Virtually connected: A personal experience of an international PR team

AUT’s Postgraduate PRINZ Student Ambassador Catherine Mules (third from right) in Abu Dhabi for the commencement of her university project, GlobCom2016

The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Catherine Mules, PRINZ Student Ambassador at Auckland University of Technology.

Here's something we can all agree on: virtual teamwork to achieve business objectives is no longer exceptional - it is a crucial skill. I had some moments of insight into this during a university project earlier this year where I collaborated virtually to develop and pitch a global public relations campaign. The aim of this project was to plan a campaign to spread awareness about the plight of dugongs - an endangered marine mammal. The challenge was to develop the campaign virtually. I am sharing my reflections particularly with regards to the communication breakdowns experienced by our virtual team.

Many PR Professionals will be familiar with Tuckman’s stages of group development, forming, storming, norming and performing. Although Tuckman’s stages were developed in relation to face-to-face teams they are still applicable when it comes to virtual teams.

One of the key elements of the virtual team experience was leadership and allocation of roles and responsibilities. We were randomly allocated into our international teams and each one was huge with 36 members per team. Individual roles were assigned within one week via self-nomination and group voting. Unfortunately, decisions were based on little knowledge about each other because we did not have immediate access to each other’s resumes. It turned out our elected team leader had limited capabilities, experience or track record in leading, despite her initial confidence. It wasn’t long before elements of storming began to emerge.

Effective leadership requires proactive management of any conflict. Almost immediately there were complaints and mutterings behind our leader’s back, particularly about lack of task structure, inequalities of contribution and poor project direction. It was clear that her lack of leadership skills was doing little to reduce the risk of slacking. This was especially obvious in the online environment where those individuals who felt excluded from the group just disappeared off the radar.

The experience showed me that the core elements of good leadership and group interaction are the same in a virtual environment as in the face-to-face world. I had hesitated to put my name forward for a leadership role because I assumed that others had more expertise than me. I accepted the leader’s request to step-in and assist her as deputy leader a few weeks into the project. Together we developed a clear project timeline and established regular formal and informal meetings. I learnt that a primary responsibility of a good leader is to first lead yourself. As the project progressed I received positive feedback from my teammates complimenting my proactive and inclusive leadership style.

Virtual technology gave me a better ability to step back and be objective about the project because of the separation from the immediacy of my teammates, however, it challenged my ability to be responsive to their emotional needs and concerns. I found it difficult online to tune into the subtleties of the emotional needs of others as my teammates weren’t there in the office beside me or within walking distance down the corridor; I couldn’t lean over with a quick question and couldn’t watch to see how they responded to a suggestion I had made. When we eventually came together in person to present our PR proposal most of our team had the ‘task’ and ‘relationship’ cohesion we had initially struggled with online.

In this project I also found it difficult to bond informally which is needed for a cohesive team. To help overcome this we sought to increase personal and social interaction by integrating social and audio-visual media (Facebook and Google Hangouts) into the virtual team experience. We developed mutually agreed norms to provide shared rules and a timeline that we could call on to improve interaction. One useful norm was for all team members to RSVP to meetings and let team members know at least two days in advance if a task deadline could not be met. Another norm we agreed on was that we needed to treat each other with courtesy and respect. On the whole this norm was followed once we had agreed to it.

Our team was culturally diverse with team members from Germany, Malaysia, America, Sweden, South Africa and many other countries. Many of our communication problems seemed to arise as a result of cultural differences, particularly the difference between individualistic and collectivist communication patterns. For example, our Arab teammates were accustomed to a highly contextually orientated culture where it is what one doesn’t say that counts most and indirectness is favoured. This is in contrast to others in the team such as myself who are accustomed to explicit verbal messages. An issue arose between the German leader and our Arab teammates because the German leader felt the Arab team members “did not deliver on what they promised” whereas the Arab team members confided in me that they found her abrupt and blunt and closed to beliefs that were different to her own.

It turned out the personal differences and clashes in cultural perspectives we had experienced initially were constructive to the development of our project. Once we had developed structure and norms the variety of communication patterns gave us an awareness of what was needed to perform responsively and effectively appeal to an international audience.

At a more functional level, different time-zones caused difficulties in scheduling meetings and working efficiently. Some team members had limited internet access, others were less flexible in their availability. Ongoing requirements for meetings in the early hours of the morning and lack of input from other team members often left me exhausted. Although notifications and availability status can be turned on and off on most virtual technologies, scheduled times of guaranteed responsiveness is still important. In the reality of an international virtual team, this was hard to come by.

The choice of virtual technologies will vary depending on the goals of the project. Check out recommendations from others online and don’t be afraid to experiment. The online technology we used was Slack – one that is popular for its versatile capabilities.

For those of you yet to experience the virtual team dynamic, my advice is much the same as in any team: don’t be afraid to put your hand up, be enthusiastic, be open to change, and always consider how your unique abilities can best help the team. I learnt that positivity pays – knowing how to marshal your positive side despite external negativity or setbacks will help you keep your eyes on the goal and stay focused. Planning and identifying the right person for the job is still essential, even when time isn’t on your side.

Thanks to AUT for generously funding GlobCom, to my course leader Averill Gordon, and to the wonderful Team 7. The final stage in Tuckman’s stages of team process is performance – and we got there in the end!