Working in diverse teams
Working in diverse teams

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Working in diverse teams

3 Issues with working in virtual teams

In the last section, you considered some of the benefits of working in virtual teams both for the employer and the employee. You are now going to listen to an interview with Vanessa who works as part of a virtual team spanning the UK and Germany. Her role is as an author of English language textbooks and she works closely with her co-author who lives in a different part of the UK. Together they are employed by an educational publishing company located in Germany.

Activity 2 Virtual teams

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Watch this interview, and make notes on the issues that arise from this way of working and what Vanessa has done to overcome these.

Download this video clip.Video player: wdt_1_interview.mp4
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Hi, Vanessa. Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of job you do and the kind of teams you work within?
I'm a freelance writer and I write English language teaching and learning materials. And I work in a team that's based in Germany while I'm based in England, so I work at home. And my co-writer works from her home in Germany, and then we have an editorial team that are also in Germany.
Do you have an office at home?
I do. I have a very small room at home which serves as an office. And I've got a PC on the desk, and a phone, and that's it. It's a very basic setup.
How do you connect with your colleagues?
Mostly e-mail. At the start of a project, we'll all meet together in Munich and talk together in person about the project. And then after that, it's really all done by e-mail. So I'll create the document. I'll send it off by e-mail, have some comments back by e-mail. And if it's a difficult thing, we might talk on the phone, but mostly done by e-mail.
Have you had any problems with the technology you've used at all?
Sometimes when we venture into more exciting technology, like we've just started using Adobe Connect so that we can see each other on screen and also work on the same document together on screen, and sometimes we have problems with that. My microphone doesn't work, their camera doesn't work, we can't get the document open, and all sorts of things like that. But we just muddle through, and it's usually OK.
Even if we can't always see each other, maybe they'll phone me if they can't hear me, things like that. But it generally works OK.
What are the advantages for you working at home in this way?
For me, the biggest advantage is flexibility, because I have children, and I've been doing this for 10 years now. So I've been able to be at home when the children come home from school and things like that. So flexibility of work.
And also, it's allowed me to do a job that I would not have been able to do otherwise. Freelance writing doesn't really exist as a job where you sit in an office from 9:00 to 5:00 and do it. So that's been really positive for me. And also, the flexibility within the working week.
What about the disadvantages?
I think isolation could be a problem if you didn't like just being at home by yourself. And also, communication could be a problem. I think if you're not sure what you're doing and a problem could grow rather than-- I think you need to be willing to ask for help, or to say, I'm not sure what I'm doing.
Make sure your goals are clear before you start working. I think that could be an issue if you're stuck at home by yourself worrying you're doing the wrong thing. But there's always people to ask for help.
What do you do to ensure good communication, for example, in e-mails? Because that must be quite difficult.
It is, especially because I'm working in a multicultural, multilingual environment. Something that we do is we all e-mail in our own language. So I will e-mail in English and I will have e-mails from editors that are written in German, and I can speak German. But obviously, I can speak English better than I can speak German, and they can speak German better than they can in English. And we each find that we can communicate much better in our own language, and it's much less open to misinterpretation.
I think for me, my tip would be always assume that the person is being kind and helpful. And when there's goodwill in the team, I think that gets rid of a lot of miscommunications.
It's also nice, I think, if you can maybe try to make a small personal connection with the people you're working with, even if you don't know them or you haven't met them in person.
Just, I try to always put in a little personal touch-- not too much, but just maybe at the end of it, sign off an email with something about what the weather's like, or what I'm going to do this afternoon, or I'm just going to cook a meal or something. And then that gives them the opportunity if they want, they can pick up on that. And I try to pick up on what the other people say to me. So I will ask, oh, how did that go? How was that? Hope the weather's better today. And it just makes a slightly friendlier connection between you.
What kind of person do you think you need to be in order to work in this way from home, Vanessa?
I think you need to be quite motivated, self-motivated to be able to get on with the work and not leave it to the last minute. Also, be really organised, because there's no one there to organise it for you. You have to make sure that all your files are in the right order, you don't lose documents. So just be generally competent, really.
Thank you very much, Vanessa.
You're welcome.


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Some of the common issues associated with working in virtual teams include:

  • building relationships with teammates is much harder if they are not there for small talk
  • reliance on technology and communication at a distance – what if the technology fails or connectivity is poor?
  • misinterpretation of information in emails due to lack of visual cues through body language
  • different countries and different cultures working together can increase conflict
  • harder to resolve team conflict at a distance
  • scheduling meetings can take longer as you need to find out when everyone is available
  • isolation and loneliness may affect motivation and possibly even mental health
  • your standing in the team may be diminished as you are not physically present, so you get missed out or forgotten as it’s easier to work with team members who are present
  • different time zones may mean that there is little overlap and a narrow window for actual synchronous communication
  • one’s professional image can suffer if working from home, with Skype interviews becoming more common than face-to-face encounters.

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