New research shows that 13 of 14 common workplace-relationship problems, such as broken commitments, mistrust and misrepresentation of information, occur more than twice as often with virtual teams, as opposed to teams located in the same building.
In short, the survey finds that distance ultimately does more harm than good.
The online survey of 608 people who were currently on a "virtual team" for work purposes was jointly conducted in March by Provo, Utah-based corporate training consultancy VitalSmarts and the authors of the book, Crucial Conversations.
The survey sheds light on just how stark the differences are when comparing the two different concepts of team work, says Joseph Grenny, co-author of the book, along with Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.
The authors looked at the frequency in which the respondents said they ran into the 14 most common workplace problems while working on a virtual team and compared it with the frequency of the same problems when the respondents worked on-site as teams.
Working remotely causes 243 percent more problems than working together in the same location, according to the survey.
"These are pretty striking findings," Grenny says. "The results weren't marginally different, but profoundly different."
Overall, the survey found that problems with remote colleagues were significantly more difficult to solve and lasted longer than with on-site colleagues.
When asked how long a problem they have with someone in the same location will drag on, the majority (54 percent) said "a few days." When asked the same question in regard to a colleague who is physically distant, the largest response (35 percent) was "a few weeks."
"I'm not surprised by the findings, but it doesn't have to be that way," says Jan Gugliotti, principal and co-founder of Lambertville, N.J.-based consultancy Collaboration Age Associates. "People treat [virtual] teams the same, but they have to be managed differently. You can't just assume it's business as usual."
Gugliotti says "e-mail is the root of a lot of problems, because people act as if they're talking to a computer as opposed to a human being on the other end."
Compounding the trouble, the authors say, is that the most common means of coping with the effects of distance are not only destructive to working relationships, but are destructive to overall productivity as well.
When people face challenges with a colleague who works in a different location, they either resort to silence or other passive coping strategies, the authors say. Other strategies involve co-workers becoming "verbally violent" or taking an aggressive stance against their colleague.
"What the study pointed to is that the root cause of many of these problems is not the distance, it's that people aren't committing to communication to overcome the distance," Grenny says.
"It might seem tedious, but when you don't have that physical proximity, then you need to have both proactive and reactive communication or else these problems will continue to persist. ... That's why talking before problems start is so profoundly important," he says.
"You need to build up goodwill for an 'emotional bank account,' and anticipate in advance that you will be drawing down on that account when things get tough," Grenny says.
The most crucial skill, he says, "is the ability to raise emotionally and politically risky issues with virtual teammates in a candid but respectful way. Most every problem we identified in our study flowed directly from failure to hold these types of crucial conversations."
Rick Maurer, principal of Maurer & Associates, an Arlington, Va.-based leadership consultancy, says it's important to make sure that the goals of a virtual team are clear at the outset of a new project.
"Everyone must have the same picture of what success looks like," he says. "Without that laser-like focus, it is too easy for people in Banglagore to develop a different picture of success than the picture held by their colleagues in Brussels. Now multiply that by a couple more locations and you've got a mess."
HR executives, Gugliotti says, need to evaluate the technology being used by the virtual teams in order to find better ways to communicate, such as with video or audio conferencing, with a moderator to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak.
"If you do it right, you get happier employees who are more productive and waste less time," she says.
And, while it may seem the study is a condemnation of the use of virtual teams, Grenny says the virtual team model can work, but only if HR frames out a support structure first.
"HR needs to take a very proactive stance if a company is moving towards [the use of virtual teams]. One thing HR can do is try to create a template for co-located teams," Grenny says.
"Coming up with a best-practices list should be a standard part of launching a [virtual] team," he says. "To the degree that [HR leaders] can set those standards and train people to uphold those standards, they're making a very wise decision. The salient point of all of this is that it's not about co-location, it's about communication."