As organizations become more dispersed and global, leaders may never meet their employees face-to-face and teammates may never see their peers, making the ability to lead and work in virtual teams a critical 21st-century skill. Unfortunately, too few corporations capitalize on virtual teaming in their learning, leaving employees unprepared for this type of environment.
“Most of corporate online learning is not done in a team environment,” said Robert Ubell, executive director of the Stevens Institute for the Advancement of Online Learning and editor of Virtual Teams, which will be published next year. “Usually it’s a self-learning environment in which an employee gets on the computer and works independently to learn the subject matter. Rarely, if ever, does that activity engage others in the learning process.
“For corporations, virtual teaming in an online learning environment is a relatively new and innovative way of forming the kinds of collegiality that become critical for effective project development, leadership development and other kinds of activities.”
Even though some learning departments have not engaged virtual teams, corporations have adopted it in project management and other activities, Ubell said. Not only would virtual teaming provide for a more active learning experience, but it would prepare employees and mirror the needs of the organization.
“You can use virtual teams to reinforce learning and to give people an opportunity to practice certain kinds of skills like leading a team virtually,” said Richard Reilly, emeritus professor of technology management at Stevens Institute and co-author of Uniting the Virtual Workforce.
“In addition to that, I think there is a kind of learning that takes place when people work together. One of the advantages of virtual teams is you can bring together a wide diversity of expertise. If I’m on a team where other members have expertise I don’t have, I could learn a lot and come out with some enhancement of my own competencies.”
For a virtual team to be effective, there are geographical, operational (how the virtual team communicates) and relational challenges. The most critical of the three are the relational factors, Reilly said.
“If I have worked with you before, I know how competent you are and I trust you. Then, even though we’re far apart, we’re probably going to be able to work together pretty effectively,” he explained. “If I’ve never met you before, maybe you’re from a different culture [or] your communication style is different, [then] it may be tough for me to work with you. In trying to determine whether a virtual team is going to be successful or not, we find that affinity is one of the keys to this, [as] you can overcome a lot of [the] physical and operational barriers.”
As a leader of a virtual team, or even as an instructor in an online environment with virtual teams, shared leadership is critical.
“Everybody on a virtual team becomes a leader,” Reilly said. “When you have a big virtual team where you have clusters of people in different locations, you have to have somebody in each of those locations who can take the lead. That means I have to give up some of my leadership and share it with some of the other people.”
With an online class, shared leadership can make the experience richer as peers learn from each other, and it also teaches employees about the concept so they can then institute it in their virtual teams in the business.
“In an online learning environment, the creation of knowledge comes not just from the instructor — not just from books, but from the interaction among the employees within the group,” Ubell said. “When the students, that is the employees, have the power to provide instruction to their peers then learning becomes an active rather than a passive existence.”