Introduction: Defining Virtual Teams
As networking options improved and telecommunication costs dropped in the latter part of the twentieth century, the creation of virtual teams was seen initially as a cost-saving measure (Helms & Raiszadeh, 2002), reducing a company’s need for real estate and in some cases flattening organizational structures. Virtual team members frequently work from a home office, customer site, or other remote location where they are able to connect to a corporate network and communicate with other members using available tele- and videoconferencing resources.
For the purpose of this research paper, the following definition of virtual teams is offered:
“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, pg. 72).”
This research paper will build on the class textbook description of “electronically linked teams” and the criteria for effectiveness outlined by the authors, specifically in areas where technology plays a role in team building (Johnson & Johnson, 2009, pg. 529) and sustaining the team’s efforts and effectiveness in spite of the potential barriers of time and space.
Compare and Contrast: 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, e.g. 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. Or 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 below 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). 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.
Figure 1: Conceptual Framework for Team Staffing Strategy
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.
The model, depicted in Figure 2, outlines the critical steps in team development and performance, and at each stage the authors have provided tollgates that must be resolved in order for the team to move to the next stage. For example, in the Orientation stage, the team members must be able to answer the question, “Why am I here?” If the stage is successful, team members will move forward with a sense of purpose, team identity and membership. If not, the unresolved tensions will likely result in disorientation, uncertainty and fear (Drexler & Sibbet, 1998). It is reasonable to assume that the negative factors will be more damaging for a team that is not in close proximity to the team leader and lacks the interpersonal outlets for resolving differences in a traditional team setting.
A crucial step in this team model is the Commitment stage, where responsibilities are clarified, sequencing and interdependencies are defined, and the team establishes its rules for governance. It is at this stage that the team will determine the frequency of meetings (virtual or in-person) as well as levels of authority and processes for decision-making. If this stage is not managed effectively, team members are likely to demonstrate resistance to their assigned tasks and the team’s effectiveness will be jeopardized. Done well, the team will have a shared vision, a clear sense of how decisions will be carried out, and a plan for allocating time and resources to get their work done (Drexler & Sibbet, 1998).
Figure 2: Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model (re-drawn and modified to include proximity grouping and Tuckman phases)
In what is clearly the Performing phase, (to borrow from Tuckman’s model) the Implementation and High Performance stages are the ones where technology is most critical and most helpful in bridging the potential performance gaps of a virtual team. As pointed out by the authors, these sustaining stages allow for the team to perform in “different times and places.” Success at the fifth stage is marked by a common understanding among the team’s members of processes, alignment and a coordinated effort based on disciplined execution. Conversely, if this stage is unresolved, conflict, confusion, misalignment and missed deadlines are likely outcomes. At the sixth stage, success is indicated by synergy and solid results as well as spontaneous interaction among the team members. A sense of overload and a lack of harmony among the team members indicate failure at this stage.
Particularly in the Implementation stage, technology tools play a key role in capturing, reinforcing and tracking the key questions that are asked: “Who does what, when and where?” Online project management tools such as 37Signals’ Basecamp and the eponymous platforms from Huddle, Teambox and Zoho have been created with today’s knowledge workers in mind, with intuitive user interfaces, remarkable transparency in communication and tracking of actual performance against milestones, project plans and assigned tasks.
Technology at Work: Enhancing Virtual Team Effectiveness
“Technology is the remote worker’s lifeline (Cascio, 2000, pg. 82).” Therefore, not only is the access to relevant technology and communication tools essential for virtual teams to succeed, but also the ability to work with the tools in such a way that the team’s interactions are more efficient and more productive as a result. For the purposes of this research paper, technology spans internal (enterprise) systems, telecommunication resources, and online tools and programs that can be used to enhance the team’s communication, collaboration and ultimate contribution to the parent organization’s goals.
It is important that an appropriate balance is struck between the development and implementation of technology tools and the matching up of team members’ skills and capacity to work with the technology. In previous research, I have pointed out the inherent risk in focusing on technology for technology’s sake: “technology is being introduced to speed up and streamline virtual team processes that are not fully optimized … frequently causing frustration, misunderstandings, team dysfunction and other human side effects (2010).”
The class textbook, Joining Together, understates the potential of technology to enhance the interaction of virtual teams, or as the authors refer to them, electronically linked teams. The statement “electronic communication … relies almost entirely on plain text for conveying messages (Johnson & Johnson, 2009, pg. 528)” reveals that this section of the textbook is about ten years out of date, citing studies from 1987 and 1998 to underscore the point that face-to-face is the preferred and perhaps the only effective mode for team interaction. This assertion is moderated slightly by the reference to Bonk and King’s study in 1998 that found that the computer-mediated environment can improve participation and learning of students.
In 2010, there are easily thousands of available programs and tools available through a number of platforms, including free and paid online tools, subscription-based software (also referred to as software-as-a-service, or Saas), installed enterprise software, among others. When it comes to collaboration tools, there are many different categories to consider before selecting a specific solution or program. Based on a cursory review of available tools, programs and resources, here is a partial list of the different categories, and a brief summary of the purpose for each:
Table 1: Partial List of Available Collaboration Tools for Virtual Teams and Distributed Work Groups
|Internal and group communication tools||Typically password protected and limited to an invited group, these tools provide social networking capability similar to Facebook and Twitter in a private setting.|
|Mind mapping and diagramming tools||These programs and tools allow for visual depictions, flow charts and diagrams for a shared understanding and contributions from multiple participants.|
|Online project management tools||These tools are used as a common platform to record project milestones, related tasks, schedules and “critical path” items that support the team’s work process.|
|Group and event scheduling tools||Especially in cases where teams are working across geographies, these tools can help to get all team members in sync for scheduling meetings, with time zones automatically adjusted to show workable times for all members.|
|Interactive chat and instant messaging tools||In cases where a quick answer is needed or non-verbal collaboration is deemed effective, these tools allow multiple users to have an online “conversation” with a text record.|
|Video conference and video chat tools||Using video cameras for all participants, these systems allow for a face-to-face type of meeting across distances, sometimes referred to as “telepresence.”|
|Screen sharing tools and software||So that all team members can be literally “on the same page” these tools allow one user to share their active desktop with others so all team members can follow along with and contribute to what is being worked on.|
|Internet web-based conferencing/webinar tools||Similar to the video conference capability discussed earlier, these systems can allow for sharing of screens and/or camera/video images for multiple team members to communicate and collaborate across distances.|
|Interactive whiteboard tools||Similar to the dry erase whiteboards seen in today’s physical offices, these online tools allow for multiple team members to “draw” on a virtual whiteboard as a visual collaborative tool.|
|File, document and asset sharing tools||This service allows multiple users to store, retrieve, edit, share and “check out” documents, records and electronic files that support the project or work process, such as Microsoft SharePoint.|
|Interactive document and resource (Wiki) tools||A “Wiki” type platform allows multiple users to contribute to, edit and access information that is hosted online or on a shared database.|
Since email is ubiquitous and has already been discussed, I am omitting it from the list above, although it is worth mentioning that Google and Facebook, among other companies, are looking for ways to build on the basic email functionality for dynamic communications. For each of the categories shown, there are between 20 and 100 competing programs, often times more, available for free or at a defined cost to support the day-to-day interactions of virtual teams and other organizations that rely on technology to bridge organizational and geographical boundaries.
The availability of tools is not the issue. What typically gets in the way of a virtual team’s effective adoption of tools and programs is one of the following three barriers: organizational resistance; deficient technology understanding on the part of one or more virtual team members; and poor alignment of the available technology to the team’s purpose and model. The organizational resistance issue can be difficult to overcome, because information security has become such a critical business issue that corporate information technology (IT) departments are reluctant to consider non-standard third-party software and tools. The training issue can be addressed by incorporating the appropriate collaborative technology early on in the team forming stage, so that the team can build their interactions from the ground up and take the necessary time to learn how to use the tools.
Ultimately, the tools selected in support of the virtual team’s collaborative and communicative efforts should be practical, and should be selected to enhance the team’s ability to work together with minimal technical interference. Where possible, the tools should also help to recreate aspects of the interpersonal communication that are lost when team members are separated by time and space. These tools could include “intranet team home pages, instant messaging, chatrooms, and virtual team meetings (Hoefling, 2008, pg. 95).”
The following table provides a quick overview of the various types of collaborative tools in terms of what can be used to support a “real-time” collaboration, what is best used for asynchronous communication, as well as additional criteria such as richness of the media and support of social interaction goals (Bradley, 2008).
Table 2: Assessing Collaborative Technology
|Type of System||Type of Technology||Synchronous or Asynchronous||Social Presence||Media Richness|
|Electronic messaging systems||Asynchronous||Low||Lean|
|Audio and video systems||Teleconferencing||Synchronous||Medium||Lean|
|Videoconferencing||Synchronous||High||Moderate to rich|
|Collaborative supporting systems||Group decision support systems||Synchronous||Medium||Moderate to rich|
|Web conferencing||Can be both, typically synchronous||Medium||Rich|
|Web logs (blogs)||Can be both||Varies||Varies|
This table, coupled with the earlier list of collaboration tools, can help the virtual team select the most appropriate tool for a specific collaboration effort or communication event, based not only on the message or intent, but also on the need for social presence and richness of the content to be shared. For the purpose of this discussion, Bradley defines social presence as “the degree of realness or salience that the technology provides to those in the interaction (2008, pg. 333),” or, more simply put, how genuine the interaction feels to those involved based on visible cues and other characteristics of interpersonal communication that help to convey the message beyond what is overtly stated. Bradley provides the following context for both social presence and media richness: “One might conceive social presence as focusing on the human factors, while media richness focuses on the technology factors (2008, pg. 333).” In both cases, the higher the rating, the more capable this method or technology is in conveying not only content but also context.
While virtual teams have distinct challenges to overcome, most obvious among them being the ability to span the boundaries of geography, technology and culture, they also offer advantages that are difficult to replicate in the more traditional setting, such as the 24-hour work day potential and the ability to harness the talents of geographically dispersed team members without requiring individual hardships. By design and by default, virtual teams will continue to play a key role in the future of work, giving organizations the ability to tap into a global talent supply chain that was inaccessible even ten years ago. And the companies that can create a culture that fosters the development, success and sustainability of virtual teams will benefit through scale and reach that their competitors will not be able to keep up with.
Technology provides the tools and resources that bring virtual teams together, but the focus is first and foremost on the team itself. It is vital to the team’s health and overall effectiveness that its members have the tools and resources they need for collaboration and communication. A team that has been appropriately structured based on well-defined goals can often times be successful even with tools that are only average, but a team that lacks a clear purpose, well-defined goals and clear roles and responsibilities is likely to fail no matter how sophisticated the tools are that they are able to use for their team’s work processes. Therefore, technology is a vital but secondary consideration in the overall formation and development of virtual teams. As seen in the Team Staffing Strategy diagram earlier in this paper, the factors for selecting an effective team have not changed significantly in the last thirty years, even as the technology that is available to support teams has, quite dramatically.
To underscore the point made by Hoefling, virtual teams are no less real than their traditional counterparts, and many of the same considerations and challenges apply in their selection, formation and effectiveness. It appears that the influence of technology on successful team outcomes is vastly overestimated, while the importance of the interpersonal relationships, team dynamics and mission of the team are overlooked in too many cases. Many virtual teams are put together with little planning or forethought, typically as an expedient measure to take advantage of a necessary skill set that exists outside of the immediate environment and often with no regard for the workload or other competing requirements that the virtual draftee is dealing with.
Companies and organizations that hope to gain the competitive advantages that virtual teams have to offer need to go back to basics on their team development strategies, ensuring that the team they envision is in fact necessary, that the charter for the team is clear not only to the members of the team but also to managers and stakeholders, and that the individual team members are sufficiently prepared for the technical and interpersonal challenges that come with being on a virtual team. Only then should the technology tools and resources be introduced, as supportive measures to enhance the team’s work together, not as a box to force-fit the team into. While many of the potential drawbacks of a virtual team, or electronically linked team as described in Joining Together, are real possibilities and observable weaknesses, the vast majority of these can be overcome and in some cases turned into strengths when the team itself is well-defined, carefully structured and built for success.
Bradley, L. (2008). The technology that supports virtual team collaboration. In J. Nemiro, M. Beyerlein, L. Bradley & S. Beyerlein (Ed.), The handbook of high performance virtual teams: A toolkit for collaborating across boundaries. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Cascio, W. (2000). Managing a virtual workplace. The Academy of Management Executive, 14(3), 81-90.
Davis, A. & Blass, E. (2006). The future workplace: Views from the floor. Futures, 39(1), 38-52.
Drexler, A. , Sibbet, D. and Forrester, R. (1988). Team building: Blueprints for productivity and satisfaction. Alexandria, VA: National Training Laboratories.
Helms, M. & Raiszadeh, F. (2002). Virtual offices: Understanding and managing what you cannot see. Work Study, 51(5), 240-247.
Hertel, G., Geister, S. and Konradt, U. (2005). Managing virtual teams: A review of current empirical research. Human Resources Management Review, 15(1): 69-95.
Hoefling, T. (2008). The three-fold path of expanding emotional bandwidth in virtual teams. In J. Nemiro, M. Beyerlein, L. Bradley & S. Beyerlein (Ed.), The handbook of high performance virtual teams: A toolkit for collaborating across boundaries (pp. 5-11). San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Johnson, D. & Johnson, F. (2009). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Lewinson, M. (n.d.). Virtual team management – tips to managing virtual team collaboration within projects. Retrieved from http://www.mymanagementguide.com
Nemiro, J., Bradley, L., Beyerlein, M. and Beyerlein, S. (2008). The challenges of virtual teaming. In J. Nemiro, M. Beyerlein, L. Bradley & S. Beyerlein (Ed.), The handbook of high performance virtual teams: A toolkit for collaborating across boundaries. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Orvis, K. & Zaccaro, S. (2008). Optimizing teams for virtual collaboration. In J. Nemiro, M. Beyerlein, L. Bradley & S. Beyerlein (Ed.), The handbook of high performance virtual teams: A toolkit for collaborating across boundaries. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Urquhart, S. (2010). Virtual teams: Selection and assessment of team members. (Unpublished thesis paper). Webster University, Orlando. Retrieved from https://steveblogswebster.wordpress.com