How to Collaborate Virtually

Collaborating in a digital age

How To’s: Videos on November 28, 2016 at 8:14 pm

Students are increasingly asked to engage in group work and collaborative projects throughout their academic careers. This trend has been influenced by shifts in educational thinking from a behavioral approach to a social constructivist approach (Witney & Smallbone, 2011) and a focus on students’ employability after graduation (Yamane, 1996). Unfortunately, many collaborative efforts fall short of expectations for both students and instructors. We are hoping this module will teach you, the student, how to become a successful collaborator.

The goal of collaboration is to coordinate efforts to solve problems or accomplish a task (Witney & Smallbone, 2011). By working in groups, peer interaction involves sharing and learning from each other’s knowledge base which increases critical thinking, communication, and learning skills (McConnell, 2005). In turn, this should lead to higher quality results and higher student satisfaction (Resta & Laferriere, 2007).

Regrettably, this is not always the case. Two of the most common pitfalls in collaborative projects include free-riding and transaction costs. Free-riding is just as it sounds: group member(s) take advantage of other students’ contributions while they slack off. Transaction costs are essentially time costs associated with group work that wouldn’t be a factor in individual work, such as scheduling and meeting with other group members and negotiating differences of opinions (Yamane, 1996).

Group management is essential in overcoming these barriers and producing a successful group project.

To collaborate virtually you must: (1) Select group members, (2) Increase Cultural Awareness, (3) Cocreate team rules and norms, (4) Build Virtual Trust, and (5) Choose Communication Methods. Below you will find the research and a vialogue video to complete with your group to be better virtual collaborators.

[1] Selecting Group Members 

Yamane (1996) suggests three steps in creating your group:

  1. Choose members with common interests and common free time. By sharing common interests in the topic, free-riding in collaborative projects should be reduced. Additionally, scheduling issues should be easier to resolve.
  2. Allocate roles to group members. Both free-riding and increased transaction costs should also be reduced if roles are assigned to each specific group member. For instance, assigning the role of scribe/reporter, that person would be in charge of recording or transcribing the minutes of a meeting.
  3. Monitor group members’ participation. Setting within group deadlines will allow for ongoing monitoring between group members. This will reduce free-riding, as it will be apparent right away if a member is not doing their work. In turn, this reduces transaction costs by keeping track of the projects’ development.

[2] Increasing Cross Cultural Awareness

After you’ve created your group, it is important to increase cross-cultural awareness. Cultural diversity can be an obstacle on a virtually dispersed team. There are nonverbal cues that are lost in translation when you’re not in-person. Think about the misunderstanding of an ALL CAPS TEXT MESSAGE!

Image result for all caps text message

The absence of closeness, shows that virtual teams need to send more time developing relationships (Kahai, Carroll, Jestice 2007). However, building relationships not only in the personal sense, but also building your cultural intelligence. According to Thomas and Inkson, cultural intelligence is the ability to interact effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds (2009). You’re able to behave appropriately and adjust to new situations by taking into account the context you are negotiating. Cultural awareness is necessary to reach a shared understanding in ANY team, especially when trying to build an effective virtual team.

Hall introduces five dimensions that may affect how relationships are built across cultures. (1990)

  • Space: Different cultures have different attitudes towards space. Social distance or bubbles vary by culture.
  • Material Goods: Such goods are used for power and status.
  • Friendship: Interpersonal relationships vary considerably across cultures.
  • Time: Linear time cultures take time and deadlines very seriously, in a very rationalist sense. Time is structured, sequential and linear.
  • Agreement: Expressing agreement and disagreement varies by culture. In some cultures the detailed written contract is essential to agreement, while in others a handshake is sufficient.

As a team, it is important that you are self-aware of how you interact with others in a working group along these dimensions. 

It is VERY easy for there to be a lot of conflict when you are not aware of cultural differences. You may interpret actions or non-actions differently.

Vialogue (click here) demonstrating how a team might work towards building cultural awareness.


[3] Cocreate team rules and norms 

According to Guided Insights, it is important to have clarity on your team norms and rules when collaborating. As a team, complete the template below to create team norms taking into account your knowledge about the diverse cultural perspectives on the team.

Comment on the process below.

A Vialogue (click here) demonstrating how a team might work towards developing norms and rules.

Template on how to build virtual team norms

[4] Build Virtual Trust 

First, read this article on creating and building virtual trust.

Now that we have a common language, watch this vialogue video on different strategies that you can use to create and sustain virtual trust on your team.

A Vialogue (click here) modeling a common situation that often negatively affect an online team’s sense of virtual trust, and how to deal with it.

[5] Choose Communication Methods

When you meet in-person, it is easy to constantly communicate and ask clarifying questions by going up to a person in class, walking over to their desk, or bumping into them at the library. When you are working on a virtual team, that does not happen as often. Here are a couple of things to consider when choosing your communication methods as a team.

Depending on group needs, choose a type of communication that works best.

  • E-mail: Quick interactions that do not need an immediate response
  • Text message groups, Slack, Open Chats: Short Quick Questions and Responses
  • Phone Calls: Quick decisions and talking through strategy
  • Video Call: Anything where you may need visual cues or where communication could be misconstrued
  • Screen captor tools: Very easy to model or show your process of making a decision, solving a problem
  • Collaboration on document and spreadsheets: When you need to edit, revise, comment on any document simultaneously and track progress over time (ex: Google Drive)
  • Project Management System: Organize action items, creating milestones, track progress, store documents into projects (MUST actually use it or it’s a waste of time!)