Cohesion, Communication modality, Shared mental models, Team performance, Trust


Technological innovations in data transfer and communication have given rise to the virtual team where geographically separate individuals interact via one or more technologies to combine efforts on a collective activity. In military, business, and spaceflight settings, virtual teams are increasingly used in training and operational activities; however there are important differences between these virtual collaborations and more traditional face-to-face (FTF) interactions. One concern is the absence of FTF contact may alter team communication and cooperation and subsequently affect overall team performance. The present research examined this issue with a specific focus on how communication modality influences team learning and performance gains. Evidence from a recent study on virtual team performance (Singer, Grant, Commarford, Kring, and Zavod, 2001) indicated local teams, with both members in same physical location in Orlando, Florida which allowed for FTF contact before and after a series of virtual environment (VE) missions, performed significantly better than distributed teams, with team members in separate physical locations in Orlando and Toronto, Canada and no FTF contact. For the first mission, local and distributed teams exhibited no significant difference in performance as measured by the number of rooms properly cleared in the building search exercises. In contrast, for the second mission, occurring after each team had completed the opportunity to discuss mission performance and make plans for future missions, local teams performed significantly better than distributed teams; a pattern that continued for the remaining six missions. Given that the primary difference between local and distributed teams was how they communicated outside of the VE during after action reviews (AARs), and that the localiii distributed difference was first detected on the second mission, after teams had completed one, 10-min discussion of mission performance, a tenable conclusion is that certain team characteristics and skills necessary for performance were communication-dependent and negatively affected by the absence of FTF communication. Although Singer et al. (2001) collected multiple dependent variables related to performance and communication activities, these measures were not designed to detect communication-dependent team factors and therefore incapable of supporting such an explanation. Therefore, the present research replicated Singer et al. (2001) and incorporated additional measures in order to determine if specific communication-dependent factors could explain the inferior performance of distributed teams. Three factors critical to team communication, particularly during the AAR process, are the similarity of team members. shared mental models (SMMs), team cohesion (task and interpersonal), and team trust (cognitive and emotional). Because evidence suggests FTF communication has a positive effect on processes related to each of these factors, the current study tested whether distributed teams exhibit less similar mental models and degraded cohesion and trust in comparison to local teams, which can affect performance. Furthermore, to test the prediction that distributed teams possess degraded communication and would benefit from improved communication skills, brief team communication training (TCT) was administered to half of the teams in each location condition. Thirty two, 2-person teams comprised of undergraduate students were equally distributed into four experimental conditions (n = 8) based on the independent variables of location (local vs. distributed) and training (TCT vs. no-TCT). Teams completed five missions using the same VE system and mission tasks as in Singer et al. (2001), however in the present study distributed team members were in separate rooms in the same building, not separate geographic locations. In iv addition to performance data, participants completed a series of questionnaires to assess SMMs, cohesion, and trust. It was hypothesized that local teams would again exhibit better performance than distributed teams and that the local team advantage could partly be explained by a greater similarity in mental models and higher levels of cohesion and trust. Moreover, TCT teams in both locations were expected to exhibit improved performance over their non-trained counterparts. Analyses of the three team factors revealed the largest location and communication training differences for levels of cognitive trust, with local teams reporting higher levels than distributed teams early after the second VE mission, and TCT teams reporting higher levels than no-TCT teams after the second and fifth VE missions. In contrast, the main effects of location and communication training were only significant for one SMM measure agreement between team members on the strengths of the team's leader during the AAR sessions. Local teams and TCT teams reported higher levels of agreement after the first VE mission than their distributed v and no-TCT counterparts. Furthermore, on the first administration of the questionnaire, TCT teams reported higher levels of agreement than non-TCT teams on the main goals of the VE missions. Overall, teams in all conditions exhibited moderate to substantial levels of agreement for procedural and personnel responsibility factors, but poor levels of agreement for mental models related to interpersonal interactions. Finally, no significant differences were detected for teams in each experimental condition on levels of task or interpersonal cohesion which suggests cohesion may not mature enough over the course of several hours to be observable. In summary, the first goal of the present study was to replicate Singer et al..s (2001) findings which showed two-person teams conducting VE missions performed better after the first mission if allowed face-to-face (FTF) contact during discussions of the team's performance. Local and distributed teams in the current study did show a similar pattern of performance, completing a greater total of rooms properly, although when evaluating mission-by-mission performance, this difference was only significant for missions 3 and 4. Even though distributed team members experienced the same experimental conditions as in Singer et al. (no pre-mission contact, no FTF contact during missions or AARs) and were told their partner was at .distant location, familiarity with a teammate's dialect and other environmental cues may have differentially affected perceptions of physical and psychological distance, or social presence, which ultimately altered the distributed team relationship from before. The second goal was to determine if brief TCT could reduce or eliminate the distributed team disadvantage witnessed in Singer et al. (2001). Results did not support this prediction and revealed no significant differences between TCT and no-TCT teams with regard to number of rooms searched over the five missions. Although purposefully limited to 1 hr, the brevity of the TCT procedure (1 hr), and its broad focus, may have considerably reduced any potential benefits of learning how to communicate more effectively with a teammate. In addition, the additional training beyond the already challenging requirements of learning the VE mission tasks may have increased the cognitive load of participants during the mission phase, leading to a detriment in performance due to divided attention. Despite several notable differences from Singer et al. (2001), the present study supports that distributed teams operating in a common virtual setting experience performance deficits when compared to their physically co-located counterparts. Although this difference was not attributed to agreement on SMMs or levels of cohesion, local teams did posses higher levels of cognitive trust early on in the experimental session which may partly explain their superior performance. However additional research that manipulates cognitive trust as an independent variable is needed before implying a cause-and-effect relationship. Ultimately, this study's most significant contribution is identifying a new set of questions to understand virtual team performance. In addition to a deeper examination of cognitive trust, future research should address how features of the distributed team experience affect perceptions of the physical and psychological distance, or social presence, between team members. It is also critical to understand how broadening the communication channel for distributed teams, such as the inclusion of video images or access to biographical information about one's distant teammate, facilitates performance in a variety of virtual team contexts.


If this is your thesis or dissertation, and want to learn how to access it or for more information about readership statistics, contact us at

Graduation Date





Salas, Eduardo


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Arts and Sciences



Degree Program









Release Date

May 2004

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)


Arts and Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic; Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Sciences

Included in

Psychology Commons