The Impact of Avatars, Social Norms and Copresence on the Collaboration Effectiveness of AEC Virtual Teams
Dossick, Carrie Sturts
Taylor, John E.
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A growing number of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms are outsourcing complex design and construction work to international vendors. Due to the significant geographic distances that can separate project team members in global design networks, much of this work is executed in virtual teams, defined as teams composed of geographically separated members who collaborate to accomplish organizational tasks mediated by technology. The challenges of working in geographically distributed networks have prompted the development of alternative, virtual workspaces. Questions remain on how these virtual workspaces support or hinder collaborative work. People are social beings that rely on body language and other non-verbal cues to communicate. What happens to team formation and collaborative effectiveness when non-verbal cues are mediated through avatar actions? In this paper, qualitative ethnographic data collected over four years from studies conducted in a 3D virtual world are used to examine collaboration effectiveness of global virtual engineering project teams. We found that avatar movement and position was effective at communicating nonverbal information, even when done so unintentionally. Avatar actions that map to established social norms in the physical world results in more efficient communication. Collaboration was also enhanced when gesture bubbles were used for backchannel communication and when text chat was used to avoid interrupting voice communication. We found collaboration was hindered when the learning curve was too steep for participants to adapt to tool use or avatar actions in the environment. These findings have important implications for the future of collaboration in virtual environments, particularly in the AEC industry where 3D models can be imported into the virtual environment and explored synchronously by a project team.