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Virtual teams need to choose their communications tools carefully if they want to be effective, new research has revealed.

According to a new study commissioned by Cisco Systems, virtual teams - i.e. project teams that are working in multiple locations and communicate electronically - can work as well as, if not better than, co-location teams if the right communication tools are used.

With a growing number of businesses spread across multiple locations, the number of these collaborative teams is growing.

"Companies are starting to become bigger and bigger," Karl McDermott, Cisco Systems engineering manager, told ENN. "Virtual teams are becoming a big part of working."

However, Cisco's study revealed that behaviour that may at face value seem relatively harmless - such as an over-reliance on email, failing to respond to messages, and choosing the wrong method of communication - can damage team relationships and productivity.

The usual ways of building relationships through team lunches and socialisation in the work place are not always open to virtual teams, making it harder to build effective relationships, according to McDermott.

Some of the difficulties facing virtual teams include the length of time it takes for users to respond to electronic communications, with virtual teams taking up to four times as long to exchange the same number of messages as those who are communicating face-to-face.

Bad communication such as this can break the fragile trust established in virtual teams: "Poor communications can have a detrimental effect on virtual teams," McDermott said.

However, he pointed out that using the appropriate method of communication, for example email for exchanging data and voice communications for obtaining feedback, can make all the difference.

The report also found that cultural differences can also become exaggerated within virtual teams, with multi-cultural teams taking up to 17 weeks to become as effective as teams whose members are of the same culture.

Up to 63 per cent of communication is non-verbal, underscoring the importance of using visual communications such as video conferencing to establish relationships within a virtual team.

In this respect a unified communications system is important for virtual teams. "Our research shows that the media selected for a specific communication, whether it is instant messaging or video conferencing, is almost as important as the content of the communication," said Carolyn Shearsmith, an occupational psychologist at Pearn Kandola and a co-author of the report.

"Behaviours need to change to keep up with organisational structures and new technology. The studies show how the correct choice and use of communication media can create the shared identity and shared context that is so important to successful virtual teams. The reliance on email to converse with colleagues in different parts of the world, for example, does little to build personal relationships and trust."

Copyright © 2006, ENN

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