Capstone Project – Virtual Teams (Draft)

Abstract

Virtual teams are nothing new; there is extensive research that describes over three decades of modern virtual and distributed work teams. However, as the pace of technology and globalization sweeps through the workforce, many workers find themselves unprepared to deal with the nuance of working with managers and team members they may see only rarely, if at all. Teams are typically comprised of members who bring a specific capability or perform a defined role, and it is not always practical to select team members, or leaders for that matter, based on their virtual team capability and experience. This does not preclude the possibility, or perhaps the necessity, to assess the readiness of team members up front and prepare them accordingly to succeed in the virtual team environment. This research paper provides an overview of the assessment tools that currently exist, and select insights for managers and human resources practitioners to consider as they guide organizations through virtual team formation in the pursuit of optimal performance.

Keywords: virtual teams, assessment, selection, preparation, human resources, workforce

 

Virtual Teams: Assessing and Enhancing Readiness of Team Members

The concept of virtual teams has existed for more than two decades (Terrie, 1987; Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson, 1995; Coyle and Schnaar, 1995), however, the technology to fully optimize the benefits of a team with members in different parts of the world in support of a common set of goals is relatively new and appears to be evolving. It is conceivable that the pace of technology has in some ways outstripped the capability of workers to keep up and adapt in a way where they can make a proactive and substantive contribution to organizational goals.

In an interview for an online professional forum, Future of Work author Alison Maitland pointed out the need for better calibration of technology to human capacity: “It’s not enough to introduce new technology to the workplace. And it’s not enough to redesign workplaces. Those are just they physical manifestations. It’s critical for leaders and managers to examine their attitudes toward flexibility and they may need to change attitudes and practices (Anderson, 2011).”

Based on initial research into this area of concern, there appears to be insufficient guidance available to human resource (HR) practitioners and business managers in determining how best to utilize the available technology, which employees are a good fit for a virtual team, what predictors can be used to accurately determine suitability, and how to effectively evaluate and prepare candidates for virtual assignments in advance to avoid failures and degraded productivity. It is important to note that for most organizations and teams, it is not practical to use virtual team knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) as the sole criteria for selection, as the majority of assignments are likely to be role-based and predicated upon the expertise of the individual team members needed to achieve a specified goal or set of goals.

The first part of this paper will evaluate the current literature discussing theoretical and practical research of organizational practices in determining predictors of success when assigning members to a virtual team. The literature review spans four key areas of research that frame the discussion and approach for a focused research project: the virtual team environment; critical success factors in a virtual team; individual behaviors and other factors contributing to team efficacy; and current practices in assessment for vetting and assigning virtual team members. Based on the evaluation of current practices, a research approach is proposed that will build on the currently defined success factors, including knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs), and measure them in the context of how they would be applied in a virtual team setting.

Setting the Stage

There has been significant research into the technical underpinnings of the virtual team environment, principally focused on the design and schematic work on the necessary information technology (IT) infrastructure needed to connect far-flung team members using electronic communication tools and resources (Badrinarayanan and Arnett, 2008; Henttonen and Blomqvist, 2005). Additionally, the capabilities and requirements of an individual to effectively manage such a virtual team are fairly well defined, at least based on what is known today about boundary-spanning teamwork and communications (Cascio, 2000; Hertel, Geister and Konradt, 2005; Gibson and Cohen, 2003; Thomas and Bostrom, 2010). Largely missing from the research are meaningful instruments and vetting tools to determine whether team members are sufficiently prepared to perform in a virtual team environment. Without such predictors in place, the assignment of team members is largely a trial-and-error exercise, leading to dysfunctional teams that underperform and may be counterproductive to the goals of the parent organization (Thomas and Bostrom, 2010).

This is further reinforced in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan study on virtual teams, working in partnership with global software developer Systeme, Anwendungen und Produkte (SAP) to evaluate 80 teams across 28 locations, including Brazil, China, Germany and the United States. What the authors found is that subject matter expertise and individual availability to participate on the team are often the sole criteria for the selection of individuals for assignment to a virtual team. If a virtual team is going to have any chance of achieving its assigned goals, those responsible for building the team must also take into account the interpersonal and social skills and teamwork orientation of the proposed members, along with their capacity and willingness to work in a “dispersed team” environment (Siebdrat, Hoegl and Ernst, 2009).

Knowledge workers in particular must master the ability to work in virtual teams and other non-traditional, technology-based settings in order to remain relevant (Meister and Willyerd, 2010). In The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today, the authors describe the “über-connected” organization (230) of the next decade and outline the keys to success in the workplace of the future, all based on the ability to effectively communicate, collaborate and work with counterparts that are in other parts of the world.  They outlined ten key areas where human resources can play a key role, among them driving systems thinking, creating an inclusive culture, becoming “über-connected” and adopting a global mind-set (236).

 


Research Question

In response to today’s business environment and the envisioned “über-connected” workplace of the future, which knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) are required for an individual to succeed on virtual teams, and what resources can human resources professionals offer in advance of an assignment to their supported organizations that will prepare team leaders and individual contributors prior to their assignment to perform and interact at optimal levels in the virtual team environment?

 

Background

Identifying appropriate assessment tools and resources for the selection, advance preparation and assignment of individuals to virtual teams is predicated on a clear understanding of the nuances and conditions of the virtual team itself (Helms and Raiszadeh, 2002). Based on the research, there appears to be a logical clustering that begins with an understanding of the virtual team environment, proceeds to the success factors of a virtual team, then addresses the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) an individual needs to be successful in such a team, and finally provides the assessment and selection tools and criteria currently available.

 

The Virtual Team Environment

Virtual teams are a necessary response to the increasingly complex and diffuse nature of business in a global economy that relies heavily on technology, networks and strategic partnerships (Lurey and Raisinghani, 2001). When correctly structured and implemented, the virtual team is capable of providing the parent organization with flexibility to meet the constantly changing competitive market, at the same time creating boundary-spanning potential into different markets, countries and alliances that may have been inaccessible in the traditional organizational model.

One of the first authors to lay claim to the term “virtual corporation,” (Davidow and Malone, 1992) put a finer point on this emerging theme in The Future Arrived Yesterday, stating: “Every trend in the corporate world – technological, managerial, financial, and cultural – is pushing companies toward ever-greater virtualization, the dismantling of every traditional organizational structure, and their replacement with networks of free agents (Malone, 2009).” According to Malone, employees are increasingly finding themselves in a constant state of change, in which decentralization and flattening of hierarchies is the norm and constant reorganization is fundamentally changing the way we work within a corporation. As free agents, employees take on a greater responsibility to seek out opportunities to apply their skill sets and act as entrepreneurs within their own companies.

Hertel, Geister and Konradt offer the following definition of virtual teams: “Virtual teams consist of two or more persons who collaborate interactively to achieve common goals, while at least one of the team members works at a different location, organization, or at a different time so that communication and coordination is predominantly based on electronic communication media (2005, pg. 3).”

More simply put, a virtual team is “a physically dispersed task group that conducts its business through modern information technology (Kreitner, Kinicki and Cole, 2007). The common denominator in every definition reviewed appears to be the distance between members of the team, and the use of technology to overcome distance in order to achieve assigned goals and objectives.

This definition is further clarified by an increased dependence upon computer mediated communication (CMC) tools, and collaboration on work that is distributed across one or more dimensions (Hertel, Geister and Konradt, 2005). Lurey and Raisinghani identified the following computer-mediated methods of exchanging information among members of the virtual team, in order of frequency of use: e-mail; shared databases and groupware; and video conferencing (2001). While their study is ten years old at the time of this writing, it still appears that, in most organizations, e-mail continues to rank first in use, at least in frequency. Thomas and Bostrom, using the alternative term “information and communication technology” (ICT), identify e-mail, telephone calls, and audio conferencing as the primary methods of virtual team communication (2010).

It should not be assumed that a virtual team is comprised of the members of a common employer, as increasingly there are cases where such teams are constructed to include outside consultants, other strategic partners and businesses, and individuals with specific skill sets that would otherwise not be available to the team and its parent organization (Cascio, 2000). When managed correctly, these “alliances” have the potential to break down barriers and rapidly collaborate on projects such as new product development, engineering and architectural projects, consulting and others requiring intensive knowledge work (Cascio, 2000).

According to Peterson and Stohr there are seven basic types of virtual teams: networked teams; parallel teams; project teams; production teams; service teams; management teams; and action teams (2003). This research will focus primarily on the virtual project team, which typically works together for a defined period of time, with assigned tasks that are non-routine, expected results that are observable and measurable, and where the team itself has decision-making authority (Tabari and Kaboli, 2004).

“Can teams that don’t spend time physically together be effective?” So begins a McKinsey Quarterly article exploring virtual teams (Benson-Armer and Hsier, 1997, pg. 19). To complete the thought, “The answer is yes – so long as they can find a way to build credibility and trust (19).” As companies were just beginning to embrace e-mail and as globalization was beginning to take hold in 1997, McKinsey evaluated a number of companies that had begun the implementation of virtual organizations and virtual teams in support of specific business objectives, such as Boeing Corporation.

In support of Boeing’s 777-series aircraft design and manufacturing project, 230 cross-functional teams were utilized, with up to 40 members on any given team. This global effort involved around 500 suppliers spanning 12 countries, as well as four airline customers. Such is the nature of today’s increasingly complex and networked business model, which necessitates the ability to work across geographical, cultural and in some cases corporate boundaries to achieve business results. To succeed in such a scenario, virtual teams are needed that can effectively communicate, overcome cultural differences, create relationships based on trust, and master the technology needed to keep the project moving (Benson-Armer and Hsier, 1997).

Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith posited four “team basics” in their book, The Wisdom of Teams. These “basics” are cited in the McKinsey article (Benson-Armer and Hsier, 1997): complementary skills, goals, accountability and a common approach to the work. These “basics” are common to all teams, but in the virtual team environment these become more critical and more difficult to manage. Because of the virtual nature of the team, the authors observed that teams struggled to get the resources and support that they needed to get the job done, requiring the teams to be more resourceful.

In establishing a virtual team, once a clear purpose has been set, it is necessary to evaluate factors that can contribute to the success of the team as well as those factors which might derail its progress (Beyerlein, 2008). Using Lewin’s force field analysis, the author presented a scenario of driving and restraining forces related to virtual teams.

 

Table 1

Force Field Analysis

Driving Forces à

ß Restraining Forces

Excitement about the project

Status quo – the inertia of historical context

Supportive management style

Limited access to information (clearances)

Sufficient time and resources

Technical issues, e.g. computer platforms

Alignment to strategic priorities

Conflicting cultural context of individuals

Team record of success

Language differences and vocabulary

The right mix of people and expertise

Technical skills and background

Good informal leadership

Competing priorities and time commitments

Clarity of the project and goals

Time zone differences

 

Beyerlein offers these driving and restraining forces as examples, and the list is not comprehensive. His recommendation is that managers take the time to consider the goals of the virtual team, the environmental factors that may help or hinder the team in its mission, and look for ways to overcome the restraining forces. He also proposes the use of a scoring system for the driving and restraining forces, using positive scores for drivers and negative scores for restraints to ensure that the initial start has any likelihood of being successful based on the analysis of the scores and steps taken to mitigate the restraining forces.

Virtual Team Success Factors

In The Handbook of High Performance Virtual Teams, Stavros offers some perspectives on “sensemaking” within the virtual team environment, summarizing with a “five C” model that includes: clarity, connection (and coordination), candor, co-creation and commitment (2008). While originally designed for an academic setting, these principles appear to have relevance for a typical virtual team setting as they draw on lessons learned in a distributed learning environment and in embracing new tools for communication and collaboration in the classroom that are equally applicable in a virtual team environment.

Lurey and Raisinghani (2001) offer a number of predictors for success of a virtual team in their study, listed here in rank order based on mean score (with 5.0 being the highest possible score): job characteristics (3.47); executive leadership style (3.17); team members satisfaction (3.14); reward system (3.03); internal team leadership (3.01); tools and technologies (2.95); selection procedures (2.85); team members relations (2.83); and team process (2.71).

The authors derived the following from their research, based on the analysis of correlated data, and provide the following recommended steps in implementing virtual teams: designing team processes that support the workflow and team interaction; facilitate and encourage effective team relations and communications; develop a reward system that takes into account the dynamics and work product of a team; and ensure that qualified members are selected for the virtual team (Lurey and Raisinghani, 2001).

The following four “cornerstones” are presented as necessary elements in the development and sustainability of a virtual team: direction, competence, opportunity and motivation (Harwood, 2008), also referred to as the DCOM model. Direction is required in order for the team to have a purpose; performance against the defined objectives is predicated upon the competence of the team members; technology underpins the successful interactions of the team, creating opportunity to perform; and motivation is achieved, at least in part, through the communications, feedback loops, and acknowledgement of the respective team members’ contributions.

Performance, team member satisfaction, team learning capacity, and stakeholder satisfaction are identified as key to the effectiveness of a team (Newman, 2005). Within the team or group, one or more members may play a role in conflict management and mediation; seeking compromise; acting as gatekeepers to ensure full participation and control of the flow of communication; and encouragement to create a supportive climate where all members feel valued (Newman, 2005).

There are certain processes and supporting behaviors required for a group to function and perform, among them seeking, sharing and clarifying information; initiating activities; elaborating and summarizing; and moving the group to consensus (Newman, 2005). These hold true for groups and teams that meet face-to-face as well as those convening virtually.

As a part of an early research experiment with 18 cross-functional virtual teams at Sabre, Inc., the following three dimensions of “virtuality” were identified and evaluated: time spent together as a time versus time apart; dispersion of team members to multiple locations; and time dedicated to the specific nature of the virtual team project. These dimensions could be further refined to read time, distance, and involvement. To compensate for or span these dimensions, virtual teams need to build trust quickly, create synergy and effective group processes, focus on inclusion and involvement of all team members, seek team members who have the necessary technical and interpersonal skills, and develop effective feedback loops (Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson, 1995).

To create predictability and to develop patterns of repeatable behavior, the use of processes and the establishment of protocols very early in the team’s formation improves the likelihood of effective engagement of team members and collaboration among the team. To this end, Hoefling has created a team development process checklist (2008) that outlines considerations for team assignment and factors for success. For example, it is important to have an understanding early on as to the previous experience the team’s members have in similar virtual settings, and to gain insights based on their lessons learned. It can be helpful to understand their career goals and aspirations to check for alignment with the purpose of the team, and to evaluate and assess the inclusiveness and communication capabilities each person brings to the team.

The Hoefling checklist provides an implicit statement of the success factors in the outline of the following planning and interaction elements: stating and clarifying goals; identifying available resources; setting performance standards; establishing roles and responsibilities for all team members; defining decision making process and authority of members; and setting the approach for communications and collaboration (2008).

Breakdowns in team effectiveness tend to occur as a result of poor communication or gaps in understanding that lead to poor performance or disengagement of team members (Gibson and Cohen, 2003; Kerber and Buono 2004). Virtual team leaders need to effectively address the following five hurdles and areas of weakness to ensure that the virtual team can succeed: external constraints; internal constraints; effectiveness of information and communication technology (ICT) resources; intra-organizational trust and relationship issues; and ICT knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) (Thomas and Bostrom, 2010).

 

How Virtual Teams Differ from Face to Face Teams

No matter the proximity of the team members, all teams begin with a purpose, and in orienting to the overarching mission they will create a team culture, a climate of trust among the team members, and a leadership structure that guides the team’s progress. Virtual teams must overcome additional challenges, such as geographic distances, technology that makes the ongoing teamwork possible, and in some cases differences in time zones that affect synchronous collaboration.

University of Denver professor and virtual teams expert Trina Hoefling points out that the use of the word “virtual” can result in the inference that the word following it, such as “reality” or “team,” is not real but that there is “essential closeness but not realness (2008, pg. 87).” She goes on to assert that while the work may be virtual, it is still real work and it is being done by a real team comprised of real people. In other words, all of the same rules apply to the virtual team as they would for a traditional team.

“Virtual teams are simultaneously more and less bound than traditional face-to-face teams by the restrictions of time (Nemiro, Bradley, Beyerlein and Beyerlein, 2008).” In global organizations, a virtual team can effectively create a 24-hour workday with handoffs between members of the team to keep the work process moving forward. Depending upon the level of required collaboration and interaction between team members, this can be a significant advantage for the virtual team or it can create major drawbacks. If tasks are not fully understood, handoffs are not managed appropriately, or roles are not fully clarified and embraced up front, there are potentially “fatal” risks for the team’s performance that in a face-to-face setting could be addressed quickly with an ad hoc meeting, but in a distributed environment could result in a complete breakdown of the team’s work processes.

As a result of these potentially confounding factors, an organization that intends to form a virtual team must first check to ensure that the culture can support this arrangement, that the technology is available to support collaboration and communication, and provide the necessary training to ensure that the virtual team members are able to function in this environment on an interpersonal and technical level.

In the “Conceptual Framework for Team Staffing” model referenced in Figure 1, Orvis and Zaccaro draw upon the fundamental work of Hackman and Morris (1975) to show how, while much has changed due to technology, much has remained the same when it comes to human dynamics, interpersonal relationships and the basics for team formation (2008).

Figure 1.

Conceptual Framework for Team Staffing Strategy.

 

The critical first step in the process is identification of the team’s mission and skill requirements. Once these parameters are established, the next step is to select the team members based on what the authors refer to as “generic skill markers, (pg. 253)” to keep the focus on what team composition is most likely to contribute to the team’s ultimate success, rather than simply pulling together a team out of convenience, based on availability instead of capability. The third step is to identify the specific work skills for the team’s purpose, and at this point it is important to consider the technical skills of the candidates as well as their subject matter expertise. Finally, the fourth step brings the team together based upon what the authors call an “appropriate mix of team skills, (pg. 255)” which includes not only the individual technical capability but also the interpersonal styles and, in the case of a virtual team, the likelihood of performing in the distributed work setting.

When it comes to getting work done as a team, it is essential that all members have a shared understanding of the goals, and their individual roles in support of the team’s deliverables. Whether a team meets virtually or face-to-face, team communication and collaboration can constitute up to 90 percent of the time (Lewinson, 2010) so it is essential that this communication time is well invested and well-managed.

Provided that the parent organization takes the time to carefully evaluate the purpose of the virtual team, select its members based not only on subject-matter expertise but also likelihood of performing well in the virtual environment, and actively manage and monitor the team’s efforts, a virtual team can be as effective as a traditional face-to-face team. And a virtual team can fulfill all of the characteristics outlined in Joining Together, including systems of accountability, open-ended discussions, active problem solving and sharing of leadership responsibility among the team’s members. As pointed out in the text, it is absolutely necessary that the team has “a specific, well-defined purpose” and that all members understand their roles within the team (Johnson & Johnson, 2009, pg. 527).

Benchmarking Virtual Team Effectiveness

In the 1990s, as telecommuting began to emerge as a viable option for workers, companies such as IBM observed increases in employee productivity and satisfaction linked to the remote work option (Helms & Raiszadeh, 2002), particularly in the first year of working in a virtual setting. In fact, research published in The Academy of Management Executive reflects increased productivity as high as 40 percent at IBM as a result of their move to a more virtual workplace (Cascio, 2000, pg. 81).

Increasingly, companies that rely on knowledge work are adapting their organizational structures, performance and reward systems, and in some cases the entire business model to shift the focus to results (Helms & Raiszadeh, 2002). Early adopters of virtual team concepts include IBM, Shell, Xerox and AT&T. Each company had to re-evaluate the traditional manager-to-employee relationship, technology infrastructure and business processes to empower employees to make their own decisions, give them access to the tools and information from any location, and hold them accountable for their achievement of goals rather than “presenteeism (Davis & Blass, 2006, pg. 47),” an outdated management expectation that an employee can only be working when they are physically present in an office and visible to the manager.

In a comprehensive review of empirical research related to virtual teams, Hertel, Geister and Konradt offer the VIST model for evaluating and improving the overall effectiveness of a virtual team. VIST is an acronym with the following components: valence, instrumentality, self-efficacy, and trust (2005, pg. 84). The valence component focuses on the team’s goals and the motivation of each individual to work toward these goals. With instrumentality, each team member gauges their own contribution and importance to the team’s performance. Self-efficacy delves into the actual capability of the team’s members to carry out their individual responsibilities based on knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). And while trust is a generally understood term, in the case of virtual teams this can be a tricky component to measure and manage, as the very membership in a virtual team requires a certain leap of faith and the notion of “swift trust” where each member is compelled from the outset to trust the others until proven wrong.

Drexler and Sibbet have designed and continued to perfect a team performance model that roughly follows Bruce Tuckman’s group development model (forming, storming, norming and performing) but also includes conforming stages that make it a valuable model for virtual teams. In an embellished version of the model, the seven stages are groups to indicate opportunities for “same time, same place” team activities, optimally conducted in a face-to-face setting; “same time” activities that could conceivably be carried out in a virtual setting; and “different times and places” activities in the performing phase that are core to the team’s effectiveness and results.

Individual Behaviors and Factors

Whether an individual can be successful working in a virtual environment may depend upon their “fit” for that type of structure, and a person-environment (P-E) fit study was conducted by Shin (2004) to evaluate the congruence of any given individual’s attributes, capabilities and work style preferences to those required in the typical structure and setting of a virtual team. The individual attributes tested included: autonomy, flexibility, diversity, trust, computer literacy, time management skills and the ability to work autonomously. Based upon values assigned to each of these attributes for matching against the person-organization, person-group and person-job fit, the P-E fit study was able to yield individual scores in predicted performance, job satisfaction, organizational commitment and turnover intentions (729).

Based on this study, Shin highlighted the following attributes as most closely correlated with success in a virtual team setting: high autonomy, flexibility, valuing diversity, and willingness to trust others. These findings are directly relevant to human resources (HR) practitioners as they can serve as desired attributes in the recruiting process as well as in the training and development efforts of the parent organization seeking to launch high-performing and effective virtual teams (2004, 739).

In order to effectively design assessment instruments to predict the success of prospective virtual team members, it is essential to have a working list of the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that are most closely aligned to the work of a virtual team. These will likely include some or all of the following: proficiency with technology tools; knowledge and practice of etiquette for electronic communication; the ability to build effective relationships and work as a member of a team; communication (in writing and via electronic media such as videoconference) in a virtual setting and across cultures;  the ability to work with data; ability to manage projects; and the ability to exercise self-management to include effective time and priority management, initiative and professional development (Management Assistance Program, 2009).

Building on related work in the academic field, Newman (2005) offers an extensive list of the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) of effective virtual team members in a learning environment, which include: listens effectively, communicates often, willing to do their fair share, and multiple other criteria, summarized in the following list:

Knowledge

  • K1 – Technical knowledge required for the team’s primary assignment
  • K2 – Task knowledge for the respondent’s main role on the team

Skills

  • S1 – Virtual team communication tools and resources
  • S2 – Virtual team technology and project tools
  • S3 – Project and/or task related analytical skills

Abilities

  • A1 – Listen effectively
  • A2 – Read information for understanding
  • A3 – Communicate effectively through writing
  • A4 – Provide feedback
  • A5 – Self-manage
  • A6 – Resolve conflicts
  • A7 – Collaborate in problem-solving

Other Attributes

  • O1 – Well-organized
  • O2 – Takes initiative
  • O3 – Works well without supervision
  • O4 – Self-motivated
  • O5 – Respects others
  • O6 – Dedicated to doing a good job
  • O7 – Flexible
  • O8 – Open to the views of others
  • O9 – Demonstrates positive attitude
  • O10 – Trustworthy/dependable
  • O11 – Able to compromise and reach consensus
  • O12 – Willing to contribute fair share
  • O13 – Provide work in a timely fashion

“Technology is the remote worker’s lifeline (Cascio, 2000, pg. 82).” Consequently, one of the key skills required for an individual to succeed in a virtual team environment is a high level of capability and comfort with technology and computer-based tools, software and other resources (Management Assistance Program, 2009).

Finally, while alluded to earlier in this paper, the need for virtual team members to be self-sufficient and self-managing is quite possibly the linchpin of the virtual team’s ability to function for any significant period of time. Because it is not possible for a team manager to apply traditional methods of control and oversight with a virtual team (Siebdrat, Hoegl and Ernst, 2009), increasingly those management responsibilities are diffuse and fall to the individual team members to deal with situations that inevitably arise and to take initiative to solve problems rather than waiting for management intervention. Consequently, this skill set must be carefully defined and included in any vetting criteria that will be used for the assignment of individuals to a virtual team.

Assessment and Vetting

For a virtual team to be effective, it must first satisfy the same principles, or “basics” as identified by Katzenbach and Smith, as those of face-to-face teams: complementary skills, goals, accountability and a common approach to the work. In addition, the virtual team must be able to take on additional functions of self-sufficiency and performance across time and space, including: production and task performance; team member support; and maintenance of group well-being (Järvenpää and Leidner 1998).

Based on extensive research of the available assessment tools and resources that are available, the following four tools are presented as potential starting points for accurately predicting the success of a team member being considered for assignment to a virtual team: the Virtual Team Competency Inventory (VTCI) (Hertel, G., Konradt and Voss, 2006); the Organizational Precursors Assessment tool (Willett, 2000); the Virtual Team Operations survey (Steege, 2003); and an adaptation of the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) of Effective Virtual Team Members list discussed earlier in this paper (Newman, 2005).

In the Sabre, Inc. study, some of the best practices that emerged in the selection process included the use of relevant behavioral interviewing questions, coupled with simulations of the work environment to evaluate individual work styles and tendencies; and the use of interview and screening panels comprised of employees with actual experience on a virtual team. Their purpose was to elicit responses from potential team members that would show whether the candidates had the necessary balance of technical and interpersonal skills to succeed on a virtual team (Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk and McPherson, 1995).

This theoretical framework for the Virtual Team Competency Index (Hertel, Konradt and Voss, 2006), is based on an analysis of the following 11 individual attributes (referred to by the authors as “subscales”) that include loyalty, integrity, conscientiousness, cooperativeness, communication skills, learning motivation, creativity, independence, persistence, interpersonal trust, and intercultural knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). These attributes are analyzed in the context of the task work, teamwork and tele-cooperation KSA groupings. In their study, Hertel, Konradt and Voss were able to validate ten of the 11 subscales based on their correlation with team member performance and motivation, with the one exception being intercultural KSAs due to insufficient experience in this area among the tested population.

An effective assessment tool should take into account the purpose of the virtual team; the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that will be required to perform and achieve the defined team goals; and a way to measure individual personality type, traits, preferences and characteristics (including cultural nuance) which could positively or negatively impact the overall composition, interactions and success of the team (Bing, 2004). Coincidentally, Dr. Bing is the founder and chairman of ITAP International, which offers another instrument called the “Global Team Process Questionnaire (GTPQ)” which was considered for this project but ruled out as it provides measurement of the global team in place, without any observed predictive capability for vetting potential candidates for a virtual team.

 

Research Approach

The purpose of this research is to identify, through a questionnaire completed by at least 100 working professionals with virtual team experience, the knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) required for an individual to succeed in the virtual team environment, and what resources can human resources professionals offer in advance of an assignment to their supported organizations that will prepare individual contributors prior to their assignment to virtual teams.

Based on nearly two decades of research, there are numerous KSAOs that are either necessary or desirable for participants on a virtual team, as well as for individual contributors working remotely. What has not been adequately explored is the role that human resources can play, not only in selecting for team assignments based on the KSAOs needed, but also in preparing prospective team members to function effectively in the virtual environment.

Assuming that most members of a virtual team are selected and assigned based on their specialized knowledge and/or organizational role, it may not be practical to select members solely based on their virtual team KSAOs. Instead, human resources should use this opportunity to prepare future virtual team members by making them aware of what is required and expected, providing training and development resources where appropriate and available, and supporting the team leader and team members with interventions, performance management, and reinforcement.

This research project will focus on individual experiences on previous virtual teams, with an emphasis on the necessary KSAOs for effective participation, a self-efficacy measurement of the subjects’ readiness at the time they were most recently assigned to a virtual team, and a gap analysis to point to areas where up-front intervention and training would contribute to individual and team performance in the virtual team environment.

Based on the responses to the survey, an analysis of the feedback will seek to prioritize human resources support and intervention opportunities in the following three groupings: what can be taught prior to the virtual team assignment; what can be learned on the job while assigned to the virtual team; and what can be addressed and mitigated through team member and leader development and preparation. The focus of this research project is the individual contributor. Future research could include the team dynamic and the essential KSAOs of a team leader in the virtual environment.

Problem Statement

As revealed in the literature review, the use of virtual teams within organizations is a growing trend that requires adaptive communication skills as well as at least a basic level of technology savvy. Organizations continue to invest in the technology to facilitate virtual teams, but the readiness of individuals to perform in this environment can vary, at times adversely impacting the ability of the team to achieve its goals or fulfill its purpose.

If it is not always feasible to select virtual team members based on their readiness to work in this type of environment, it falls to the organization to adequately prepare team members and team leaders for the requirements and nuances of the virtual team environment. This preparation may include orientation and onboarding training that generates awareness for the necessary KSAOs of a typical virtual team, technical training on the use of various communication and group project tools, and targeted training to prepare individuals for the virtual team environment.

Hypotheses

The following hypotheses will be tested in this study, to isolate specific readiness issues, determine priorities for readiness and training, and to inform human resources processes in virtual team selection and assignment.

Hypothesis 1. The knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) required to perform as part of a virtual team in a work setting are comparable to those required in an e-learning environment, and KSAOs that have been identified for e-learning can be applied for the purpose of awareness, selection and readiness training.

Hypothesis 2. Individual team member satisfaction, which has been shown in the literature review to be a key factor of virtual team success, will differ by age group/generation based on work preferences and familiarity with computer-mediated communication and technology.

Hypothesis 3. Virtual team success is predicated upon a clear understanding by all members of the team of the team’s purpose, the roles and responsibilities of the team’s members, and a structured approach to team leadership and communication.

Hypothesis 4. The size and composition of a virtual team will impact the overall effectiveness of the team and the satisfaction levels of its team members, with the ideal size of a virtual team being less than 12 members.

Hypothesis 5. Virtual teams are more prevalent in larger organizations, particularly in companies that have a global “footprint” and maintain operations in multiple countries.

Methodology

This study included the use of an online survey instrument, tested first in a pilot to ensure that it accurately conveyed the intent of the research and can effectively capture the necessary data, and then in a full survey designed to identify the knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) deemed most essential for operating in a virtual team environment. The survey instrument was designed using input from a total of six other sources, based on previous attempts to develop selection and assessment criteria for virtual team assignment.

Participants in the study were selected based upon their previous or current experience working in a virtual team environment, either as a remote worker on a traditional team or as a member of a completely virtual team. A minimum of 1000 United States-based professionals were solicited to participate in this study. For the purpose of this study, participants were instructed to base their survey responses on their first-ever virtual team experience, to evaluate their perceptions of self-efficacy and the overall virtual team environment without the benefit of prior virtual team experience.

The following definition of a virtual team was used for the purpose of this study:

Virtual teams consist of two or more persons who collaborate interactively to achieve common goals, while at least one of the team members works at a different location, organization, or at a different time so that communication and coordination is predominantly based on electronic communication media (Hertel, Geister and Konradt, 2005).

The general characteristics of the virtual team environment evaluated in this research are as follows: individuals working within a virtual team setting, pursuing a collaborative effort that can be classified as “knowledge work,” in support of an organization with team members in at least two different locations.

Instrumentation

The study focused on adapting a knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) model from an e-learning team environment to that of a virtual team environment, drawing on the same necessary communication and collaboration requirements (Newman, 2005).

Data Collection

Survey invitations and data entry were managed using the MarketTools Zoomerang online survey and questionnaire tool, a paid service. Participants were selected from professional networks, directly or indirectly known by the principal investigator. They were invited to participate via email with a linked Zoomerang online questionnaire. The invitation email explained the purpose of the study and provided an assurance that no personal information or identifiable individual responses would be used in the report. The email also included a statement that participation in the linked questionnaire indicates implied consent and that they had the option not to participate without any negative consequences.

The MarketTools Zoomerang online resource is a password-secured site, and only the principal investigator had access to the individual response data. Data were also collected on the following aspects of the study: participant age; type of virtual team experience; size of the team; evaluation of the essential KSAOs; and a modified self-efficacy analysis of their readiness at the time they were assigned to the team.

Data Analysis

Responses were evaluated and participant data aggregated using the built-in analysis tools of the Zoomerang online survey tool. Incomplete survey responses were eliminated from the study and are not reflected in this report.

In addition to evaluating the necessary KSAOs, this study attempts to correlate data based on age groups and generational tendencies. It also evaluated individual perceptions of critical or essential KSAOs based on the participant’s role.

 

Results

Of the 1,087 people invited to participate in the survey, 147 completed the entire questionnaire, and these findings are based solely upon complete responses. Of the remaining invitations which did not yield a complete response, the following exclusions reduced the sample population:

“Hard bounce” – email address used to initiate the survey was no longer valid: 260

“Soft bounce” – email invitation was rejected by the server for various reasons, resulting in the email not reaching the intended recipient: 106

“No response” – email invitation reached the intended recipient, but after one initial communication and two reminders in the 14-day period of the survey, the recipient did not respond: 539

“Opted out” – email invitation reached the intended recipient, and the recipient requested through an automated response system to be removed from the survey and from future MarketTools Zoomerang surveys: 15

“Partial complete” – the recipient partially completed the survey but did not complete the entire questionnaire, resulting in the entire partial responses being eliminated from the aggregate data and study: 20

Therefore, of the 1,087 email addresses that were used to initiate the survey, only 721 invitations were actually transmitted successfully. Of the 721 successful invitations, 147 responses effectively represent a 20.4 percent rate.

There were nearly equal numbers of responses from male and female participants, with a total of 74 males and 73 females taking part in the survey. Based on a cursory review of the final survey results using a filter to separate responses based on gender, there were only two areas of note where gender appeared to make a difference in the survey: males tended to have less reported capability with virtual team technology tools than females; and there were more males participating from small businesses than females. Conversely, there were slightly more females than males participating from the larger enterprise perspective. These gender differences do not appear to have significantly impacted the core of this study, the evaluation of knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributed (KSAOs).

Initially, this research was intended to evaluate experiences and perceptions across three (3) generations in the workplace: Baby Boomers (age 47 – 64); Generation X (age 31 – 46); and Generation Y/Millennial (age 22 – 30). Because participants were invited from the principal investigator’s professional contacts, the Generation Y/Millennial group was under-represented in the sample and cannot be evaluated due to the limited number of responses (6 completed questionnaires). For the purpose of this analysis, generational comparisons will be limited to the Baby Boomers (76 completed questionnaires) and Generation X (61 completed questionnaires).

 

 

Table 2

Characteristics of Survey Participants, Generation X and Baby Boomer

 

 

Characteristic                                      Generation X              Baby Boomer

(n=61)                         (n=76)

 

 

Current age (range)                             31 to 46                       47 to 64

 

Gender

–          Male                                        n=27                            n=42

–          Female                                     n=34                            n=34

 

Years of Work Experience

–          Between 5-10 years                n=5                              n=1

–          More than 10 years                 n=56                            n=75

 

First Virtual Team Assignment

–          Less than a year ago                n=7                              n=2

–          Between 1-2 years ago            n=8                              n=4

–          Between 2-5 years ago            n=15                            n=16

–          Between 5-10 years ago          n=17                            n=23

–          More than 10 years ago           n=14                            n=31

 

 

 

Another criterion for evaluation was the number of years of work experience the respondents indicated in the questionnaire. An overwhelming majority of the responses (93 percent) reflect ten or more years of work experience, a consequence of the under-representation of Generation Y/Millennial participant feedback in this research. As a result, the years of experience data will have little bearing on the analysis and findings.

Among the twenty questions in the survey instrument, two questions called for open-ended responses. The first asked for feedback on lessons learned based on the respondent’s experience working in the virtual team environment, and the second asked for a sentence or phrase to sum up the respondent’s reflection on their ability to operate within the virtual team environment.

Five key themes emerged in the open-ended responses to the first question about lessons learned: the criticality of effective communication (42 of 147 responses, or 28.6 percent); the need for preparing team members before entering the virtual team environment (33 of 147 responses, or 22.4 percent); the importance of clearly-stated goals and objectives (29 of 147 responses, or 19.7 percent); the need for scheduling and structure (28 of 147 responses; or 19.1 percent); and the effects and implications of group dynamics on the overall virtual team effectiveness (22 of 147 responses, or 14.9 percent).

These five themes were reinforced in the second set of open-ended responses, and invoked references to the importance of technology in closing the gap in interpersonal communications.

Following are some examples of the anecdotal and open-ended responses to the question about the respondent’s ability to operate in a virtual environment:

  • “It’s pretty much how teams work in the modern work environment (R5).”
  • “Virtual teams are fun and effective, but take an above-average skill of communication and self-motivation (R18).”
  • “In today’s business environment, it’s critical to master working effectively in a virtual team environment. It is the everyday reality of how the business world works (R25).”
  • “Do not get hung up on the need for unanimity, and be ready to move forward in the face of ambiguities to arrive at a clear solution [and] recommendation as a group (R32).”
  • “[A virtual team] requires considerable patience and willingness to accept inefficiency initially until the team “gels” and everyone understands the tools and communications system (R37).”

 

 

Testing of Hypotheses

Hypothesis 1. The knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) required to perform as part of a virtual team in a work setting are comparable to those required in an e-learning environment, and KSAOs that have been identified for e-learning can be applied for the purpose of awareness, selection and readiness training.

Using the knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) identified as relevant for e-learning teams (Newman, 2005) as a starting point for evaluation of virtual work teams KSAOs appears to have been supported by the survey data, but the attempt to use a modified self-efficacy assessment to gauge individual readiness and performance elicited much higher than expected scores that may confound the overall result. Particularly in the subsets of abilities and other attributes, the self-scoring approach for readiness uniformly reflects that, at the time of assignment, nearly all respondents possessed the necessary abilities and other attributes to a great extent. The resulting comparative data makes these factors difficult to evaluate in a meaningful way.

Following are the aggregate scores for all participants for the corresponding knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes based on their own reported self-efficacy in their first-ever virtual team assignment, followed in by the corresponding score of how necessary each of these KSAOs turned out to be, based on the actual virtual team experience:

 

 

Table 3

Self-Efficacy and Necessity of Virtual Team KSAOs

 

 

Measure                                               Self-Efficacy Rating      Extent Required                   Gap

 

 

Knowledge

 

K1 – Technical knowledge required

for the team’s primary assignment:                 3.84                             3.93                             0.09

 

K2 – Task knowledge for the respondent’s

main role on the team:                                     3.99                             4.29                             0.30

 

 

 

Measure                                               Self-Efficacy Rating      Extent Required                   Gap

 

 

Skills

 

S1 – Virtual team communication

tools and resources:                                         3.31                             3.82                             0.51

 

S2 – Virtual team technology and

project tools:                                                   2.66                             3.45                             0.79

 

S3 – Project and/or task related

analytical skills:                                               3.92                             4.06                             0.14

 

 

 

Measure                                               Self-Efficacy Rating      Extent Required                   Gap

 

 

Abilities

 

A1 – Listen effectively:                                   4.35                             4.44                             0.09

 

A2 – Read information for

understanding:                                                4.53                             4.44                             N/A

 

A3 – Communicate effectively

through writing:                                              4.41                             4.48                             0.07

 

A4 – Provide feedback:                                   4.31                             4.31                             N/A

 

A5 – Self-manage:                                           4.61                             4.59                             N/A

 

A6 – Resolve conflicts:                                   4.08                             4.08                             N/A

 

A7 – Collaborate in problem-solving: 4.33                             4.31                             N/A

 

 

 

Measure                                               Self-Efficacy Rating      Extent Required                   Gap

 

 

Other Attributes

 

O1 – Well-organized:                                      4.24                             4.33                             0.09

 

O2 – Takes initiative:                                       4.59                             4.42                             N/A

 

O3 – Works well without supervision:            4.78                             4.56                             N/A

 

O4 – Self-motivated:                                       4.71                             4.49                             N/A

 

O5 – Respects others:                                      4.62                             4.42                             N/A

 

O6 – Dedicated to doing a good job:              4.82                             4.55                             N/A

 

O7 – Flexible:                                                  4.43                             4.35                             N/A

 

O8 – Open to the views of others:                  4.43                             4.38                             N/A

 

O9 – Demonstrates positive attitude:              4.50                             4.29                             N/A

 

O10 – Trustworthy/dependable:                      4.77                             4.54                             N/A

 

O11 – Able to compromise and

reach consensus:                                              4.32                             4.35                             0.03

 

O12 – Willing to contribute fair share:            4.70                             4.49                             N/A

 

O13 – Provide work in a timely fashion:         4.50                             4.50                             N/A

 

 

 

These twenty-five (25) KSAOs were evaluated using a five-point Likert Scale, with a score of 1 indicating “not at all” and a score of 5 indicating “to a large extent.” A score of 3 indicated that the respondent possessed that particular knowledge, skill, ability or other attribute “to a moderate extent.”

However, within the KSAOs, and specifically those related to using the technology that facilitates communication, interaction and work product development, there were some observable areas where readiness was lower. The reported extent required to self-efficacy score revealed a gap of 0.79 for project tools and 0.51 for communication tools. Similar to the self-efficacy evaluation for abilities and other attributes, respondents evaluated themselves as well-prepared for the necessary project and task-related analytical skills.

While there were several observable instances where the response data showed a lesser degree of need for a particular KSAO relative to the level of self-efficacy and capability reflected by the survey participants in the aggregate, the hypothesis appears to be supported by the survey. In each of the twenty-five (25) evaluated KSAOs, the level of need was at least “to a moderate extent,” and in all but two of the KSAOs (communication tools and group technology tools) the scores were 4.06 or higher.

Hypothesis 2. Individual team member satisfaction, which has been shown in the literature review to be a key factor of virtual team success, will differ by age group/generation based on work preferences and familiarity with computer-mediated communication and technology.

Because of the limited number of responses from participants younger than 31 (Millennial/Generation Y) and older than 64 (Silent Generation), this analysis is limited to a comparison of satisfaction levels between Generation X (participants between ages 31 to 46 at the time of the study) and the Baby Boomer generation (participants between ages 47 to 64 at the time of the study) based on their responses to six sub-components of satisfaction with their first virtual team experience. Responses indicated with the number one (1) reflect “not at all satisfied” and responses indicated with the number five (5) reflect “satisfied to a great extent.”

Table 4

Comparison of Satisfaction Levels by Age Group (Generation)

 

 

Satisfaction Measure                                       Generation X                          Baby Boomer

(n=61)                                     (n=76)

 

 

Prior preparation for assignment                                 3.10                                         3.41

Ability to effectively contribute                                 3.87                                         4.29

Communication habits of the team                             3.26                                         3.61

Leadership style of team                                             3.57                                         3.76

Overall effectiveness of the team                               3.64                                         4.04

Work product and results                                           3.85                                         4.14

 

 

In each of the rated areas of satisfaction, participants in the Baby Boomer generation indicated higher levels of satisfaction, partially validating the assumption that satisfaction levels would differ by generation. However, while not explicitly stated in the original hypothesis, the assumption that members of the so-called Generation X would have a greater familiarity with computer-mediated communication and technology is not supported by the findings.

It would appear that other generational tendencies take precedence in the perceived levels of satisfaction, and that members of the Baby Boomer generation are able to realize additional benefits through the use of virtual teams that enhance their capability to perform in their roles and as part of an organization. A separate study would need to be conducted to evaluate attitudes about work environments and self-efficacy by generation, with a control group working in a more traditional setting, without virtual team interfaces, to fully vet this hypothesis.

Hypothesis 3. Virtual team success is predicated upon a clear understanding by all members of the team of the team’s purpose, the roles and responsibilities of the team’s members, and a structured approach to team leadership and communication.

This hypothesis was partially tested in the survey instrument, using the individual response on satisfaction with the prior preparation for the assignment to their satisfaction with the overall effectiveness and results of the virtual team. Of the 147 responses, 35 people (23.8 percent) indicated that they were dissatisfied with their own preparedness for their work on the virtual team. Their levels of satisfaction with the overall effectiveness, work product and results produced by the virtual team were lower than the rest of the sample, as were their levels of satisfaction with each aspect of the experience.

Table 5

 

Satisfaction Based on Prior Preparation

 

 

Measure                                               Satisfied with                         Dissatisfied with

Prior Preparation                     Prior Preparation

(n=112)                                   (n=35)

 

 

Ability to effectively contribute                     4.22                                         3.74

Communication habits of the team                 3.63                                         2.91

Leadership style of team                                 3.88                                         2.97

Overall effectiveness of the team                   4.03                                         3.34

Work product and results                               4.17                                         3.57

 

 

It is in the anecdotal feedback that the need for preparation becomes clearer, as shown in the following “lessons learned” open-ended responses:

  • “The project or assignment should be specifically laid out before each team member prior to the first collaboration. One should not assume that any team member knows or understands their role prior to receiving a predefined set of instructions, goals and a synopsis of the intended final outcome (R3).”
  • “[It is] absolutely critical to have goals and expected outcomes made very clear in advance on starting the project. Having a single, clear leader is critical for coordination. (R20).”
  • “First of all, companies should present the team members with as much of the details as possible, provide examples, be willing to answer questions or concerns and be willing to listen to each member. The person(s) that is assigning the task should be fair and offer constructive guidelines to obtain effective results. The outcome of this “first” effort could be used as a stepping stone for greater opportunities and potential for future growth of the company (R36).”
  • “Educate virtual employees on how to use various technology/communication tools more effectively. Lots of time wasted because not everyone knew how to use tools, caused more work for others and reduced productivity and ability to provide the best customer experience (R39).”
  • “A more clearly defined outline of team members’ roles and responsibilities would have made the team (and my experience on it) much more effective. It was handled in a sort of “seat of the pants” fashion, which reduced its efficiency (R50).”
  • “There is a need to train people to effectively work on virtual teams. Virtual teams require better, more effective communication to get through (R85).”
  • “Don’t expect everyone on the team to “do their homework.” While qualities like the ones mentioned here- self-motivated, well-organized, respecting other- are absolutely crucial to the success of a virtual team, not everyone is a self-starter or has the initiative necessary to succeed on a virtual team. This is perhaps the biggest flaw of a virtual team. Without past experience working with a particular individual, there is no way to tell whether the person involved is an appropriate candidate for a virtual team (R98).”

Ultimately, the hypothesis appears to be supported by the anecdotal feedback, but a more focused study would be needed to evaluate and test actual readiness at the start of a virtual team assignment and then measure levels of satisfaction at the conclusion of the assignment.

Through the use of Wordle, an online word cloud analysis tool, it was possible to determine keywords in the lessons learned open-ended responses that underscored the importance of transcendent team skills that are needed for the virtual team to be successful. These keywords included: communication; clear (roles, goals and expectations); time (deadlines and respect for time constraints); tools (how they are used and how they can support the team’s effort); and project (structured approach). The full “word cloud” is shown below:

Figure 2

Lessons Learned Keywords

 

 

Hypothesis 4. The size and composition of a virtual team will impact the overall effectiveness of the team and the satisfaction levels of its team members, with the ideal size of a virtual team being less than 12 members.

Out of 147 responses, the majority (118 out of 147, or 80.3 percent) indicated that their first virtual team experience was on a team of twelve or less members. Of this group, 42 were assigned to a team of less than four members, 53 were on a team of between five and eight members, and 23 were assigned to a team with between nine and twelve members. Due to a flaw in the question design, teams of four may be left out of the sample, although it is more likely that these responses are recorded in the “less than four team members” grouping.

Based on the survey responses, it is not possible to confirm this hypothesis, as the statistical feedback support the contrary: satisfaction levels among those respondents from virtual teams larger than twelve are actually higher. In the satisfaction area related to work product and results, the feedback from the smaller teams versus the larger teams appears to reflect a statistically equivalent response. Responses indicated with the number one (1) reflect “not at all satisfied” and responses indicated with the number five (5) reflect “satisfied to a great extent.”

 

Table 6

Comparison of Satisfaction Levels by Team Size

 

 

Satisfaction Measure                                       Teams of 12 or less                 Teams of 13 or more

(n=118)                                   (n=29)

 

 

Ability to effectively contribute                     4.08                                         4.21

Communication habits of the team                 3.42                                         3.66

Leadership style of team                                 3.64                                         3.76

Overall effectiveness of the team                   3.83                                         4.00

Work product and results                               4.02                                         4.07

 

 

Hypothesis 5. Virtual teams are more prevalent in larger organizations, particularly in companies that have a global “footprint” and maintain operations in multiple countries.

The invited participants for this study included over 1,000 professionals from a diverse cross-section of companies and organizations in the United States, with approximately half of the invited participants working for large multinational corporations such as Siemens, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and approximately half working for smaller establishments.

For the purpose of this study, a small business is one with 250 or less employees, and a large business is one with more than 2,500 employees. It is worth noting that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) typically uses an employee count between 500 and 1,000 in its definition of a small business (2010). However, it is not realistic to accurately evaluate differences in the more modern “gazelle” organizations compared to the much larger corporations by using the SBA criteria.

It appears that the use of virtual teams is as prevalent, if not more so, in smaller organizations than in large enterprises. Of the 147 recorded responses, more than half (75) indicated that the participant was first assigned to a virtual team while working for an organization with 250 or fewer employees. Of this group, 42 people (29 percent) reported working for a company with 25 or less employees.

Contrast that with the number of respondents indicating that they worked for an organization with over 2,500 employees: 56 people or just 38 percent of the participants. On this basis, it may be possible to reject the hypothesis, although the sample and limited response rates from more than 1,000 invitees may have confounded the survey results and disproportionately skewed the number of responses from employees in smaller organizations.

 

Table 7

Size of Parent Organization

 

 

Organization Size                                            Number of Responses             Percentage of

(Number of Employees)                                  (n=147)                                   Total

 

 

Small                                                               75                                            51 percent

 

Therein:

– Less than 25                                                  42                                            29

– Between 26-50                                               9                                            6

– Between 51-250                                           24                                            16

 

Medium                                                           16                                            11 percent

 

Therein:

– Between 251-999                                           7                                            5

– Between 1000-2499                                       9                                            6

 

Large                                                               56                                            38 percent

 

Therein:

– Between 2500-4999                                       9                                            6

– Between 5000-9999                                       7                                            5

– Between 10000-24999                                 10                                           7

– More than 25000                                          30                                           20

 

 

It is important to note that many large corporations “black list” or block emails from online services such as MarketTools Zoomerang because they are considered as mass mailings. This is reflected in the “soft bounce” number of survey invitations rejected by the server at the company level, which resulted in 106 of the 1087 questionnaires (nearly 10 percent) never reaching their intended recipient. It is therefore not realistic to accurately and fully test the hypothesis within the constraints of the available survey data and response.


Discussion and Implications for Human Resources

“Nestling warm and sleepy in your organization, like an asp in Cleopatra’s bosom, is a department whose employees spend 80% of their time on routine administrative tasks. Nearly every function can be performed more expertly by others for less cost. Chances are its leaders are unable to describe their contribution to value added except in trendy, unquantifiable and wannabe terms, yet, like a serpent unaffected by its own venom, the department frequently dispenses to others advice on how to eliminate work that does not add value. […] I am describing, of course, your human resources department …(Stewart, 1996).”

Even before the full impacts of the internet and the forces of globalization were clear, the gauntlet had already been thrown for traditional human resources (HR) to be dramatically re-engineered to meet the demands of the modern organization. If HR is to remain relevant in the structure of the twenty-first century company, it will be necessary to fully grasp the implications of how work gets done today and in the future. This will inform HR practices and processes in every functional area: recruitment, training and development, performance management, compensation and benefits, management development, succession planning, employee relations, communications, and organizational effectiveness (Rothwell, Prescott & Taylor, 2008, pg. 123).

In the very near future, it will be necessary for organizations to recruit knowledge workers with the necessary skills to meet the objectives of the business as well as the aforementioned knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs) described throughout this paper as essential to performance in the virtual team environment. These are becoming table stakes for continued employment in the highly competitive, increasingly automated and inexorably globalized corporation of the future.

Today, organizations need to extract the best possible performance from the workforce they have in place, comprised of multiple generations with varying levels of capability in computer-mediated communication. Because it may not always be practical to select virtual team composition with those KSAOs as a prerequisite, it will become essential for human resources to provide strong support in the areas of training and development, performance management, compensation and benefits and organizational effectiveness.

Training and Development

As evidenced in the results of the virtual teams survey, preparation for an assignment to a virtual team is a key factor for the ultimate success of the team and the performance and contributions of the individual. In order to support this preparation from a human resources perspective, it will be necessary to provide prospective virtual team members with an orientation to the virtual team environment, and to work closely with the information system/information technology group to calibrate the available communication and collaboration tools to the needs of the team and provide the members and team leader with instruction, familiarization and support at the onset and throughout the virtual team’s work together.

Aggregate survey data show that the KSAO with one of the lowest scores was that related to the use of virtual team technology, project tools and resources. This area will require special attention, as will another of the lower-scoring areas: virtual team communication tools and resources.

To address some of the other essential KSAOs, such as collaboration, communication and conflict resolution in the virtual team environment, simulation and role-playing scenarios will be very useful. Companies such as Cisco and IBM have developed and documented best practices in this area, and these resources are available in the public domain as a starting point for HR and human resources development (HRD) practitioners to develop tools for use within their respective organizations.

Special attention is needed in the preparation of team leaders, to ensure that they are aware of the nuances involved in managing a dispersed team across geographical and cultural boundaries and without the traditional cues of participation and contribution that would be present with a team that meets “in person.”

Performance Management

Ultimately, a virtual team will be measured based on its results and its achievement of its goals in support of organizational objectives. Performance management systems need to be in place for the overall team as well as its individual contributors to place appropriate emphasis on the KSAOs necessary to effectively interact, collaborate and contribute. As discovered in pioneering research by IBM, dramatic gains in productivity are possible in the virtual team environment, but it will require changes in the management style and structure, as well as an increased emphasis on creating effective feedback loops and timelines to keep all members on track, focused, and accountable for their part of the team’s performance.

In addition to establishing appropriate performance management and development tools to support the team, it may be appropriate to put into place targeted bonuses and incentives that reinforce the discrete contribution of individuals as well as the realized performance of the team as a whole. It may be necessary to balance the virtual team members’ role against other assignments they may have elsewhere in the organization and to keep the lines of communication open with other managers in a matrix structure, especially in cases where there are competing priorities and potential conflicts that could undermine virtual team member contributions and team performance.

Technology, and more specifically the use of computers and mobile devices to complete the vast majority of work today, is making it possible to measure many more things, including discrete work activities, online communications, and time spent on individual tasks. It will be increasingly important for HR professionals to focus their attention on “measures that matter” (borrowing from a University of Pennsylvania Knowledge@Wharton article of the same name) in order to align effort to goals and results. Additionally, HR will be called upon to develop stronger capabilities in predictive analytics and business intelligence support for decision making, employee assignments, and quantifiable return on investment with an increasing emphasis on workforce efficiency.

Compensation and Benefits

Virtual teams are likely to have diverse composition, spanning cultures, geographies and generations, among other characteristics that will result in differing expectations of the work reward system. Increasingly, team members will be transitory and may become a part of the emerging “human cloud” or external “talent as a service (TaaS)” rather than sharing an employer in common. As such, compensation will have to flex to meet these varying expectations and levels of engagement. While it might seem logical to place more emphasis on team-based compensation, the ability to do so is likely to be confounded by increasingly complex working relationships that will require more customization of compensation for each individual.

Some virtual teams are given a base rate of pay for competitive purposes, with bonuses and incentives tied to specific milestones and achievements at a team and individual level. Others work on an hourly rate and bill their time across a number of projects, inside and outside of the parent organization. Suffice to say, a “one size fits all” compensation system will not work for much longer, and human resources practitioners need to work closely with the supported business units to define and determine the value of work in terms of base pay, variable pay, and budgets for augmenting internal teams with external support.

In this same vein, benefits will need to be re-evaluated to address regional competitive issues and overall effectiveness as part of a total rewards strategy that motivates knowledge workers to make the necessary commitment to an organization’s goals. The most appropriate compensation and benefits “package” will vary based on a number of factors, including employment status (full-time, part-time or temporary); generational preferences (Baby Boomer versus Generation X versus Millennial); geographical location (competitive local practices and country-mandated benefits); and expected contribution (short-term participation versus long-term team leadership, and specialized expertise versus administrative support).

Organizational Effectiveness

It is easy to get caught up in the design and management of the virtual teams themselves, but the most important area where human resources, and particularly HRD professionals, can aid the organization is in determining the best way to achieve the desired results. This will take into account the organization’s mission and vision, competitive situation, operational goals, and strategic plan first. With these in mind, HR can provide the supported business with guidance on how best to leverage the existing workforce, retain key players and top talent, train and develop the current and future leadership, and tap into the global talent pool with capabilities and resources that did not exist a decade ago.

Taking into account the competitive pressures that are driving every business decision, it will be necessary for HR to earn its “seat at the table” with proactive recommendations and solutions for achievement of business goals through innovative workforce strategies, flexible and adaptive organizational design, improved collaboration and systems thinking. In order to deliver this level of support in “real time,” there will be an increased emphasis on working as a business partner, tied in at the operational level, decentralized and working closely with the managers of the supported business unit. Just as businesses are coached to eliminate non-value-added processes and areas outside of their core competence, human resources will be expected to do the same, focusing more on achieving business results and less on reporting process statistics that do not directly influence the bottom line.

 

Conclusion

Now that virtual teams have become more or less standard components of modern business practices, it is important that human resources practitioners put forward the most effective tools and resources available to help their supported organizations realize the benefits and competitive advantages of virtual teams while minimizing the potentially negative impacts of teams bound together by technology. For more than two decades, much research has been carried out and much more has been written on the creation, implementation and management of virtual teams. However, remarkably little research exists to aid in the selection, training and development of team members prior to their assignment to a virtual team. As a result, technology is being introduced to speed up and streamline virtual team processes that are not fully optimized, leading in some cases to increased efficiency in the short term but more frequently causing frustration, misunderstandings, team dysfunction and other human side effects, in part because the capability of technology is not calibrated to the readiness of the team members.

This observation on the mismatch of technology and human interaction is touched on in a Harvard Business Review article and related case study, wherein the authors noted that the companies which overlooked the interpersonal aspects of virtual teamwork significantly underperformed those teams where technology and human resource requirements were addressed in tandem. And in cases where the enabling technology was the sole focus: “The computer revolution missed a step. When companies went from enterprise computing to individual computing, they jumped over the small-group level, where the preponderance of work takes place (Majchrzak, Malhotra, Stamps and Lipnack, 2004).”

This research is intended to help human resources and business managers proactively prepare their employees and other team members prior to their assignment to a virtual team, and provide specific areas of emphasis for training and development in technical, interpersonal and communication skills. Businesses are moving to an increasingly virtual and technology-based structure, meaning that these skills and selection criteria will be essential, not only as a way to compete in the global market, but also as a means to preserve talent, intellectual capital and competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.

As a practice area, human resources practitioners have an opportunity to take a leadership role in this area, and the relevance of HR in the future will likely depend upon how aptly the function can adapt and apply itself to the dynamic virtual team environment. We can reasonably assume that technology will not slow down to wait for HR to catch up, so this becomes a challenge akin to mounting a horse that is in full gallop, reining it in and harnessing its capability without being trampled or thrown clear. Such are the challenges of the twenty-first century knowledge economy, and HR professionals will have to be up to the task. For most twenty-first century knowledge workers, this virtual team approach and structure is already the norm, and for nearly everyone else, it is just around the corner.

 

 

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