Virtual Teams

Increase the quality of input in virtual teams: stop using ‘reply all’

From the co-located team in US that now has to deal with global expansion and offices opening in China and Japan; to swiftly formed transient project teams with members from all over the world who have to deliver a solution to a tricky challenge in a matter of months (or even days) without ever meeting face-to-face, we’re all in virtual teams now.

Indeed three years ago, a Harvard Business Review study of 1,700 knowledge workers found that 79% reported working always or frequently in dispersed teams. But have we fully adapted our ways of working to this virtual world?

A key difference with virtual vs. face-to-face working is that there’s a lot more asynchronous working in a virtual team (that is, working out of sync with each other).  This causes many virtual team managers to spend a lot of time figuring out how and when the dispersed team can ‘meet’ (usually virtually), across different time-zones and working cultures. They are preoccupied with what time to schedule a conference call, or how to get everyone to contribute to the latest internal collaboration tool.

Making sure everyone can be ‘present’ is important – however it’s only the first level issue.  The deeper issue is how to ensure the quality of each virtual team member’s input.  For example, it’s common for a number of virtual team members to be in a similar time zone to the team leader – however there are usually a few that aren’t.  It’s easy for the team leader or co-located peers to unconsciously get into the habit of sending out a group email with request for input or comment during their working day.

By the time the more dispersed team members wake up, there has already been 5 or 6 reply-alls.  And as Economics scholars Andres & Shipps have shown, as the number of people adopting a specific opinion or perspective in a virtual team increases, others will be influenced to assimilate to the majority consensus[1].  Our workers waking up in a later time zone feel that everything of value has already been said in the discussion that has raged for the last 6 hours, and that a general conclusion has already been reached.  So they don’t bother contributing anything further.  Over time, this can lead to disengagement and the boss might start to question those team members’ dedication.

A simple change can be for the team leader to consider when it is worth making the specific request not to ‘reply all’, but for people to send their individual contributions to them (or another nominated peer) to assimilate views and pull out key themes.  This will lead to more diversity of opinion, greater chance for innovative ideas and higher quality of input – from all corners of the globe.

[1] Andres, H. & Shipps, B. (2010) Team Learning in Technology-Mediated Distributed Teams, Journal of Information Systems Education, Vol. 21(2), 213-221.


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