Research on the effectiveness of virtual teams ‘Your way is not necessarily the best’

Dr Daphne Dekker talks about her research on the effectiveness of virtual teams

Multinational companies with branches worldwide are seeing more and more multicultural teams, with members in various countries who often work virtually with one another. Dr Daphne Dekker completed her PhD at the Eindhoven University of Technology, where she conducted research into the effectiveness of virtual teams with a special focus on cultural aspects.

Why conduct PhD research on the effectiveness of virtual teams?
‘Through my studies in psychology I became interested in people’s behaviour, and also in cultural differences. Plus, “virtual cooperation” is a hot topic right now. Software developers have already made lots of technical progress. But you can have all the technology you like; ultimately it’s the people who need to get things done. What are the demands placed on them?’

You identified two factors that influence the success of virtual teams. What were they?
‘The first is the division of team members. For example, you might have 7 people in the Netherlands and 1 in India, or 4 here and 3 there, or individuals at 8 different locations. And guess what? The higher the percentage of “isolates” and the greater the feeling of social presence (a genuine feeling of cooperation through means such as video conferencing), the better the results and satisfaction within the team. A team of isolates produces the best results. Social identity theory has a nice explanation for this: isolates only have each other to communicate with and do not see the others as a threat, whereas sub-groups within a team can sometimes have their own interests. Another important factor for success is virtual team members’ behaviour, especially within multicultural teams.’

Can you tell us more about the behavioural aspect?
‘Members of multicultural teams mustn’t underestimate the impact of cultural differences. This can be tricky, because our culture is ingrained in us and we often don’t know why we do certain things. It’s automatic, and is called the “introspection illusion”. But someone from another culture will also have his or her own subconscious habits, and that can sometimes cause trouble! We often think that our own way of doing things is the best way, which is a shame. Every culture has its own best practices that are worthwhile. I’m for what’s called the “fusion model”, which puts forward that multicultural teams achieve the best results if the various members accept and respect cultural differences, as well as succeed in taking advantage of each other's unique qualities.'

You conducted research among professionals from four very different cultures: the Netherlands, Belgium, the U.S. and India. What were the most striking differences?
‘Employees from Belgium and India (countries with a high power distance index) attach particular value to showing respect – such as offering profuse thanks. As a Dutch person, that’s useful to keep in mind. But what they value less is the involvement of all team members, something that the Dutch and the Americans do value. Another aspect important to the Dutch is task progress communication: reporting clearly to everyone on what you’re doing and how it’s going, even if it’s going badly. To do that, you need to be willing to put yourself in a vulnerable position, something that the Dutch find easier coming from their feminine culture. Indians see things differently: if something doesn’t work, they see it as an embarrassment and loss of face. Cooperation with them will therefore involve an express request to communicate openly on tasks.'

Is there a general tip you can give to team members?
‘Take heed of cultural differences, talk about each other’s customs and demonstrate as much “valued behaviour” as possible – that will ensure better performance and higher satisfaction within the team, and indirectly also greater trust. And trust has proven to be a key ingredient in effective cooperation. Nor is it absolutely necessary to meet each other in person to create trust, that is a common misconception. Personally, I think that comes from the people that I interviewed, who aren’t from the internet generation. Today's generation is digitally minded, using Facebook, instant-messaging, etc… To them, working in virtual teams feels much more natural and normal. Perhaps a nice topic for subsequent research!’

Further reading
Dissertation by Dr Daphne Dekker

Dr Daphne Dekker is currently employed by Radboud University, the Nijmegen School of Management and the Amsterdam Business School. She works and teaches at the meeting point between psychology and business.