Do virtual teams benefit from face-to-face meetings?

I’m in the middle of a project to examine the reasons why collaboration adoption seems to be slower than anticipated. A report on the research will be published in February. I’ve spent some time looking at a very considerable amount of research into collaboration and virtual teams but only today came across a paper that seems to challenge conventional wisdom and good practice in virtual team management. It has long been the assumption that off-line face-to-face bonding was crucial to achieving high performance virtual teams, but now a paper by Professors Olaisen and Revang at the Norwegian Business School, Oslo, causes me to think that this might now be an out-dated approach.

Their paper is entitled Working Smarter and greener: Collaborative knowledge sharing in virtual project teams and has just been published in the International Journal of Information Management (Disclaimer – I’m a member of the Editorial Board). One of the very important aspects of the research is that it was a longitudinal study in which four virtual project teams with a total of 42 members were tracked quite intensively over the period from 2014-2016. Most studies of virtual teams and collaboration are undertaken over a much shorter period of time. There was one team each from Banking, Insurance, Oil & Gas and Biotechnology sectors. The paper sets up a number of propositions which are then tested against the way in which the teams operated and delivered results.

In the discussion to the paper the authors comment that “the quality of communication has replaced the need for physical meetings”. In effect, we are now so used to virtual communications that we have built up ways of assessing the extent to which we trust people virtually that initial face-to-face meeting are no longer of value. In this regard it is interesting to note that in the 2016 RW3 Global Trends in Virtual Teams survey 41% of respondents stated that they had no face-to-face meetings during the year. The survey goes on to suggest that the lack of face-to-face meetings does have an impact on team performance. Who is right, especially given the small scale of the research project.

I think that what we are seeing in the apparent conflict between the research study and the RW3 survey is that we are at a tipping point. Facebook and a host of other social applications are providing a virtual community that we are becoming adept at working with and in. The same is increasingly true in the enterprise environment. Much may depend on the age generation of participants and research is now being undertaken to explore the extent to which the age profile of a team has an impact on performance, for example Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of the Generational Digital Divide in Virtual Teams (download) . More research is needed both from in-depth research and surveys that record the attitudes of a wider based of respondents. But we may be getting to the stage where off-line meetings may have a more limited benefit, with savings in travel costs and probably less time being required to establish an effective team.

Martin White