Managing Social Isolation in Virtual Teams

Virtual workplace is a new age reality of 21st century organizations. Though on one hand it offers flexibility and adaptability to the virtual team members but the lack of face-to-face interactions associated with virtual workplace, many a times, leave the members feeling socially isolated and abandoned.

Research studies indicate that some level of social interactions with supervisors and colleagues is necessary to achieve an optimum productivity level. Co-workers indulge in water cooler talks, after work gatherings, sharing their personal stories and over-the-lunch gossips. All this strengthen social bonds among the co-workers and build mutually beneficial relationships. Such interactions give a platform for employees to vent out their negative thoughts and replicate positive emotions, making them more motivated and satisfied.

Working in a virtual team pulls apart the individual from the social networks so intrinsically associated with traditional co-located teams. This social isolation creates feelings of frustration and detachment in the virtual team members.

Virtual team members fear that being out of sight would put them out of the minds of the seniors for promotions, career development and R&R opportunities. They do not feel belonged to the group and makes them vulnerable to social loafing.

There is high cost associated with social isolation issues in virtual teams. If left unaddressed, it weakens the underlying purpose of virtual teams. People do not develop adequate level of trust in each other. Members began to free-ride the virtual environment which results non performance of the members and the team missing its deadlines. This is something which no virtual team leader can afford.

These social isolation issues confront the virtual team leaders and managers with an uphill task of creating an environment that promotes social ties and reduces the feelings of loneliness. It is advisable to be careful when selecting virtual team members. In selection interviews, it is important to question candidates about their suitability to work in isolating virtual environment. Certain individuals desire independent work with less social interruptions and politics. Generally those with greater social needs find it difficult to adjust to working in a virtual team. The individual personality type can be assessed through psychological testing. Managers should also utilize team building techniques and training sessions to help team members overcome isolation. An initial launch or kick-off meeting is a good idea for people to meet face-to-face and build relationship among them. Annual meetings, occasional special events, off-site meetings also provide opportunities for members to come together.

Virtual team managers and leaders should frequently communicate with team members on individual basis through routine phone calls or e-mails. The interaction can include anything ranging from questions about the general well-being, opinions and concerns. Allocating a mentor outside the virtual team is also a good practice for reducing the feelings of isolation and making them feel included. Getting the member to conduct client meetings also address their social needs. Some organizations encourage innovative game-based training techniques to overcome social isolation. Game-based training allows users to interact in a non-work game-oriented environment.

As a manager one should watch out for minimal communication and less participation from a team member - it is not the sign of all is well but a reason to be concerned about. Even a slightest hint that a member is not feeling involved should get the manager in action. Being pro-active pays and it is better to use a combination of techniques to avoid any potential problems.


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