Virtual Teams and Virtual Learning Services: Thriving in a Digital Landscape
Concurrent Session 5
As institutions increase the variety of modalities in which courses and resources are offered and the viability of satellite locations, the importance of effectively-led semi-virtual and completely virtual teams becomes correspondingly critical. This session focuses on best practices gained from three years successfully functioning as a fully virtual team.
As online enrollment grows, “about two-thirds of all colleges reported that their distance education enrollments grew from 2012 to 2015,” higher education institutions are adapting to meet this student populations’ needs (Straumsheim, 2017). As an indirect result, they are also employing a larger percentage of at least partly virtual employees. For many, managing a virtual employee or team is a new experience. Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen (2007) “highlight six practices used by virtual team leaders that help manage the joint challenge of innovative problem-solving while being dispersed,” and many of the best practices we have discovered three years after transitioning from a fully residential to a mostly virtual team model support these principles. Additionally, we will also share how we establish “ a common sense of vision,” which is a factor that only increases in importance for virtual teams (Yielder & Codling, 2004).
First, this session will focus on the principle of “establish[ing] and maintain[ing] trust through the use of communication technology” (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). Remote employee work is enhanced by several factors, including connectivity, information-technology self-efficacy, and effective management (Staples, Hulland, & Higgins, 1999). Also note that training programs that support employee tasks such as objective setting and time management that are used to enhance remote work self-efficacy will benefit virtual organizations. Key elements to our team communication include desktop instant messaging, email, bi-monthly formal memos sent to the whole team that include current individual and group initiatives, larger college-wide projects,upcoming projects and questions to discuss during individual meetings.
Our teams are grouped by liaison or subject area expertise, meaning the Librarian and Learning Services Coordinator for the School of Business work closely together. Team members hold regular meetings with external stakeholders, such as Faculty, Department Chairs, and Department Deans. Internally, we meet as subgroups (library and learning services) three times a month and monthly as a full team. Managers meet with individual team members weekly, and once every three months with both “School of” team members (i.e. the Librarian and Learning Services Coordinator for the same school simultaneously). Communication has always been viewed as a key element in any group’s success, whether collocated or distributed. In virtual distributed teams lacking a history of shared work, geographic dispersions makes communication critical to trust and cohesion. Jarvenpaa, Shaw, & Staples, (2004) suggest that communication affects the level of task conflict in virtual teams along with others that argue communication within virtual teamwork has significant implications for group outcomes.
Secondly, we plan to share practices that meet the second outlined principle, “ensure that distributed diversity is understood and appreciated” (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). One potential hazard of a virtual team is employees becoming isolated from peers. Openly sharing challenges and approaches that allowed them to overcome those challenges allows the team to both benefit from the sharing of best practices while also highlighting differences among the team. A practice that is recommended to support this principle in virtual teams is “allowing diverse opinions to be expressed through use of asynchronous electronic means” (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). This is perhaps best exemplified in the management of our online tutors. This group of employees works at varying times and does not always directly interact with each other. Establishing online forums (a private Facebook group and discussion board) has provided a means for developing rapport among these valuable online team members.
The third principle of managing virtual teams focuses on “manag[ing the] virtual work-life cycle (meetings)” (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). While the structure of a consistent meeting schedule outlined previously partly meets this need, the ways in which virtual teams interact within these environments is also critical. More specifically, Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen (2007) suggest the “use the start of virtual meeting (each time) for social relationship building” and to “ensure through ‘check-ins’ that everyone is engaged and heard from” throughout the time spent together. During this portion of the presentation, we will share practical ways this can be achieved organically. We will also share practices for ensuring active engagement while meeting in a variety of online platforms (Webex, Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, and Zoom). Additionally, we will share the practice Learning Services Coordinators have utilized to meet this need - building in professional development sharing opportunities into their weekly team calls.
The next principle is to “monitor team progress using technology” (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). Through the use of chat technology library team members interact with one another daily in live time along with scheduling chat shifts for 1:1 student interaction throughout the quarter. Most recently we have added extended interaction “Research Appointments” students can schedule for in-depth research project support. We have developed an internal Library and Learning Services Online Team Guide to allow 24/7 access to all internally developed resources utilized for student, faculty, and cross-team training and professional development sessions.
The Library and Learning Services team takes part in cross-departmental meetings and training with academic advisors, college admissions, deans, chairs along with faculty. Technology utilized includes WebEx, Lync/Skype instant messaging, phone via VOIP, use of Google drive/sheets, Dropbox.com, Screencast-O-Matic, Springshare LibGuides, LibAnswers/Chat, LibInsight, LibCalendar, LibWizard (Survey/Quizzing tool). Recently we have added informal sub-team meetings monthly in the morning, deemed “Wake-up Calls” with no formal agenda the team members can discuss work or personal news to share with the group allowing revisiting and adjusting the communication norms as the team evolves.
The following principle is to “enhance visibility of virtual members within the team and outside in the organization” (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). In virtual distributed teams, geographic dispersion creates an environment in which communication and visibility outside the team is critical. To ensure this essential visibility our team regularly takes part in college-wide meetings such as group advisor and admissions meetings, outside accreditation and licensing visits, career fairs, and professionally affiliated advisory board meetings. Our team members are actively involved in our college councils, curriculum and course development, along with research and selection of course content and materials. We regularly use the start of virtual meetings for social relationship building. During each meeting, interaction is encouraged through conversational agendas open to chat and audio discussion, we ensure through these “check-ins” that everyone is engaged and heard from. Additionally, the team members are encouraged to attend and present at state, regional and recognition of achievements within team-meetings, emails and outside-RasConnect, emails, nominations for professional awards and/or committees and conference participation
The final principle related to building effective virtual teams is to “enable individual members of the virtual team to benefit from the team,” including the possibility of “virtual reward ceremonies” (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). In this vein, we created a peer recognition award. Team members nominate peers by writing a brief descriptive statement discussing how their teammates went above and beyond to support and inspire them. These descriptions are read at joint team meetings and a “virtual wheel” is spun with small prizes. The success of this program among Librarians and Learning Services Coordinators encouraged us to replicate a similar program with our online tutoring team, with whom it has also been successful. A final example of this principle in action occurs during our all-tutor meeting. In this virtual meeting, we award a “Tutor of the Quarter” - an individual tutor who has performed at a high level during that quarter. We also honor a “Rising Star” - a new tutor who shows a great deal of promise.
We plan to actively engage participants in a variety of ways during the time allotted. For each principle, we will share examples of best practices that both exemplify the identified principle and have been successful with our own virtual team. This includes real-time sharing of technology tools employed (including mobile-accessible tools that attendees can publicly access during the session), examples of communication cadence schedules, agendas, and any other relevant, actually-utilized tools that have been successful in this transition.
Participants will be able to:
Actively engage virtual team members in dynamic team meetings using online meeting tools
Promote positive and frequent communication among team members using a variety of communication strategies, resulting in a common team vision
Accurately track team progress on tasks and increase the visibility of virtual team members through effectively communicating valued contributions
Jarvenpaa, S. L., Shaw, T. R., & Staples, D. S. (2004). Toward Contextualized Theories of Trust: The Role of Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Information Systems Research, 15(3), 250-264. doi:10.1287/isre.1040.0028
Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A., & Rosen, B. (2007). Leading virtual teams. Academy of Management Perspective, 21(1), 60–70.
Staples, D. S., Hulland, J. S., & Higgins, C. A. (1999). A Self-Efficacy Theory Explanation for the Management of Remote Workers in Virtual Organizations. Organization Science, 10(6), 758-776.
Straumsheim, C. (2017, May 2). “‘Volatile’ but Growing Online Ed Market.” Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/05/02/report-finds-growth-volatility-online-education-market.
Yielder, J., & Codling, A. (2004). Management and leadership in the contemporary university. Journal of Higher Education and Management, 26(3), 315-328.