Updated March 3, with insights from Ivey HBA students Christian Cutts and Kimia Raahemifar, who participated in the experience.
Today, technology enables teams to work virtually across geographies, time zones and cultures.
But as businesses embrace this long-distance, technology-driven approach to teamwork, what is the playbook for successful collaboration to accomplish a common goal?
Ivey’s Jana Seijts and Professor April Rowsey of Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business have developed a novel approach to teaching virtual teamwork. Seijts and Rowsey developed a communications case that grouped HBA students at Ivey with MBA students at Hankamer for a hands-on experience designed to highlight the nuances and challenges of working within cross-cultural, remote and virtual teams.
The case involved a Communications team of HBA students at Ivey, led by the MBA students at Baylor, tasked with managing communications to a company’s stakeholders after a message on social media about possible layouts threatens to derail its Initial Public Offering (IPO). Adding to the challenge: The MBA “Communications Directors” were trapped at a conference by a hurricane and forced to work remotely with their teams to develop and present the plan to the CEO. In classic Ivey Case-Method style, there were additional wrinkles along the way.
Kimia Raahemifar: Mastering the subtleties
"Strong leadership and teamwork depend on the ability to communicate, captivate, and compel," says HBA student Kimia Raahemifar. "You need to catch subtle verbal and physical cues that key you into what others are feeling beyond the words they say. Then you need to leverage the space around you, your body language, and your tone to contribute to the discussion in an impactful way."
These skills are hard enough to master in person, but add in distance and technology, and it becomes even more of a challenge.
"Being an effective communicator from 2,000km away has become a key skill – anyone who masters it stands a huge advantage."
Christian Cutts: Skills of the future
“In an increasingly technological workplace, students need more opportunities to collaborate over digital mediums to build the skills and confidence necessary to use these tools effectively," says Cutts. "During the remote team learning experience, I became acutely aware of the communication challenges associated with virtual teams, and how to adapt my interpersonal style to tackle them.”
Cutts notes that his colleagues of the future will not always be located in a cubicle across from him, so these skills will be critical going forward.
Immersing students in the real world
“Getting students immersed in a real-world problem and having them try to put themselves in the position of the actors who would be doing this in the real world, was really beneficial,” said Seijts.
The challenges of working remotely quickly surfaced.
The different motivations and incentives of each group became challenges in developing a successful presentation.
“There are issues around virtual communications we wanted the students to learn,” said Seijts. “For example, were they able to understand tone, and the many on-verbal cues that were given that are more easily picked up in person? Were people missing an expression on the leader’s face that they needed to respond to?”
In developing the presentations, Ivey students also learned the skills required in “managing up,” a skill that varied among the student teams based on their corporate experience.
“Cross-cultural communications were also an important factor,” Seijts said. “Even though the MBA students were American, we picked a Texas school because it is quite different than the average Ontario student’s experience. So they had to figure out how to develop relationships beyond the task itself, because the teams that did this well were the most successful."
“This is a great example of getting students to start thinking about the complexities of communication on multiple levels within an organization – both internally and externally. The simulation also pushes our students to develop critically-important interpersonal skills and the emotional intelligence necessary to succeed in organizations. These attributes are a core part of our HBA curriculum, and this simulation pushes our students to develop these from the very start in real and meaningful ways."