Technological Functions Can Address Common Challenges

108 January 2015, Volume 52, Number 3
Virtual Workplaces: Technological Functions
Can Address Common Challenges
Virtual work is becoming more prevalent and is changing the
workplace; employees can work “anytime, anywhere, in real
space or in cyberspace” on interdependent tasks (Cascio,
1998; Geller, 2014 ). In 1997, roughly 11 million U.S. workers
telecommuted (Jackson, 1997), whereas in 2012 approximately 64 million workers telecommuted according to Global
Workplace Analytics (2013).
Organizations can benefit from allowing employees to work
virtually. These benefits include reduced travel expenses,
staffing accessibility to experts in the field, time saving, and
an expanded talent pipeline (Kirkman, Gibson, & Kim, 2012).
However, there can be disadvantages such as lower levels of
team cohesion, reduced commitment to team goals, lower
satisfaction, and a reduction in cooperative behavior.
In order to support virtual work while maintaining productivity and satisfaction, organizations are investing in new
collaborative technologies and online tools. These new technologies enable employees to interact with team members
around the world in a variety of capacities that more closely
mirror face-to-face interactions.
In this article, we will highlight a few of the major challenges that
virtual work presents, provide examples of technological attributes and tools that can address these challenges, and provide
suggestions for increasing productivity when working virtually.
Challenges of Virtual Work
There is an overall consensus that managing virtual teams
can be more difficult than face-to-face teams (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002; Cascio, 1998; Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014). Below are
some common challenges.
1. Recognizing patterns of cultural communication. Increases in virtual work can lead to increases in opportuApplication of Modern
Technology and Social
Media in the Workplace
Tiffany Poeppelman
Google (Contractor)
Nikki Blacksmith
The George Washington
The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist 109
nities for members to communicate
cross-culturally (Gajendran & Joshi,
2012). However, cross-cultural communication can be difficult for many
reasons such as language barriers,
different workplace assumptions, and
different communication norms.
2. Developing cohesion among teams.
When employees have less time to
interact and get to know each other, it
can become more difficult to develop
cohesion among team members (Hoch
& Kozlowski, 2014). In addition, virtual work has shown to decrease team
member satisfaction (Driskel, Radke, &
Salas, 2003).
3. Motivating and managing employees. Managing the performance of
an individual or group can become
challenging in virtual work. Frequency
of communication that is necessary for
leaders to build relationships with employees is critical for virtual employees. Finally, the ability to monitor performance of each team member is also
restricted (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002).
4. Maintaining productivity and effectiveness. Virtual work has been shown
to negatively impact the productivity
and effectiveness of teams (Cramton
& Webber, 2003). The nonoverlapping
work times and physical distance between employees can make it difficult
to coordinate work efforts (Driskel et
al., 2003).
Virtual work can impede the effectiveness
and productivity of teams. However, the
type of technologically mediated environment can moderate this relationship. Not
all communication technologies are the
same; some improve team efforts while
some may hinder efforts.
Technological Attributes as Moderators
Technologies are being increasingly designed to support virtual teamwork by allowing interactions to be more cooperative
and collaborative (Ishii, Kobayashi, & Arita,
1994). The attributes and quality of the
technologies can enhance computer-mediated communication and combat some
of the challenges of virtual work (Driskel et
al., 2003). Below we have listed some attributes of technology that can improve the
communication and collaboration between
virtual team members:
Share one’s desktop and workspace so
everyone can see the same information at
the same time! Product examples include and webex. Other virtual telecommunication tools like Google Hangouts are
also enabled with the ability to share one’s
Quickly manage schedules and tasks with
others virtually. Tools that are handy for
this include Doodle and Trello. Not only
do these tools allow you to assign tasks to
team members, but they provide a great
format for everyone to stay on the same
page with regards to shared action items
and working timelines! Most workplaces
also have the ability to share calendars,
which provides ease of scheduling meetings by sharing real-time information on
one’s availability during the workday.
110 January 2015, Volume 52, Number 3
Collaboratively editing documents in
real-time is now possible with tools like
Google Docs and Microsoft Office Online.
In the past, when writing manuscripts with
coauthors, documents needed to be sent
over email, and it was difficult and tedious
to deal with version conflicts and coordinating changes. However, many programs
are now creating features where several
individuals can edit the same document
simultaneously. The benefits of such are
that live collaboration may increase cohesion among teams by allowing members to
physically work together at the same time.
Converse synchronously from anywhere
in the world. Whether employees are
located in New York or Hong Kong, it is
much easier for them to chat with anyone,
anywhere. Skype and Google Chat are
both free services that allow you to sign up
and have online chat conversations with
colleagues. In addition, other free text options like Tango continue to emerge making it easy to stay connected!
Access and exchange resources in jointly
shared locations instead of emailing documents back and forth. Today, services like
Google Drive and Dropbox are paving the
way for people to share information in one
place and access it from anywhere (even
without Internet!).
Visual presence of others is becoming
more and more common for today’s workforce as many organizations now have
access to virtual telecommunication tools
such as GoToMeeting, Skype and Google
Get creative and whiteboard in real-time
by leveraging online virtual whiteboards
with your team members or customers.
Product examples include Boardthing and
RealtimeBoard, which allows you to simulate the capability of whiteboarding ideas
or thoughts on cards.
These attributes may account for some of
the variation and conflicting findings we
see across the virtuality research. By understanding the specific advancements in technology used in virtual work, we can improve
measurement and advance literature.
Practical Solutions for Adapting
to Virtual Work
Although technology is changing the way
we work, it cannot replace the value of
face-to-face time where group members
share the same physical location, see and
hear one-another, receive facial indicators,
and engage in comradery in person. For
those I-O psychologists who find themselves working within virtual teams, below
are a few key recommendations:
Open information sharing is key. When
working remotely or working within virtual
teams, we encourage you to remain diligent and share your knowledge and weekly progress with others. Sharing and integrating information across teams allows
everyone to gain from each other’s inputs
and improves team processes. To do this,
make sure content is in a shared location,
like Dropbox, and all team members are
aware of what others are doing by using a
tool such as Trello.
The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist 111
Be open and clear with your manager. It’s
important that you are open about your
goals and expectations surrounding your
role, current projects, and future growth
areas. Also, suggest video-based conversations to foster a stronger personal connection. By ensuring you are open and clear
and physically in sight, you remain present
and visible to your manager. It’s worth the
time and effort, we promise!
Be mindful when scheduling meetings. If
you and your team are working across various time zones, ensure you are respectful
by scheduling meetings within their work
hours. Try tools like Doodle that can account for time-zone differences automatically. Also, do not assume they have the
proper technology access wherever they
are: Be sure to ask which medium they
prefer. By being considerate to others, they
will be thoughtful about your schedule and
needs as well.
Consider the tasking that you assign to others. As organizations globalize, and team
members work at different times of the
day, organizations must take into account
how to allocate the time of each member
but also ensure they have effective work
patterns (Cummings & Haas, 2012). Ensure
that you remain thoughtful about the team
work tasks you are assigned or that you
assign to others so that no one serves as
the bottleneck for the particular task within the project timeline. If someone is 10+
hours apart from another person, ensure
that whatever assignment they are doing
is one that doesn’t hold up others who are
working at different hours. Use the time
difference in your favor!
Eliminate distractions when working virtually. Given that we find distractions all
around us at work and wherever we go,
it is great to be mindful of how to get the
most out of your work day! It’s so easy to
pick up your cell phone while on a conference call, so try suggesting video-based
meetings so you have more accountability
for paying attention. Other technological
tools such as SelfControl can block distracting nonwork related websites as well.
Develop a tolerance for ambiguity. It’s
best for managers to ensure virtual team
members have a high tolerance for ambiguity. Compared to face-to-face teams
who have some frequent team contact,
virtual teams tend to have the most uncertainty and least visibility to their teams.
Instead of trying to describe a model or
diagram, use visual whiteboards such as
BoardThing or Realtime Board. The addition of technology to the communication
process can help avoid misunderstandings
or ambiguity.
As Cascio (1998) stated it so eloquently,
we will restate the same testament to I-O
Always look ahead; learn from the
past, but don’t live in it. By embracing these emerging changes
in the world of work, we in I-O psychology can lead change, not just
react to it. This will be the greatest
challenge of all.
Do you have other examples of virtual
collaboration tools or tips that you recom-
112 January 2015, Volume 52, Number 3
mend to other I-O psychologists? Please
let us know what you think! Also, we always encourage tips for future issue topics
(pun intended), so let us know what you’d
like to read about or what is cutting edge
in your world of work! Feel free to tweet
at us @themodernapp or email us at [email protected]
Bell, B. S., & Kozlowski, S. W. (2002). A typology
of virtual teams: Implications for effective
leadership. Group and Organization Management, 27, 14–49.
Cascio, W. F. (1998). The virtual workplace: A
reality now. The Industrial and Organizational
Psychologist (TIP), 35(4), 32-37. Retrieved
Cramton, C. D., & Webber, S. S. (2004). Relationships among geographic dispersion, team
processes, and effectiveness in software development work teams. Journal of Business
Research, 58, 758–765.
Driskel, J. E., Radke, P. H., & Salas, E. (2003).
Virtual teams: Effects of technological mediation on team performance. Group Dynamics:
Theory, Research and Practice, 7(4), 297–323.
Gajendran, R. S. & Joshi, A. (2012). Innovation
in globally distributed teams: The role of
LMX, communication frequency, and member
influence on team decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1252–1261
Geller, D. (2014). Virtual Teamwork: Potential
Downfalls and Recommendations for Overcoming Them. Paper presented at the 29th
Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Honolulu,
HI. (2013). Latest
telecommuting statistics. Retrieved from
Hoch, J. E. & Kozlowski, S. W. J. (2014). Leading virtual teams: Hierarchical leadership,
structural supports, and shared team leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, (3),
Ishii, H., Kobayashi, M., & Arita, K. (1994, August). Interactive design of seamless collaboration media. Communications of the ACM,
37(8), 83–97.
Jackson, M. (1997). Telecommuters love staying away, new survey shows. The Denver Post,
p. 4C.
Kirkman, B. L., Gibson, C. B., & Kim, K. (2012).
Across borders and technologies: Advancements in virtual teams research. In S. W. J.
Kozlowski, (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Organizational Psychology (pp. 789–858). New York,
NY: University Press.
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