Virtual teams – A recap of last weeks Engage talk

Mette Mari Wold Johnsen had a talk with Sigrid Westad Brandshaug, Maiken Spjelkevik and Stina Kånhoff about virtual teams and how they can succeed in our latest Engage Talk. 

By Tina Larsen

Mette Mari and Maiken are PhD students at Experts in Teamwork (EiT) NTNU, one of our partners. EiT is a master’s degree course in which students develop their interdisciplinary teamwork skills. The course is compulsory for all students in master’s programmes and programmes of professional study at NTNU. Maiken is looking into how we can teach students further about interdisciplinary collaboration, and her focus is on virtual teams. Sigrid is a PhD student at Engage and she conducts research on teams and learning processes in entrepreneurship education. Last but not least, Stina is an entrepreneur with experience of having a virtual team. She will share her experiences and lessons from working online.

Pay attention to the team

“It’s kind of a myth that start-ups consist of a lonely, often male, hero”, says Sigrid. That is at least the picture often portrayed by the media but is, however, rarely the case. Most often, a start-up company will consist of a team.

The reason why many start-ups fail is not because of problems with the company or the economy, but because of the team. Therefore, there is every reason to pay attention to the team when it comes to start-ups.

Sigrid Westad Brandshaug, PhD Student at Engage

Having such a focus during these pandemic times will therefore be of particular relevance now as many start-ups and companies are dependent on working in virtual teams. Sigrid further discusses what characterizes start-up teams. First, compared to other teams in established businesses etc., the start-up team is more homogeneous. That may for many be surprising, but starting a business is self-chosen and we humans normally choose people who are similar to ourselves. Secondly, a start-up will constantly be changing, and this also applies to the team itself. The motivation of the team members will most likely vary, as well the need for people with different skills and knowledge at different stages of development. Mastering having a flexible structure is something most startup teams struggle with. Thirdly, start-up team members will not necessarily have many formal commitments, but in return they will have a great commitment to the idea, as well as a drive and a positive energy. This is what keeps the team together. Stina confirms that a lot of what Sigrid mentions is recognizable from her own team experiences. “In relation to homogenous teams, we are two students who have the same education, are of the same gender and age and we share many interests”.

What happens when teams become virtual?

“But what happens when teams become virtual?”, Mette Mari asks.

It’s very much the same thing that happens when we meet around a table. People are the same after all. The context has changed, not the people. However, we become two-dimensional, we lose body language and we do not capture the small signals. That is probably the biggest challenge with moving to a digital platform.

Maiken Spjelkevik, PhD student at EiT NTNU

Maiken emphasizes the importance of finding the right structure and finding the right way to work together. She refers to a research programme she’s been working with called Virtual Experts in Teamwork (VEiT). “The student groups that get a good structure are often the students who check in everyday”, says Maiken. With check in she means small talk and the informal talk. Other measures you can do to make the working environment online better are exercises she refers to as icebreakers. These are exercises that normally create laughter. “There are many things you do physically, which you can also do digitally”, Maiken says. She mentions an exercise where you ask the participants to choose between two options, for example between beer and wine. The participants then write their name under what they most prefer. Maiken believes that exercises like these are important for virtual teams.

Sigrid points out that startups are good at iterating. They test out a solution and reflect on it, and then they test out a new solution again. It’s an iterative loop. “You can do the same with teamwork,” says Sigrid. “It’s about testing out ways to work together, get feedback and possibly make changes. It is an alternation between trying out and reflecting.” Stina says it’s important to be aware of typical pitfalls and finding out what works best for your team. Mette Mari says, however, that “there is no one size fits all”.

At the end of the talk, Mette Mari asks each participant for specific tips. Stina says that you have to try to incorporate the things you do physically as well, for example taking breaks. “To play with the technical aids you have”, says Maiken. Sigrid believes it is important to find good ways of working and to alternate between action and reflection.

If you want to see the Engage Talk about virtual teams and how they can succeed, you can see the video below. The next Engage Talk will be on the 28th of May.