VIRTUAL TEAMS: WELCOME TO THE NEW MELTING POT!
For this blog, I read the three published articles: “Critical success factors for global virtual teams”, “Virtual Teams: What Do We Know and Where Do We Go From Here?”, “Managing a Virtual Workplace”. To compose this summary, I relied on content from these articles and work experience to tailor a comprehensive view on virtual teams.
Today, virtual teams (VTs) are commonplace in companies and there are many
pros and cons to support their existence. “We define VTs as teams whose members use technology to varying degrees in working across locational, temporal, and relational boundaries to accomplish and interdependent task.1” Some of the factors that determine the success or failure of virtual teams are:
- Team formation
- Trust and collaboration
- Team communication
Team formation is critical because one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. It only takes one pessimistic individual to cause doubt and decrease morale. VTs allow you to pick the best talent regardless of location. This is a rarity that traditionally wasn’t afforded to face-to-face teams. They relied on the available best talent within their local quarters. Now team leaders can solicit the best talent and mesh like-minded personalities to increase the odds of team success. “Competencies or characteristics required for a successful virtual team member include communication or networking skills, comfort with use of technology, and the ability to self manage2”. In team formation, the leader must recruit the best minds while reducing the team size as much as possible.
Trust and collaboration are also important aspects of VTs. Without trust, the team is destined for failure. Without collaboration, a VT is non-existent. “In a virtual team, members must be self-starters, able to manage their own time and priorities without too much overseeing.3” You have to be able to trust that each member is carrying his load and will meet the defined deadlines.
Team communication is the essential attribute to VTs. “The major disadvantage to virtual teams are the lack of physical interaction – with its associated verbal and nonverbal cues – and the synergies that often accompany face-to-face communication.4” Prolong participation in VTs allow intimate correspondence and a deeper understanding of the constituents on the team.
“It has been noted that since the communication tools used for virtual interaction allow for records to be retained (e.g., copies of e-mails sent and received are retained on a server), VTs have a means for monitoring team activities that not available to face-to-face teams (Suchan & Hayzak, 2001)5.” I especially find this point valuable because much time is lost in face-to-face team discussions due to idle chatter, side conversations, and meaningless remarks. Oftentimes, these types of discussions result in bitterness amongst team members and result in lost productivity and distrust. With electronic communication, members are cognizant that their every word is on record and are more cautious to think before they speak. Furthermore, the response quality is improved because the feedback isn’t a knee jerk reaction.
There is a large perception that traditional business managers have yet to adjust and feel secure with VTs. “The first managerial challenge of the virtual workplace: making the transition from managing time (activity-based) to managing projects (results-based). The second managerial challenge of the virtual workplace is to overcome uncertainty about whether managers will still be valued by their companies if they are managing employees who are not physically present.6” Traditional managers have been taught to manage individual task and not focus so much on the end result. This requires routine follow-up, status reporting, and some micro-managing. VTs don’t make this management style very practical. The team members are not always accessible for immediate updates, information may not be readily available or posted on some common database for retrieval, and – even if it was – it might need interpretation to make is useful. Therefore managers must be skilled cheerleaders and be good at encouraging their teams to stay focused on the end result. He must establish milestones and manage them to keep a close eye on the overall objective. Also, the manager must ensure that every member understands his role and they receive timely feedback. “Broad support alone is not enough to guarantee the success of virtual workplaces. Managers also must set and enforce ground rules for communications, and institute a comprehensive process of performance management.7” The VT receives their cue from management regarding how formal/informal the group will be managed, communicate, and be held accountable for deadlines. Therefore the ultimate onus is on the effective manager to adapt to the unique management demands of a VT.
The three articles were informative and shed a new lens on VTs. I’ve been a part of many VTs and would like to share some lessons learned.
In a recent assignment I was project manager for a team of approximately ~10 individuals ranging in job title from vice president to maintenance manager. The team was spread across 1,100-miles (Kansas City, MO to Lancaster, PA). I realized that credibility and trust were among the first two things needed to effectively manage the team. They had to know I would deliver what I promised. They also needed to know I had the poise and competence to produce the objectives. Some of the hiccups during the project were:
- Trust – upper management meeting privately to make decisions without the team
- Distance – trying to get important decisions made (i.e. which vendor to use or which product to buy). The obstacle was not being able to evaluate the non-verbal responses and knowing whether the team was onboard.
- Team Building – traditional face-to-face teams have the chance to have partnering sessions where they are able to engage other members about non-work related topics. This builds a commonplace of understanding and promotes a better work environment.
The key to a successful VT is having the right resources (i.e. knowledgeable members, proper technology, and management support) and building a solid foundation (i.e. everyone understands and supports the mission and individual objectives and the leader is an effective communicator).
1, 5 Martine, Luis; Gilson, Lucy L.; Maynard, M. Travis (2004). Virtual Teams: What Do We Know and Where Do We Go From Here?, Journal of Management, 30, 805-835.
2, 3 Goodbody, Jenny (2005). Critical success factors for global virtual teams. Strategic Communication Management, 9, 18-21.
4, 6, 7 Cascio, Wayne F (2000). Managing a Virtual Workplace. Academy of Management Executive, 14, 81-90.