein, a professor and head of the Department of Organizational Leadership and Supervision, says nearly all companies and organizations use “virtual teams,” which he defines as groups that are working together to achieve a goal, but infrequently or never meet in person and instead rely on electronic communication, such as e-mail or videoconferencing.

“The idea of virtual teams has been studied for the last dozen years or so, so it’s a fairly new concept, but one that affects nearly every worker,” he says. “Expertise is spread out around the globe. To complete a project, you have to go where the people are, and it’s impossible to spend the time and money to bring everyone physically together.

“The alternative is to work in virtual teams, and the key is to be aware of their limitations in order to conduct productive interactions and successful projects.”

Beyerlein is one of the editors of “The Handbook of High Performance Virtual Teams:
A Toolkit for Collaborating Across Boundaries,” published in April by John Wiley & Sons. Other editors are Jill Nemiro, Lori Bradley and Susan Beyerlein.

Beyerlein says one of the largest drawbacks to working virtually is the lack of human interaction.

“Nonverbal signals, such as eye contact, are huge,” he says. “Researchers have estimated that about 90 percent of our communication is nonverbal, so obviously working electronically can create obstacles within a team. However, many of the basic meeting management guidelines can help workers get the most out of their virtual team experience.”

Beyerlein offers tips for those working in a virtual team:

  • If possible, conduct the first team meeting in person. “It gives the group a chance to get to know who they will be working with and establish goals and norms for the project,” he says.
  • Use meeting facilitators. Beyerlein says each group should have a leader who makes sure everyone on the team has a chance to be heard, helps the group stay on topic and makes sure any technical problems are solved immediately.
  • Celebrate the successes virtually. Beyerlein says just as in-person teams celebrate the completion of a project, so should virtual teams. “Send congratulatory e-mails, glue pictures of your team to your computer, or if you can, get together and go out to a restaurant. If you’re working with people from Thailand, for instance, choose a Thai restaurant to recognize and celebrate part of your team’s culture. These are little things, but they can go a long way.”

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