When working on or with virtual teams, consider steering the conversation toward professional achievements and interests rather than personal details. A study from the University of Connecticut found that professional familiarity between team members improves collaboration while personal familiarity is not essential to productive business collaboration and can even be detrimental to a team’s productivity.

“Familiarity among teammates doesn’t always work the way you’d expect it. We want teams that function well and are efficient. We found that those that were professionally familiar did well,” explains John Mathieu, Ph.D., a management professor at the University of Connecticut.

He and other researchers on the project theorized that professional familiarity may be more effective than personal familiarity because it creates knowledge around each member’s career and expertise, therefore helping to clarify when someone should weigh in and what to expect from the others.

For this study, virtual teams were classified as those that communicate primarily through technology, even if they are physically present in the same building. Study participants worked for a global supply chain company and consisted of 363 individuals from 68 teams at 23 locations in 10 countries, including China, Ireland, Mexico, Taiwan and the United States.

In the first phase, participants completed an online survey, answering questions about their co-workers’ professional achievements, including competencies, reputation, work performance, dependability and attention to detail. They then answered more personal questions pertaining to their teammates’ values, likes and dislikes, employment history, hobbies, and family status.

In the second phase, team leaders evaluated their team’s effectiveness and the likelihood that they would work together again. Teams were considered a success if they delivered their products by the targeted delivery date, and they were considered high-performing teams if they delivered high-quality products that were valued by customers.

Researchers noticed that when professional familiarity increased, so did the quality of work. Personal familiarity didn’t have the same impact. When teammates are too personally familiar, attentiveness tends to decline and the possibility for personal conflict increases.

The degree to which the team works virtually can also impact its success. If a high portion of the work is reliant upon technology, then the familiarity impact is diminished, according to the study. One in-person meeting, however, could change that.

“Unfortunately, even when you put the very best people on virtual teams, studies have borne out that they don’t perform as well on complex and ambiguous tasks as in-person work groups,” says Lucy Gilson, Ph.D., head of the University of Connecticut’s management department. “It seems meeting face-to-face, even once, improves the work dynamic.”

Leaders and coaches can help encourage and build this professional familiarity among virtual team members. Consider changing icebreakers and other team-building activities from a personal focus to a professional one. Think through how everyone can best interact and get what they need in order to collaborate effectively. Plan an in-person meeting if possible. Slight tweaks to team interaction could greatly affect the results of their collaboration.

Lisa Cunningham
Lisa Cunningham is ICF’s Social Media Specialist, as well as a freelance writer and social media consultant. She holds a master’s degree in professional writing with a focus on web content development from Chatham University and a bachelor’s degree in English writing and communication from the University of Pittsburgh.


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