By TIMOTHY F. BEDNARZ, Ph.D., Author & Publisher, Majorium Business Press
A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who, committed to common purpose and performance goals, hold themselves mutually accountable. Virtual teams, on the other hand are teams of people who primarily interact electronically and may occasionally meet face to face. They include teams of people working at different geographic sites or a project team whose members telecommute.
Virtual teams effectively deal with the realities of time compression, distributed resources, increasing dependency on knowledge-based input, a premium on flexibility and adaptability, and the fact that most of the information they use is in electronic form.
They take advantage of the electronic infrastructure, which enables them to work in parallel rather than serially, having continuous access to the latest and best knowledge and information. This allows individual team members to participate from remote sites without abandoning other aspects of their work and home lives.
The flexibility of virtual teams allows them to bring new team members up to speed through the online record of ongoing work. The fact that they are able to capture their collective work electronically -- often in real time -- makes it easier for other teams to access their efforts.
This is important since the rationale for virtual teams centers around the differences in time and space for team members. Team members may not be physically connected, so it may not be practical to consistently travel for face-to-face meetings. The fact that individual team members may be working in different time zones and work shifts poses additional challenges for leaders who manage these teams.
There are four basic components for the success of virtual teams:
- The selection of the right team members.
- Identifying and communicating a clear and common purpose.
- Developing an appropriate high-performance technical infrastructure.
- Ensuring that the organizational culture supports the information sharing required by the team.
Selection of the Right Team Members
Best practices in the management of virtual teams derived from the review of a number of corporate case studies reveal that the virtual team environment is not for everyone. Not all individuals are equally adept at handling the uncertainty and responsibilities associated with virtual teams.
Past participants who require a significant amount of structure in their work environment have reported feeling lost in this type of less structured work environment. For the right candidate, virtual teams can provide the freedom, flexibility and challenge to maintain his or her interest.
Managers should choose individuals for virtual teamwork carefully. Individual team membership should be based on the core competencies needed to achieve the desired outcome. However, in selecting the right candidates, qualities like responsibility, dependability, independence and self-sufficiency crucial to the viability of virtual teamwork should be considered.
Individuals who possess the needed skills and appropriate temperament should be recruited regardless of standing or title within the company. In many cases, an employee's manager on one project may be their staff on the next. The bottom line is that virtual teams are developed based upon the skill sets best suited to meeting the project's requirements.
The Virtual Team Concept
Virtual teams typically follow a three-part model, the components of which capture the essential qualities of successful virtual teams. They represent the capabilities and behaviors needed to succeed in complex knowledge work in virtual environments. The three components include:
- People. People populate small groups and teams of every kind at every level.
- Purpose. Purpose holds all groups together, but for teams, the task that expresses the shared goal is the purpose. The purpose should be defined according to the cooperative goals set at the beginning of any successful teaming process. Interdependent tasks enable teams to accomplish the desired purpose initially defined with outcomes and measurable results at the completion of the project.
- Links. Links are the channels, interactions and relationships weaving the fabric of the team as it develops over time. The greatest difference between conventional teams and virtual teams is the nature and variety of their links. It is what makes virtual teams distinctive. The electronic infrastructure accessed by virtual teams makes their distance-related interactions possible.
Trust in Virtual Teams
The world of virtual teams has many benefits in bringing together people of talent, providing international perspectives and saving a corporation the expense of physically bringing the team together.
However, virtual teams can't work together until trust is established between its members. The dilemma faced by leaders is how team members build trust when they seldom, if ever, get a chance to meet the other person, and observe their actions and behaviors.
Before trust is established in virtual teams, individual team members must be able to answer three questions about one another:
- Value -- Do you have anything to offer me?
- Commitment -- Can I count on you?
- Thoroughness -- Will you get it straight?
The initial conversation with a team member is the first place that value is displayed. Before any discussions and dialog take place, qualifications of all team members should be shared with the team. This may be in the form of a resume, profile or professional listing that all can access.
Individual team members should be encouraged to communicate with each other and learn more about each other's jobs, their personal goals, and what they want and need from each other.
Leaders should inform team members that, because most communications will take place electronically, their tone of voice, energy level and enthusiasm does much to transmit the value they are bringing to the team.
Participation on a virtual team means that an individual's work and contributions are not readily observable. This degree of freedom comes with added responsibility for individual team members. There is no one there to appreciate the efforts that one person is contributing to a project.
The question becomes whether individual team members are committed to the success of the team. Other team members can only judge by what is related and shown to them. Team members need to be accessible, especially through instant messaging, to remind other team members that they are on the job.
Delivering large projects in smaller pieces is also advisable. Due to geographic constraints, personal commitment to the success of a virtual team takes additional work and increased expectations. It is up to team leaders to monitor the activities and output of individual members to ensure that all are committed to the success of the project.
In the virtual world, the most common response to something going wrong is silence. The burden of any mistake is more likely to fall on the absent person who "didn't get the job done."
Virtual team members must take control of their circumstances, double check and follow up more than in a face-to-face world. They must listen for concerns and questions from other team members. They must advise other team members of potential problems before they occur. Attention to minor details is more critical on virtual teams, since they can readily turn into major perceived problems by the rest of the team.
Once trust is established on a virtual team, its benefits will be realized. Things will work more smoothly with everyone sharing a positive attitude. The team will be more productive, respond to more significant opportunities, and grow in both capabilities and confidence.
Excerpt: Managing Teams in the Global Economy: Pinpoint Leadership Skill Development Training (Majorium Business Press, 2011)
If you would like to learn more about how to effectively structure and manage virtual teams, refer to Managing Teams in the Global Economy: Pinpoint Leadership Skill Development Training Series. This training skill-pack features eight key interrelated concepts, each with their own discussion points and training activity. It is ideal as an informal training tool for coaching or personal development. It can also be used as a handbook and guide for group training discussions. Click here to learn more.