Business School Topics
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The days of old-fashioned face-to-face communication are all but gone. Instead, today's work environments are characterised by virtual teams, says Winthrop Professor Cristina Gibson, from The University of Western Australia Business School.
Professor Gibson has undertaken numerous studies into cross-cultural and virtual teams, and explains that virtual teams can operate on many levels. ‘It is helpful to use the concept of degrees of virtuality, and place teams on a continuum based on how electronically dependant and geographically dispersed they are,' she says.
‘In the last five to six years, teams that are at the really low end of the continuum, where team members are always in the same room and communicating face-to-face, have become almost extinct. Pretty much every situation in which a team would be used at all - mining, healthcare, retail, pharmaceutical, automotive - is now to some degree virtual.'
Professor Gibson arrived at UWA this year from the University of California, Irvine, enticed by the opportunity to work in Western Australia's unique organisational environment. The extreme distances and Perth's remote location, says Professor Gibson, make the situation ‘similar to the work that I've been doing on virtual teams to date, but on steroids.'
One example of this is her latest project: a collaboration with mining and energy firms to help improve their relationships with indigenous communities. The mining sector is highly virtual, with its workers spread throughout capital cities and remote locations. As such, they, like all virtual teams, face the challenge of maintaining effective communication climates.
An open and safe communication climate is the key to a successful team, says Professor Gibson. If team members can share ideas without fear of ridicule or hostility, they will be more likely to function productively.
According to Professor Gibson, laterality - a cross-cultural communication skill - is crucial when building this safe communication climate. Professor Gibson explains that laterality is ‘communicating across boundaries effectively. It is the ability to take on the perspective of another individual and communicate in a way that resonates with them so that they're really going to hear what you're saying.'
Professor Gibson will be hoping to discover techniques to improve the cross-cultural communication climates in mining and energy firms as she begins work with them. Improved communication, she expects, should then allow the workers to establish more empathetic and productive relationships when working on virtual teams, particularly alongside indigenous communities.
Of course, virtual teams also face other challenges. According to Professor Gibson, ‘A common mistake is when organisations make big investments in advanced technology and people don't use it. This could be because it's not reliable or needs further development, or because employees lack access.
‘For example, if I'm collaborating with researchers from other universities, we can't use video conferencing unless every university has that capacity. Technology isn't consistent across the globe, and what happens is that we end up reverting back to more simple technologies such as conference calls and email.'
Professor Gibson's own experiences have inevitably informed her research into virtual teams. ‘Every project I've ever worked on for the last 20 years has had elements of virtual work,' she acknowledges. ‘That's even more so now that I've moved to Perth,' she says with a smile. ‘The same problems that I face, I study.'
Facing these problems has become easier, with Professor Gibson putting her research into practice by modifying her own behaviour. ‘One of the things I try to do is take a few minutes in the majority of my correspondence to be a bit more social, checking in with my colleagues on a personal level, even if it can be difficult when we are in a rush,' she says. ‘And it seems counterintuitive, but I take the opportunity to meet colleagues face-to-face whenever I can. Having a meal together and talking about family or life - those kinds of human connections are important.'
The rationale behind this has been informed by another mistake that Professor Gibson sees both employers and employees commonly making - not paying enough attention to the social side of their work.
‘When you communicate electronically at work you tend to be very task-oriented,' she explains. ‘Taking the time to use a greeting or closing can seem like too much work, but it adds personal flair, warmth, social interaction - all the things that you get in face-to-face communication. That creates a very different sort of environment in the team.
‘Just gathering together the right people and throwing technology at them is not the way to go about it. You need to enable them to help themselves through effective social and psychological processes.'
For leaders of virtual teams, Professor Gibson has several suggestions. ‘Good leaders should select the right team members, be mindful about their technology choices (making sure they're what the team really needs and wants), make the team's objectives clear, facilitate healthy social processes, and help the team to learn from their successes and failures,' she says.
If leaders can put these practices into place, Professor Gibson is optimistic about the future of virtual teams. There is growing research on the topic, much of which is coming from UWA.
‘David Day works in the area of leadership, and Sharon Parker is looking at proactive behaviour,' Professor Gibson enthuses. ‘When you combine that with my research on teams, you have a real synergy. We each contribute something relatively unique.
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