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 Virtual Teams: Challenges and Opportunities

by Stephany Schings Below, Communications Manager

SIOP Member Discusses the Pros and Cons of Virtual Teamwork at LEC 

As more organizations rely on teams that span different states, countries, and time zones, virtual teams can help them accomplish tasks they may never have been able to accomplish face to face.
At this year’s Leading Edge Consortium, SIOP member and LEC speaker Debra Cohen will discuss the challenges and opportunities of virtual teams and demonstrate through application the strategies companies should use to ensure their virtual teams are successful.
“Virtual teams are used for efficiency as well as financial purposes,” Cohen explained. “Because what you are able to do with a virtual team is pull together expertise from a lot of people. You ask for a small amount of their time, so they get enrichment, and they are involved in something that is important. It gives them credibility in their field, and it gives them something to be proud of, and then we get their expertise but we don’t have to worry about hiring a bunch of people on staff; we are able to organize and use that information for the good of the profession.”
Cohen, chief knowledge development and integration officer for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), oversees some of the Society’s virtual teams. She is responsible for the Society’s Knowledge Development and Integration Division, which includes the SHRM Knowledge Center, the Research Department, Academic Initiatives, and HR Standards. 

Cohen’s session at the LEC will cover what is currently known about the effectiveness of virtual teams and will highlight some of the common challenges and barriers to success. The session will also cover what is known about the positive impact of virtual teams. 
“I think this is a way to supplement what we have and in some cases replace it,” Cohen said. “Some face-to-face teams will never go away, but if you have a problem to solve very quickly, you can pull together a virtual team much more quickly than you can pull together a face-to-face team. If I want a face-to-face meeting, it can take sometimes 3 weeks to set something up with people being out of the office or having meetings and things going on.”
It’s important for organizations to discuss virtual teams as they become more important to business, Cohen explained.
“I think it’s a reality that people are using virtual teams more just in the course of doing business,” she said. “The examples that I am going to give are very formal teams, but there are also informal teams within businesses. I think it’s a business necessity, but I also think there are a lot of advantages. It’s not just a business necessity, it actually enhances the product.”
During her session, Cohen will focus on two real examples from her work at SHRM: one around creating an assurance of learning assessment exam for students graduating in the HR space and another consisting of virtual taskforces used for creating HR standards for the profession. These virtual taskforces needed to be open so many people could contribute, she said, making the virtual team framework ideal.
“One of the things SHRM relies on is our volunteers, and as a nonprofit association just like SIOP, we cannot do everything that we want to do on just the staff members alone,” Cohen explained. “We are a pretty large organization, but not all of our employees have the subject-matter expertise or, more importantly, the time to do this. So we have to rely on subject-matter experts across the country and the world to do this. And virtual teams are really the only way to do this from a financial standpoint and to get the expertise that you want to be credible.”
From her experiences at SHRM, Cohen will then discuss the advantages and challenges of virtual teams. One advantage, she said, is that virtual teams are green.
“There’s less travel, there’s less paper, there’s less worry about time differences,” Cohen explained. “Plus some of these task forces have 60 people, and you couldn’t effectively get 60 people in the room, not to mention travel expenses, food, and lodging.”
Virtual teams can also add to the quality of discussion and encourage those who may have not contributed in face-to-face teams.
“I think when you are on a conference call with a group of people who you don’t know and you are a person who is perhaps more shy or concerned about expressing your views, you may actually feel more empowered to make a comment in a setting like that,” Cohen said.
However, she added, this can also work against you. It is important for organizations considering developing virtual teams to know the potential problems and drawbacks.
“It can also work in the opposite way,” she said. “When you are on the phone, you can kind of hide. People multitask all the time when they are on conference calls and don’t pay attention. There are sounds in the background. If you hear a dog barking, you know someone is working from home, and that’s okay, but you have to respond to those kinds of things.”
A good moderator helps, Cohen explained.
“You have to have a skilled moderator for a virtual team. You have to have somebody who can look at the signals on the call,” she said. “Maybe in a real room people would be wiggling in their seats. In a virtual team, the moderator would look for whether or not someone is on the call but not participating, and you know the person has an opinion and isn’t shy based on previous e-mails, or there is someone who is constantly talking and no one else can comment. Those are things a good moderator would see.”
Cohen said technology can also be a challenge. Most virtual teams use things like shared Web sites, conference calls, and virtual document storage. It’s important, she said, that all members of the virtual teams know how to use the group’s technology.
“A lot of times with virtual teams, it’s not just a phone call,” she explained. “A lot of times it’s going to a shared site where you post information or pull down information. Most of the technology packages today are fairly easy and straightforward to use, but any time you have to add new software to your equipment to be able to use your system or go to a particular site, you have to be able to navigate.”
Other issues arise with copyright law when posting things on shared sites, she added, which will all be discussed during her session. Regardless of any challenges of virtual teams, though, Cohen said she believes they are here to stay and will continue to grow in use due to their unique advantages. She said she hopes her session will give attendees a realistic view of the advantages and challenges of virtual teams while also providing them examples and practical takeaways for their own organizations.
“I hope they will see some real-life examples of both the opportunities and the challenges and realize that just because you want to create something and think it will work and it will be good doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot of challenges,” she said. “To me, virtual teams are a fact of life, and you need to think about when it is good to do them and when it is not, and you need to be realistic with what you need to do to help them be successful.”
Cohen joined SHRM in May of 2000 as the director of research. Prior to joining SHRM, Cohen spent 15 years as an academician teaching HRM at George Washington University (10 years) and George Mason University (5 years). She has published more than 40 articles and book chapters and has been published in several journals. She received her PhD in management and human resources in 1987 and her master’s degree in labor and human resources (MLHR) in 1982, both from The Ohio State University. She received her bachelor of science (in communications) from Ohio University. She is a frequent presenter at national, international, and regional conferences and has spoken to a wide variety of audiences.  Prior to her academic career, she was a practicing human resources manager in training and development.
To read more about Cohen and get a list of all of this year’s LEC speakers, visit the SIOP Web site!