Understanding Virtual Teams
Virtual Teams are defined as groups of employees with unique skills, situated in distant locations, whose members must collaborate using technology across space and time to accomplish important organizational tasks (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000).
Some definitions differentiate global virtual teams from local virtual teams.
- Local virtual team is a team of people that are located in a common geographic area and share the same culture. A local virtual team can also include personnel that work out of home or remote offices.
- Global virtual team members, on the other hand, are separated by larger distances and differ in cultural backgrounds between members.
There is some debate on the longevity of the team. In other words, some definitions classify a virtual team with an expectation that the team has a specific end date.
Finally, there is a difference in how these team members interact with one another. Some definitions indicate that virtual teams have no face-to-face interaction, whereas other definitions state that the face-to-face interaction time is limited.
Despite these differences, there are some common aspects of virtual teams in which there seems to be some consensus (Curseu, Schalk, & Wessel, 2008). These common aspects include that:
- virtual teams work remotely,
- there are multiple members on the team,
- the members work together on a common project or focused goal, and
- the communication among team members is through electronic means.
Modern virtual teams are assembled with individuals from all areas of the world based on their expertise and fit with the virtual team being assembled. Coupled with their unique talents, they can bring experiences and perspectives to complement other team members. More importantly, when configured and managed appropriately, virtual teams can be more productive than traditional face-to-face teams (Siebdrat, Hoegl & Ernst, 2009).
Virtual teams can provide great corporate strategic benefits. These benefits include reducing costs, enhancing team perspective through diversity, entering new global markets, and increasing productivity. These benefits are not gained by just setting up virtual teams. The organization, as a whole, needs to be designed such that it provides a framework that integrates virtual teams.
Developmental Steps of Virtual Teams
Virtual teams usually go through different steps of development (Piccoli, Powell, & Ives, 2004). Furst, Reeves, Benson and Blackburn (2007) summarize these steps using Tuckman’s four steps of team development. We’ll spend the remainder of this literature delving deeper into each, but for now, here they are in order:
- norming, and
1. Forming Step
In the forming step, team members become acquainted with each other by sharing basic information about themselves and their duties. This is when team trust begins to build and where goals and expectations are made clear.
With limited opportunities for virtual team member conversations, other than work related topics, trust builds slowly (Krebs, Hobman, & Bordia, 2006). It is possible that members will incorrectly stereotype each other during this step.
During the forming step, virtual team managers can strive to provide clarity for individual and group goals, encourage knowledgeable and experienced virtual members to help mentor other than members, and begin to foster a team culture by establishing common ground.
2. Storming Step
During the storming step, the group will work toward identifying key roles and responsibilities. However, conflicts is likely as the team contends with points of parity and differentiation.
The situation can be further complicated by the use of virtual team communication technologies. Consequently, team members may withdraw from the group or increase their dependence on the virtual team leader to resolve their concerns.
When conflicts arises during the storming step, managers can organize in-person meetings to alleviate tension from misunderstandings, train employees on how to resolve conflict, and if needed, help team members develop, and agree on alternative solutions to their issues.
3. Norming Step
Moving to the norming step, team members work through their interpersonal conflicts Opens in new window and begin to focus on efficient information flow and collaboration. Professional bonds develop and their actions become aligned with their distinct roles and the overarching strategy. It is during this time that members are challenged with best practices for communication and collaboration using the technologies provided by leadership.
In this stage, virtual team members can spend less time on building relationships and resolving interpersonal conflicts, and focus more on the task at hand. Managers can accelerate this process by refining schedules and task deadlines, improving the use of virtual team communication technologies, and leveraging a team member to perform some of the virtual team management duties.
4. Performing Step
And then finally, in the performing step, the virtual team begins to work as a cohesive unit, providing support for one another and focusing on completion of project deliverables. Still, it is possible during this step that communication and collaboration will suffer from side conservations and meetings among certain team members (Furst et al., 2004).
To curb the challenges in the performing step, managers and senior leadership may focus on more global issues by further developing a company culture that understands and fully supports virtual teams. For team members with existing on-site responsibilities, support from managers and senior leadership is pivotal to sustaining on-site and off-site work-loads that fluctuate in volume and importance (Furst, et a., 2004).
Companies implementing virtual teams have seen a reduction in costs, greater utilization, increased access to new market, and a larger pool of resources with a greater variation in skill sets. However, working virtually does come with challenges. If a virtual team is comprised of members from multiple countries such as the U.S., China, India, and Germany, cultural differences will inevitably exist. Differences can include varying expectations, biases, and communication skills and habits (Iles & Hayers, 1997).