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A new study sheds some light on the comparative advantages of communicating in person vs. e-mail

These days, it's not unusual for employees of small software outfits and Internet Age startups to be scattered around the globe -- "virtual employees" who seldom, if ever, meet their colleagues in the flesh. Although such arrangements have become a normal part of business life, little research has been done to compare the effectiveness of the virtual workplace with a traditional bricks-and-mortar environment. How, for example, can a manager determine if virtual meetings are more productive than the sit-down variety?

That was the question tackled by researchers at Purdue, Indiana, and Ohio State universities, where 198 undergraduates were divided into 66 three-person teams in an attempt to compare the effectiveness of virtual communication with traditional meetings in which all the participants were in the same room. "We asked the teams to deal with two kinds of tasks of varying interdependence," says Bradley J. Alge, a Purdue professor and co-author of the study, who explains that half the teams conducted virtual meetings while the others met under the same roof. "One was a brainstorming exercise in which individual team members exchanged ideas on how to improve security on campus. The other was a 'high interdependence' task, with team members playing the roles of division managers charged with working together to allocate scarce resources."


  Alge and his fellow researchers discovered that virtual teams do better at brainstorming, while the face-to-face squads earned higher scores on the second task, which demanded decisions requiring more negotiation and give and take. Face-to-face teams communicated more effectively than virtual ones during the study's initial stages, he says. But as the teams' projects continued, the virtual players shrunk that gap and became more efficient than their in-the-flesh peers.

The lesson: Bringing co-workers together at the initial stages of a project is preferred. But once participants are familiar with each other and their shared tasks, virtual communication can be even more efficient. Alge says it's premature to claim that experienced teams need only virtual communication to be effective, and he cautions that e-mails are far more likely to be misinterpreted than real life conversations. All the same, he sees the study as having opened some intriguing avenues for investigation. Says Alge: "Future research should explore the possibility that, for ongoing teams confronted with novel situations, the best approach may be a balance of face-to-face and virtual interaction."

By Alex Salkever

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