Are Face-to-Face Teams More Creative than Virtual Teams?

Are Face-to-Face Teams More Creative than Virtual Teams?

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Article and Author Information

Akshata Narain (MSLOC 2014) wrote this article in March 2014 for the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change Capstone Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Akshata joined the MSLOC program as a full-time student in fall 2012. While at MSLOC, Akshata served as the marketing and student outreach graduate assistant. She worked at Mondelēz International as a summer intern in the Global Learning and Leadership Centre of Excellence. During her internship, she worked on designing a road map for virtual training and developed a blueprint for a global leadership onboarding program. Akshata has more than ten years of experience in talent and organizational effectiveness. She is passionate about leadership learning and driving business results through people. After graduating, she joined ThinkWise Consulting as a Senior Consultant in the Leadership and Talent practice. Akshata is moving to Seattle in August 2014 with her husband and three-year-old son.

Abstract

One of the few big decisions made by Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, in September 2013 was to ban its employees from working from home. This decision was heavily criticized by many experts, referring to it as a step backwards for workplace flexibility. Mayer defended her decision by stressing that "people are more collaborative and innovative when they're together face to face” (Kleiman, 2013).

Traditionally teams met face to face. However with the advancements in technology and high demand for workplace flexibility, virtual teams became more prevalent. While virtual teams may be more cost-effective than face-to-face teams, there have been several discussions lately, like the one above, regarding the efficacy of virtual teams. Given this, most of the companies interested in building a global workplace will be interested in determining if virtual teams actually work. This study has been designed to evaluate if virtual teams are as creative as face to face teams and identify factors that increase and decrease creativity in virtual teams. The results of the study, based on an online quantitative survey, show that participants found face to face teams to be more creative than virtual teams.

Introduction of the Question and Methodology

More and more organizations are interested in the importance of creativity in virtual teams. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, to meet the needs of fierce global competition and changing economic landscape there is an increase in the need to design flexible structures that allow teams to work in a virtual, boundary less networks (Nemiro, 2011). These networks are used by organizations to conduct one off meetings, or to have project teams generate creative and new ideas and brainstorm on problems (Nemiro, 2011). Most of the consulting and technology firms use virtual teams frequently to meet the needs of its customers (Buchanan, 1995). Second, there is also an increase in the expectation of the employees for flexibility at workplace and thus telecommuting and work from home is on the rise (Buchanan, 1995). This results in an increase in the number of virtual teams used by organizations (Nemiro, 2011). Companies are looking at creative and innovative ways to meet the new demands of the customer and thus there is an increased focus on the importance of creativity in organizations (Nemiro, 2011).

There are different ways in which creativity in teams has been defined. Amabile (1997) defines it as the process of creating a new product or service which is useful for a firm. Whereas, Aiken & Riggs (1993) argue that creativity for a team is the process of interpersonal discussion that leads to discovery of new information and is a part of a complex social system. For this study, creativity has been defined as the creation of new, practical, and unique ideas that are significant to the organization (Chang, 2011).

Several factors hinder/ facilitate creativity (Amabile, 1997, Aiken &Riggs, 1993), but communication and information exchange have the most impact on team creativity (Engelen, Kratzer, Leenders, 2003). In other words, new and unique ideas are generated through effective communication and knowledge sharing between team members. To understand how creativity is manifested in virtual teams, both communication and information sharing are studied as factors in this study. Communication in a team is defined as the process of interaction among its members that should make the teams more productive in terms of their creative output (Engelen, Kratzer, Leenders, 2003). Information sharing on the other hand is the process through which teams use past knowledge to create new knowledge and product (Hargadon, 1999).

Overall, the study has been designed to evaluate if virtual teams are as creative as face-to-face teams, and what factors increase/decrease creativity.

The Study

An online survey, comprising both closed questions and a few open-ended questions, was conducted to measure creativity in virtual and face-to-face teams. This method helped in collecting information from a large number of respondents in virtual and face to face teams and it also helped in comparing the results between the two. Participants in the study were asked to rate their virtual teams and face-to-face teams on creativity as defined above.

Figure 1

Communication in this study was broken down into two factors – centrality of communication and frequency of communication. Participants were asked to rate the communication in their virtual and in-person teams on these two factors. They were asked if communication was dominated by a few members in a team (centrality), and if everyone met frequently and had an opportunity to express their thoughts (frequency). Based on previous research, it is assumed that creativity would be negatively impacted if communication was dominated by a few members in the team and if the team members felt there were not enough opportunities to exchange information (Engelen, Kratzer, Leenders, 2003).

The core of new ideas and products is knowledge and new knowledge is best created when existing knowledge is shared amongst all the team members. (Engelen, Kratzer, Leenders, 2003; Boutellier, Gassman, & Roux, 1998). Based on this research, the second variable for the study is information sharing. The study asked the participants if they felt that team member’s task-related expertise and skills were fully utilized (expertise utilized) in the team and if all team members exchanged ideas with each other to analyze and solve problems (knowledge sharing).

Pre-validated survey questions were used to measure the creativity, communication and information sharing to ensure reliability of findings.

Analysis & Results

Figure 2

299 respondents participated in the online survey with 245 completed responses for face-to-face and virtual teams combined. Out of these 126 responses were received for face to face teams and 119 for virtual teams. The survey was sent to my network via email, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Participants were also asked to forward the survey to anyone in their network who qualified. Participants who qualified for the survey had worked in virtual teams, face-to-face teams, or both.

The analysis of the data was done using SPSS and Microsoft Excel. A seven point Likert scale was used to measure responses, the options of the scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Mean score were calculated for measuring creativity in both face-to-face teams. Cronbach’s alpha for the scales were checked for all dependent variables (Overall Creativity= 0.905, Information Sharing=0.801, Communication=0.704). In order for a variable to be reliable the Cronbach’s alpha score should be more than 0.7.

Overall Creativity in Face to Face and Virtual Teams

Independent sample t-tests were conducted to analyze whether there are statistically significant differences in creativity levels between face to face and virtual teams. Mean scores for creativity in face-to-face teams and virtual teams showed that the respondents found the face-to-face teams more creative as compared to virtual teams for overall creativity. (Mean: Face to Face= 5.6782, Virtual Teams= 5.1626, sig=.000)

Communication in Face to Face and Virtual Teams

Independent sample tests were also conducted to measure the impact of communication in face-to-face and virtual teams. The t- test results showed that there was a significant difference between the mean of face-to-face team and virtual teams for communication and the mean was significantly higher for face-to-face teams as compared to virtual teams. (Mean: Face to Face=5.8611, Virtual Teams= 5.5902, sig=.002)

Information sharing in Face to face and Virtual teams

The t- test results also showed that there was a significant difference between the mean of face-to-face team and virtual teams for information sharing and again mean was significantly higher for face-to-face teams as compared to virtual teams. (Mean: Face to Face=5.6713, Virtual Teams=5.0949, sig=.005)

Correlation Analysis

A correlation analysis on the dependent variables- communication and information sharing proved that there was a positive correlation between the creativity and communication (p<.653) and creativity and information sharing (p<.585)

Factors contributing to creativity in teams

There are several other factors that impact team creativity.

To determine the factors other than communication and information sharing, the research also asked respondents to answer two open-ended questions:

  1. What were some of the factors that increased your virtual team's creativity?
  2. What were some of the factors that decreased your virtual team’s creativity?

Responses from the open ended questions were grouped into different buckets and analyzed for frequency of response.

Control Variables

The study asked the participants to rate their frequency of team meetings (meeting every day would be considered highly frequent, once a year highly infrequent), length of the team project, and size of the virtual teams. The responses were mapped on a frequency table. The results did not reveal any impact of these factors on team creativity.

Limitations

One of the limitations of the study is that interviews were not conducted to understand in more depth the context behind the answers given for the factors that affect creativity in virtual and in-person teams. Second limitation is that since answering all the questions could not be mandated, participants could still qualify for the study if they worked in either face-to-face or virtual teams not necessarily both. Due to this a direct comparison between the factors impacting creativity in the teams cannot be conclusively made.

Interpretation and Recommendations

Based on the results of this study, more respondents found face-to-face teams creative as compared to virtual teams. The results were consistent across both the variables – communication and information sharing. The following sections list the other factors that impact creativity in a virtual team.

Figure 3

The responses of the participants for the open ended question were grouped into four buckets: Group composition (diversity, nature of task, size of group), group processes (how team members work together), team characteristics (conflict, trust, and cohesion) and team climate (leadership support, autonomy) (Woodman, Sawyer, Griffin, 1993).

Interpretation of the factors impacting creativity

Group Process: Defined as how members of an organization work together to get things done (Osborn, 1963), group processes were ranked the highest in all the factors impacting team creativity. The respondent listed some activities like having a clear agenda, roles defined, time for brainstorming and prior preparation before the meeting as impacting creativity in teams positively in a virtual setting.

Group Composition: Another important factor which impacted team creativity was composition of the team. Respondents found that teams that had a good mix of people across geographies, demographic profiles and diverse backgrounds were more creative virtually than face to face teams. A participant noted that “a unique shared experience and diversity of background & perspective brings a passion around the subject, which enhances team creativity.”

Team Characteristics: Defined as the process of establishing trust and relationships that lead to group cooperation (Stein, 1975), team characteristics was listed as the third largest factor impacting creativity. As per one of the participants, “the biggest factor ... (for creativity), was trust and building a relationship that could allow opportunities for sharing diverse perspectives.” The outcome of building trust and psychological safety in teams results in open feedback and safety to discuss new ideas that leads to creativity (Stein, 1975).

Team Climate: Finally, team climate was identified as the fourth important factor impacting team creativity. Team climate is defined as the work environment that serves as a guide to behavior in a team setting (Stein, 1975). Participants described a team climate that supports creativity as “informal work environment,” “getting energy from others in the team,” “climate facilitating dialogue, discussions, exchanging ideas.” Leaders in a team impact the team climate. The role of a leader was described as “the ability to facilitate drawing quieter team members into the conversation and allowing each team member time to reflect on proposed decisions and come up with alternatives.”

Recommendations

So what does this mean for virtual teams? Can virtual teams work?

Based on the responses received from the participants that impact creativity in virtual teams, the following are some recommendations to consider while designing virtual teams.

  • Preparation before a virtual meeting: Setting clear goals, direction, and priorities for a virtual team meeting was highlighted as being critical to ensuring creativity. The agenda for the team meetings should be clearly communicated and agreed with for all team members. Providing individual thinking time and preparation time before each meeting enhances the quality of the team meeting. (Group Processes)
  • Identifying clear roles and responsibilities for each team member: Teams that have clearly defined roles and responsibilities are able to deal with conflict more efficiently and handle both tactical and strategic decisions more effectively (Stein, 1975). The participants in this research suggested that having identified roles such as devil's advocate, consultant, time-keeper and facilitator help the team come up with new concepts and ideas and keep the project on track. Identifying clear responsibilities and accountability ensures timely completion of the team tasks. (Group Processes)
  • Cross-functional teams: A team comprised of members with diverse backgrounds and different cultures ensures diversity of views and flow of new ideas in the team. Wherever possible, having a team composed of people with different personalities and experiences leads to a more creative output. (Group Composition)
  • Building trust and cohesion: Building frequent opportunities to communicate, team check-ins and time for team brainstorming leads to increase in trust and cohesion in teams. If possible, making it possible for teams to meet face to face at least once early on in the team's formation helps in building lasting relationships. The team agenda should include time focused on building relationships and learning about team members' capabilities and strengths. (Team Characteristics)
  • Leadership: The leader of the team meeting plays a critical role, especially in the virtual teams. The team leader should encourage an open, candid dialogue with the team, when gathered. The leader should get a feel of the non-verbal cues in virtual meetings and adjust the flow of the meeting accordingly. (Team Climate)
  • Technology: Participants in this study recommended an effective use of technology to ensure communication between virtual teams. This includes "ability to share documents and look at them at the same time", "screen-sharing software to meet real-time and have visual aids" and "virtual whiteboards." Using technology ensures that the teams can contribute seamlessly despite not being together in person. Companies that use virtual teams should extensively invest in a technology with high-end features that facilitate collaboration.

Conclusion

While a majority of respondents found face-to-face teams more creative than virtual teams, there were some respondents who found virtual teams more creative than face-to-face team. These participants suggested that virtual teams provided an opportunity to link up more resources geographically and that allows for more flow and application of new ideas. They also suggested that "lack of face-to-face reduces age/experience related inhibitions among junior members, and they express themselves more freely." This is an area that can be further investigated as a next step to this study.

While there are some advantages of meeting face to face, virtual teams can be made to work with proper planning and communication systems as listed above. A key finding that sums up this study is that companies interested in building virtual teams should remember to not treat the virtual teams the same as face-to-face teams. Instead they should design systems that support virtual teams, to make them work.

References

Aiken, M., & Riggs, M. (1993). Using a group decision support system for creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior, 27, 28-35

Amabile, T. M. (1997). Motivating creativity in organizations, California Management Review, 40(1), 39-58

Buchanan, R. (1995, February). Brave new work. R&D Management 94–99, 141.

Boutellier, R., Gassman,O., Macho, H., Roux, M.,(1998) Management of dispersed product development teams: the role of information technologies. R&D Management, 28(1), 13-25

Chang C.M. (2011) New organizational designs for promoting creativity: A case study of virtual teams with anonymity and structured interactions. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, 28(4), 268-282.

Engelen, M.L., Kratzer, L., Roger T.A.J., (2003) Virtuality, communication, and new product team creativity: a social network perspective, School of Management and Organization, University of Groningen, 5, 70-92

Griffin, R.W., Sawyer, J.E., Woodman, R.W., (1993) Towards a theory of organizational creativity, The Academy of Management Review, 2, 293-321

Hargadon, A.B. (1999). Group cognition and creativity in organizations, Research on Managing Groups and Teams, 2, 137-155.

Kleiman, A. (2013,04,19) . Marissa Mayer Finally Addresses Work From Home Ban. The Huffington Post.

Nemiro, J.E., (2000) The glue that binds creative virtual teams. Knowledge management and virtual organizations. Idea Publishing Group, Hershey, 101-123.

Nemiro, J.E.,(2011) The creative process in virtual teams. Creativity Research Journal, 14(1), 69-83.

O’Leary, Z. (2009). The essential guide to doing your research project (2nd ed.).

Osborn, A. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 13(2), 23-45

Stein, M. I. (1975). Stimulating creativity. American Educational Research Journal, 12(4), 522-524

VanGundy, A. (1984). Managing group creativity: A modular approach to problem solving. New York, American Management Association. 4, 23-45

West, M. A. (2002). Sparkling Fountains or Stagnant Ponds: An integrative model of creativity and innovation implementation in work groups. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 51(3), 355-387.

Appendix

Appendix A

Sample questions for the survey

Appendix A1 Appendix A2 Appendix A3 Appendix A4

Appendix B

Correlation between creativity in Face to Face and Virtual Teams

Appendix B

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