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Magda Donia of the Telfer School and Thomas O’Neill of the University of Calgary investigate how virtual work teams can enhance their task performance by integrating peer feedback. Their project, “Peer Feedback in Virtual Teams,” received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Previous studies showed that informal and non-verbal feedback enables teams to gel by providing the cooperation needed for team members to work together. It’s an ingredient notably absent in today’s virtual work teams, says Donia, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour. “In face-to-face contexts, teammates benefit from things like water cooler conversations and opportunities to read people’s expressions, but virtual contexts lack opportunities for feedback to emerge naturally.”

To test their hypothesis that a well-designed peer feedback system might enhance cooperative behaviours and improve task performance in virtual teams, or VTs, the researchers will gather student participants in an experimental study involving several hundred small teams. They will be assigned different level of ‘virtuality’ to communicate and complete their tasks. Mid-way through the exercises, individuals will be given opportunities to provide and receive team-relevant behavioural feedback using an online peer evaluation system. A control group will complete the exercises without the feedback intervention for comparison. The data will be collected in the Virtual Team Performance, Innovation, and Collaboration Laboratory at the University of Calgary.

Yet such experimental ad-hoc teams don’t present the same characteristics as “intact” work teams, such as pre-established norms, member status differences, defined roles and responsibilities, or a vested long-term interest in the team’s outcome, Donia points out. For this reason, in phases 2 and 3 of the study, the researchers aim to test the use of the peer feedback system on cooperation and performance in different types of “intact” work teams, including actual employment work teams.

VTs have become ubiquitous in the modern workplace, employing virtual communications like instant messaging, email, and teleconferencing in greater or lesser degrees, but their efficacy relative to traditional teams has been questioned. “Several studies show that VTs underperform face-to-face teams, and cooperation is a core issue: it does not develop spontaneously,” Donia explains. “So there is less information exchanged, less critical analysis of viewpoints, less effective conflict resolution, and less use of specialized team member knowledge.”

Can peer evaluation offset this cooperation “deficit”? It’s intriguing to consider that a well-developed peer feedback exercise might serve as a kind of incubator for some of the soft skills on a team that hasn’t yet ‘gelled,’ suggests Donia. “It’s this idea that as people reflect on how they are contributing to the group and how others are contributing, as they listen to perspectives on what works well and what works less well, they are better equipped to respond to tasks that they have to complete. It's a forum for more information."

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