By Mirna Khater and Kara Mac Donald
Effective team interaction in the online environment has been a prominent topic in business and in education for more than a decade. However, with the mandatory mass move to online teaching by educators across the globe, many teachers who were not familiar with leading and/or interacting as a team in the virtual environment were forced to learn how to do so. The summer book review series addressed online teaching approaches, the fall series of short text reviews considered teachers’ needs in the online instructional environment, and the new year January book review continued with the online teaching focus. This February issue of the CATESOL’s Blog book review also emphasizes the online context, but shifts the focus from pedagogical and student-focused content to the leadership needs of teachers operating in the virtual environment.
The Introduction examines why virtual teams are increasingly more popular and outlines the book’s overall content. The authors offer a chart that serves as a quick reference guide which allows readers to identify the most relevant content in the book for them.
In Chapter One the authors start by identifying why virtual teams fail or perform less effectively than face-to-face (f2f) teams. The chapter goes on to examine why a conventional f2f team fails, what distinguishes f2f operations and virtual team operations, and what defines a leader in the virtual team setting as compared to one in a conventional f2f environment. The chapter describes various common challenges for virtual teams, but ultimately focuses on: the individual rather than the team, time zone differences and scheduling, and lack of sharing and effective communication. Yet the chapter also explains that the value and prevalence of virtual teams is the result of technological advances and internationalization that allows teams to leverage the skills of individuals across the world without having to bring them together physically. Key challenges and pitfalls are briefly described in this chapter, and are addressed more later in the book.
After explaining what derails teams in the virtual environment, the authors then explain the characteristics of an effective team, regardless of if they are f2f or virtual. The chapter addresses virtual team success and develops the discussion around study results that categorize the characteristics and issues into: team composition, communication and training, and leadership. Regarding team composition, the authors conclude that small, intact, stable teams with members who have similar job functions and longtime membership in the team lead to more success. For communication and training, the focus is on the effective use of technology for interaction. Meetings need to be frequent but meaningful, using technology platforms that truly meet the team’s particular needs to enhance communication and interaction. These platforms also need to be used on a pre-determined time frame for team building and not only for transactional communication. Lastly, leaders need to be equipped with the skills and resources to foster collaboration among distant team members so that they can strike an equilibrium between individual needs and task force needs and communication.
With the criteria for success established, Chapter Three provides guidance for establishing a virtual team. The chapter offers a set of tools and checklists to use in preparing a team, as most entities connect members in a virtual team without putting considerable thought into what is required for success. As a warm up, the authors offer a virtual team launch IQ assessment. They present a case study and the reader then responds to questions assessing the effectiveness of the case study. The chapter also offers a sort of checklist of skills required to be an effective virtual team leader and team member. The authors offer other tools and reflective pieces, all with a common objective (i.e. sense of purpose) which has four components: the organization, the self, the relationships to the organization, and the relationships to others. These components need to be monitored. They are not static, and leaders need to dedicate time to fostering all of them.
In Chapter Four, the authors move beyond what makes a virtual team successful and highlight the criteria for what makes a virtual team great (i.e. stellar in success). They share five ‘Differentiators’: i) Commitment and Engagement, ii) Shared Processes for Decision Making, iii) Getting the Right Information to the Right People, iv) Task-Based Trust, and v) Collaboration. Another case study with a reader response assessment is offered. Based on study findings, the authors offer a virtual team assessment frame or a lens: RAMP (i.e. Relationships, Accountability, Motivation, and Process and Purpose). Each of the five components has subcomponents. When this five-part acronym is unpacked, it becomes an extremely in-depth and dynamic discussion with practical approached and solutions.
Chapter Five, based on surveys and questionnaires, presents both the main challenges and possible solutions for the challenges facing successful virtual team leadership. The main challenges consist of infrequent f2f interactions and technology malfunctions which result in a lack of trust and more disconnection among team members. Human beings are more inclined to be more competitive than cooperative and put their own self-interest ahead of the team’s success. This inclination is a considerable challenge for team leaders who also might be overwhelmed by leading more than one team. This reduces the time that leaders have to focus on management, and it affects their ability to keep up with communicating priorities and updates. In addition, it is a challenge to give the needed attention to poor performers on the team. The chapter offers some techniques and strategies to overcome such challenges. Some suggestions focus on logistics. One example is to provide resources and training to assist team leaders and team members to effectively embrace and envision change, building support for it and implementing it. Other suggestions consist of adopting clear communication avenues for goals and directions, with special attention on fostering an atmosphere of collaboration and empowerment of team members.
Chapter Six moves from discussing the challenges that virtual team leaders face to presenting the four main practices that can boost the performance of virtual teams. First, team leaders are coaches who listen, ask, facilitate, integrate and provide support. They monitor the progress of their team members and coach them. Even though virtual coaching can be challenging, the knowledge that the team leader possesses about each individual’s contribution influences the process and prevents it from deviating from its intended goal. Second, team leaders have to gain their team members’ commitment by persuading, inspiring, consulting and collaborating with them. A third practice to boost a team’s performance is to recognize the achievements and contributions of individuals, a practice that indicates a highly effective virtual team leader. Last, but not least, team leaders have to hold team members accountable to ensure higher performance. However, they have to make sure to clearly communicate expectations and responsibilities to individuals and make arrangements for task completion, deadlines and outcomes.
Chapter Seven introduces readers to techniques needed to prepare and conduct virtual meetings, which is particularly important because coordinating and facilitating these meetings are central to an individual’s effectiveness in leading virtually. It is important for everyone on the team to be aware of these techniques, since effective leaders usually rotate meetings facilitation among their team members. A facilitator’s role is to keep meeting discussions focused on the agenda and to improve team productivity. In addition, the facilitator needs to be attentive to guiding the process and needs to create an environment that fosters active participation and ensures meeting objectives are achieved. Preparing for a virtual meeting occurs over three phases: Before, During and After the meeting. The chapter provides a checklist for each phase to achieve the goals of the meeting. Like with f2f meetings, virtual ones can face common challenges; however, distance might put them more in perspective as more skills and efforts are needed to overcome them.
Chapter Eight recaps the techniques and strategies presented in previous chapters on how to successfully lead virtual teams. Good communication with a focus on individual needs is one of the success pillars. This pillar directly leads to another one, which is trust: No Trust, No Team. By empowering team members and cultivating mutual trust, a team becomes one entity facing challenges and strategizing to overcome them. Once the “individual” issues are dealt with, the focus is on the use of technology, which is the resource for successful virtual leadership and interaction. Training and support are important to anticipate and eliminate major problems in communication and productivity. In sum, an effective team leader has to provide support, training, clear instructions and expectations to later on evaluate outcomes and hold individuals accountable. In fact, when virtual leading is executed appropriately, the virtual teams can be a competitive advantage.
Overall, the text is a valuable piece to have in our personal libraries with the likelihood of the continuation of virtual teaching, hybrid instruction and telework. It was published in 2010 and was likely intended for the business corporate market readership, based on its time of publication and the angle and framing of the discussions and case studies. However, the authors have been exposed to the text over the last decade through educational administration and leadership professional development courses and through colleagues pursuing postgraduate studies. The book is highly relevant to ESL teachers across all levels in the current and future fluid professional environment.
Mirna Khater is currently a Faculty Development Specialist at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Monterey, CA. As an Arabic linguist, she supports teachers in academic development and foreign language teaching.
Kara Mac Donald is an Academic Student and Faculty Development Trainer at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Monterey, CA, where she supports both teachers and students in academic development.
Call for Book Review Co-AuthorsIf you are interested in co-authoring a book review slated for the coming months or if you would like to recommend a book that you would like to review as co-author/sole author in future issues, please contact Kara Mac Donald, firstname.lastname@example.org