Over the last few months, we have shared a number of aspects that our research showed were important to the performance of people and teams that work apart from each other, such as teams with agile or activity based working. The final aspect we are looking at is the co-ordination of tasks performed by teams.
Clearly if a task is the culmination of a variety of activities undertaken by different people, then at some stage these need to come together for the task to be completed. There may be a process with clearly defined steps that team members follow, or something looser and more flexible – such that people liaise and collaborate in a more dynamic, less structured way.
When team members are all in the office together and see each other frequently during the process of completing a task, you would expect the co-ordination to be relatively easy as each person’s work is likely to be more evident and their progress more obvious (if only because other people can see and hear what they are doing). Naturally this isn’t always the case, but if activities aren’t clearly visible, then if the person is available, they can easily be asked for an update.
However, when people work apart – either physically or in terms of time, the co-ordination of activities is more challenging, unless the process and completion of each aspect is made visible.
Why is co-ordination of tasks particularly important for virtual teams?
Tasks undertaken within a team are usually assigned and sequenced to accomplish the team’s goals and objectives – a role often performed by the manager or team leader.
When teams work more virtually, they depend on more technology delivered communication (often email) and the psychological and physical distance between team members may prevent the manager from effectively exercising his/her leadership and influence. As a consequence, the co-ordination of the team’s tasks may be less efficient.
In addition, time differences may have a negative impact on the co-ordination of tasks, because of the challenge of communicating with each other in real time.
Finally, a high degree of virtuality may interrupt team members’ awareness of each other’s work activities, which is essential for efficient task co-ordination.
What does the research tell us?
Research on virtual teams has demonstrated strong links between task co-ordination and performance. A meta-analysis carried out in 2008 based on 18 studies with a combined sample size of more than 4,000 employees, found that of all factors such as communication, trust, relationship building, and cohesion, the co-ordination of tasks seems to have the strongest association with performance (Lin et al, 2008 ). According to this study[i], co-ordination seems to be an important mediator for all other factors. A visual model of the relationship between the factors is shown below:
What enhances the level of task co-ordination?
As is visualised in the model, social factors such as trust, relationship building, communication, and cohesion significantly contribute to task co-ordination, which in turn has a direct positive effect on the team performance. So, developing successful social relationships among team members and between team members and management is a prerequisite to effective task co-ordination – they aren’t just positive aspects in themselves. If there is a lack of trust, poor cohesion, a lack of good relationships and bad communication – these will deliver poor co-ordination and hence performance will suffer.
Clearly the degree of virtuality has important implications for the dynamics, communication, and social interaction of teams. Consequently, social factors such as trust, relationship building, communication, and cohesion are harder to develop in virtual teams, which has implications for the way in which teams are formed (i.e. drawing upon people who already know each other and have formed relationships already, where possible). For existing virtual teams where these factors are not in place, it would clearly be beneficial to take specific actions to develop them.
Practical steps to take to enhance task co-ordination
Have a daily huddle
Get together early in the day to discuss the key focus for the day, share tasks, challenges and to exchange information. It’s a chance to connect, to share and communicate with everyone present. This is easier for co-located teams but virtual ones can also have a huddle by using electronic tools (i.e. GoTo Meeting, Microsoft Teams, Slack) where everyone can connect for a quick session and review, for example:
- what tasks were completed the day before
- the tasks scheduled to be completed today
- any issues that need to be addressed
- any specific activities that could be identified where people can collaborate further
Such sessions can use just voice, or voice and video (which enable people to see each other and assess how they think everyone is). Good facilitation of the huddle will ensure everyone contributes (very important) and that it is participative, not just a download from the manager “telling” everyone what to do! Keeping the format consistent (or only changing it after due consideration) will help everyone know what to expect and to keep to time.
By identifying opportunities for people to work together, this will help strengthen team bonds and trust through collaborating more closely and learning more about each other’s strengths.
Establish agreed working practices
When teams are co-located, the norms and rules of behaviour are more obvious, even though they are often unstated. There are more opportunities for people to correct each other, provide guidance by demonstration and for group norms to emerge.
For those that work virtually, it’s important to identify and agree the rules / norms so there are fewer opportunities for things to go awry – as otherwise the means of correction takes longer to deliver, and people develop poor practices and behaviours, relative to the team’s outcomes.
It has been suggested that rules can take the place of implicit trust, and that adherence to the rules can be a test by which trustworthiness can be explicitly expressed. This may be an approach for teams already experiencing trust issues and ensuring everyone contributes to drawing up the rules / norms would help people buy into them.
The following rules are suggested by Walther (2005[ii]), and were used in a university setting, but seem to have good applicability for the workplace:
- Rule 1: Get started right away – it’s more difficult to establish rules in a virtual team, so the sooner they are in place, the more they can mitigate the inevitable loss of time / progress which occurs because of communicating via computer-means as opposed to in person.
- Rule 2: Communicate frequently – which builds trust (trusting behaviours and perceptions) and avoids things piling up at particular times or events in the working week/month.
- Rule 3: Multitask getting organised and doing substantive work simultaneously – rather than waiting until everything has been defined and allocated (a typical practice of co-located teams), thus mitigating the impact of asynchronous working patterns.
- Rule 4: Overtly acknowledge that you have read one another’s messages – when together in the office, people hear and absorb things around them, which can’t happen with virtual teams. This can be done by “read” email acknowledgements but only if people have truly absorbed the message. Assuming team members have common knowledge can be dangerous so explicit acknowledgement can help.
- Rule 5: Be explicit about what you are thinking and doing – to give others the opportunity to know and to respond – expressing either agreement or alternatives. Silence should not be taken as assent!
- Rule 6: Set deadlines and stick to them – this builds trust as there is vulnerability associated with waiting for team members to deliver on tasks. When they do deliver, trust is reinforced and the relationship strengthens.
These rules were found through Walther’s research to be effective, particularly in the development of trust and the perceived quality of work. It seemed likely that following rules provides some certainty about what is required, leading to trust and liking within the virtual group – the actual rules being followed were perhaps less important. So, the important conclusion is that the team should decide upon the rules to be followed.
In our next blog we will share our “Top 10 things to do differently” when you are working remotely from colleagues. Ten quick things that will help address the aspects we know from our research are important in facilitating great remote team working.
[i]Lin, C., Standing, C., Liu, Y-C (2008), A model to develop effective virtual teams. Decision Support Systems 45, 1031-1045
[ii] Walther, J. B., & Bunz, U. (2005) “The rules of virtual groups: Trust, liking, and performance in computer-mediated communication.” Journal of Communication, 55, 828-846