Virtual team

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A virtual team (also known as a geographically dispersed team, distributed team, or remote team[1]) is a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology.[2] Powell, Piccoli and Ives define virtual teams in their literature review article "as groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks."[3] Ale Ebrahim, N., Ahmed, S. & Taha, Z. in a 2009 literature review paper, added two key issues to definition of a virtual team "as small temporary groups of geographically, organizationally and/ or time dispersed knowledge workers who coordinate their work predominantly with electronic information and communication technologies in order to accomplish one or more organization tasks".[4] Members of virtual teams communicate electronically and may never meet face-to-face. Virtual teams are made possible by a proliferation of fiber optic technology that has significantly increased the scope of off-site communication.[5] Virtual teams allow companies to procure the best talent without geographical restrictions.[5] According to Hambley, O'Neil, & Kline (2007), "virtual teams require new ways of working across boundaries through systems, processes, technology, and people, which requires effective leadership... despite the widespread increase in virtual teamwork, there has been relatively little focus on the role of virtual team leaders."[6]

Model[edit]

There are three main aspects to a virtual team - purpose, people and links.[7] While purpose is an important aspect for all organizations, it's the most critical aspect for virtual teams; purpose is what holds a virtual team together. Virtual teams do not have hierarchy or any other common structures because they may not be from the same organization, and purpose here brings and holds the team together.[7] Purpose is generally translated into certain action steps for people to work on with a defined structure consisting of common goals, individual tasks and results.[7] A number of factors may impact the performance of members of a virtual team. For example, team members with a higher degree of focused attention and aggregate lower levels of temporal dissociation (or flow ) may have higher performance. Further, members with higher degrees of attention focus may prefer asynchronous communication channels, while those with low levels of flow may prefer synchronous communication channels.[8]

Structure[edit]

Powell, Piccoli and Ives[9] found and investigated 43 articles about virtual teams and concluded that the current research have found four main focus areas of it.

Diagram of the focus of virtual team research (Powell, Piccoli and Ives, 2004, p.8)

Inputs[edit]

Design of a virtual team means simply that forming a VT should be planned. This means structuring the interactions; what kind of communication tools are used, how much face-to-face time will be possible, etc. Research has found that team building exercises,[10] the establishment of shared norms (Sarker et al., 2001, p. 50) and the establishment of a clear team structure[11] helps the team to succeed.[12] Kirkman et al.[13] [2] found empirically that having more face-to-face meetings improved the empowerment of virtual teams, which leads to better learning. Numerous communication problems can be diverted by creating shared knowledge databases in order to allow all the team members to have the same information and to know that others have it, too.[14] As an added bonus, shared knowledge databases also share the same language and mental models, which are substitutes for the all important face-to-face time. Furthermore, shared mental models can be focused through designing, requiring the teams to create goals and strategies. This has been shown clearly to improve the teams[15]

With cultural differences also coordination problems and obstacles to effective communication can be involved.[16] These problems may be solved by actively understanding and accepting differences in cultures.[17]

The technical expertise of a team seems to have a positive effect on the team‟s performance and the satisfaction of belonging to the team.[18] At the same time, high trust is found to develop.[19] On the other hand, "the relationship between technology and task performance is found to be more dependent on experience with technology and with group membership than the type of task on which the group was working".[20]

Diverse technological skills can create conflict among the team.[21] This is why teams should have consistent training to improve team performance.[22] For instance, mentoring is a good way to make personal ties to more experienced virtual team professionals.[23] According to Tan et al.,[24] consistent training fosters cohesiveness, trust, team work, commitment to team goals, individual satisfaction and higher perceived decision quality. In their article, they taught a communication technique called the dialogue technique. It is created through three stages: small talk, sharing mental models and norm building.

Socio-emotional processes[edit]

This section introduces the emotional problems involved and mitigation tactics needed to achieve cohesion and trust among team members. Overall, the research about this reports "a positive link between socio-emotional process and outcomes of the virtual team project."[25] Because of geographical distribution, face-to-face time occurs only rarely. This, according to research, results in weaker social links between team-mates and leads the team to be more task-focused than socially focused.[26] If face-to-face meetings are feasible, meetings should be held as much as possible at the beginning of the team formation in order to bring team-mates closer and form interpersonal bonds. These meetings should focus more on relationship building than on actual business.[27] However, with socializing different cultural preferences have to be remembered.[28] If face-to-face meetings are not possible or feasible to the desired extent, other approaches can be applied. Social-bonding can be done partially via electronic communication tools. Jarvenpaa and Leidner's[29] study found that if teams communicate more socially they achieve higher trust and better social and emotional relationships. Leaders can help foster relationship building and general team building in many ways, e.g. by providing continuous feedback, listening to team members‟ opinions and suggestions, clearly stating the team member roles and having consistency in their leadership style.[30]

Cohesion means the sense of unity in a team. It is found to be important, but there are no conclusive results on how to support it in the virtual team context.[28]

Trust is particularly problematic subject with virtual teams, because it is arguable whether people can be expected to trust each other if they have never met face–to-face.[31] Furthermore, trust is noted to be crucial in successful teams, but usually there is not much time to build it little by little because often the teams are short-lived in projects. Jarvenpaa and Leidner[32] describe a mechanism of how people solve the trust problem in a short time. It is called the swift trust paradigm and it suggests that team members assume from the beginning that the other team members are trustworthy. They adjust that assumption during the lifetime of the team. Jarvenpaa and Leidner[32] also researched the differences between teams that had a high level of trust in the beginning and teams with a high amount of trust in the end and compared them. To achieve high trust early in the group‟s life, the team had social and enthusiastic communication and they coped well with technical uncertainty and took individual initiatives. The groups that enjoyed trust later had predictable communication, timely responses, positive leadership and the ability to move from social communication to task-focused communication.[29]

Task processes[edit]

Task processes are the different functions that happen when a team is doing its work. Communication is one of the most crucial things in virtual teams. It starts from selecting excellent communicators for the team members and the right technology for them to use.[33] Some empirically found challenges in successful communication in virtual teams are failure to communicate due to wrong or lacking contextual information, unevenly distributed information, interpretation of the meaning of silence and technical problems.[34] Because of the lack of face-to-face time, the team can miss nonverbal communication altogether. The extensive reliance on communication technology leads to reduced impact and difficulties in management compared to the traditional teams.[35] Researchers have found some solutions for these problems. One company has created a reward system for team cooperation to encourage people to actively and accurately communicate.[36] On the other hand, according to Pink's[37] research on rewarding creativity, rewarding communication is not a sustainable way to encourage cooperation. In another company, they emphasized the need to debate as well as merely share information.[38] Predictability and feedback also frequently improve communication effectiveness, creating trust and better team performance.[33] In addition, in one study researchers tested the question of whether adding video to electronic communication helps to explain a detailed task (a map route) to another person.[39] They found that for native speaker pairs it did not bring any additional benefits, but for non-native speaker pairs it brought significant improvement to the task.[40]

It is, naturally, more difficult to coordinate virtual teams in different time zones, cultures and mental models. Collaboration norms have to develop for the team to function well.[41] As mentioned before, periodical face-to-face meetings are a good way to form relationships and also a good vehicle to coordinate activities and to drive the project forward.[42] When face-to-face meetings are not feasible, one alternative is to develop coordination protocols with communication training.[43] Ramesh and Dennis[44] have suggested standardizing the team‟s inputs, processes and/or outputs. This should help the team to coordinate and help the other party.

The task-technology-structure fit examines "the possible fit between various technologies available...";[41] Studies have hypothesized that the technology fit depends on individual preferences, e.g. experience of use and the urgency of the task;[42][45][27] Majchrzak et al.[46] found that face-to-face meetings or phone calls are suitable for ambiguous tasks, managing conflicts, managing external resources, brainstorming and strategic talks. Electric communication is more suitable for more structured tasks such as routine analysis, examining design tradeoffs and monitoring project status. Interestingly, in their study the team first adjusted their organization to the technology at hand, but later also adjusted the technology to their organization.

Outputs[edit]

Output in virtual teams means all the things that come out of the work processes of the team. When comparing the performance of traditional and virtual teams, the results are mixed. Some studies find traditional teams and some virtual teams to be better. The majority of studies have found the teams to be about at the same level.[47] Powell, Piccoli and Ives[48] list many studies that have found different factors, which make virtual teams successful. The found factors are:

  • Training
  • Strategy/goal setting
  • Developing shared language
  • Team building
  • Team cohesiveness
  • Communication
  • Coordination and commitment of the teams
  • The appropriate task-technology fit
  • Competitive and collaborative conflict behaviors (conversely, the same study found that avoidance and compromise conflict behavior had a negative impact)

The results from different student studies are mixed concerning working in a virtual team.[48] Tan et al.[49] found that teams which used their dialogue technique were more satisfied with decisions made in the team. One study found that a traditional team started out more satisfied than a virtual team. Then, in less than a year, the satisfaction of the virtual team rose and exceeded the satisfaction of the traditional team.[50] Furthermore, some studies have found that women, generally, are happier in virtual teams than men.[51]

Types[edit]

Below are the most common types of virtual teams.[6]

  1. Networked teams
  2. Parallel teams
  3. Project development teams
  4. Work, production or functional teams
  5. Service teams
  6. Offshore ISD teams

Networked teams[edit]

Generally, networked teams[52] are geographically distributed and not necessarily from the same organization. These teams are frequently created and just as frequently dissolved; they are usually formed to discuss specific topics where members from the area of expertise, possibly from different organizations, pitch their ideas in the same discussion. Depending on the complexity of the issue, additional members to the team may be added at any time. The duration these teams last may vary significantly depending on how fast or slow the issue is resolved.[6]

Parallel teams[edit]

Parallel teams are highly task oriented teams that usually consist of specialized professionals. While they are generally only required for very short span of time, unlike networked teams, they are not dissolved after completion of the tasks. The team may be either internal or external to the organization.[6]

Project development teams[edit]

Similar to parallel teams, these teams are geographically distributed and may operate from different timezones. Project development teams are mainly focused on creating new products, information systems or organizational processes for users and/or customers. These teams exist longer than parallel teams and have the added ability to make decisions rather than just make recommendations. Similar to networked teams, project development teams may also add or remove members of their team at any given time, as needed for their area of expertise.[6]

Work, production or functional teams[edit]

These teams are totally function specific where they only work on a particular area within an organization (i.e. finance, training, research, etc.). Operating virtually from different geographical locations, these teams exist to perform regular or ongoing tasks.[6]

Service teams[edit]

Service teams are geographically located in different time-zones and are assigned to a particular service such as customer support, network upgrades, data maintenance, etc. Each team works on providing the particular service in their daylight hours and at the end of day, work is delegated to the next team which operates in a different timezone so that there is someone handling the service 24 hours a day.[6]

Offshore ISD teams[edit]

Offshore ISD outsourcing teams are independent service provider teams that a company can subcontract portions of work to. These teams usually work in conjunction with an onshore team.[5] Offshore ISD is commonly used for software development as well as international R&D projects.[5]

Advantages[edit]

Increased productivity: Virtual teams often see an increase in productivity because more personal flexibility is achieved, commute time is reduced, and work is not limited by the traditional 9-5 work day schedule. In turn, the company never sees an off hour. The team on the other side of the globe simply picks up where the prior team left off. This approach is commonly referred to as "Follow the Sun Approach". This advantage can translate to a much faster time to market for new products and technology.[citation needed]

Extended market opportunity: This is a major benefit of geographically dispersed teams due to direct access to different market opportunities. With work teams located in different parts of the globe, organizations are able to establish their presence with customers worldwide. This also gives small business owners the ability to compete on a global scale as well without being limited to a particular customer base.[citation needed]

Knowledge transfer: This is one of the most important benefits of a virtual team; utilizing people with different types of knowledge spread out across the globe can be very beneficial to any organization. Online meetings, remote computer access, wireless technology, and conferencing systems offer a way for participants to join a complex discussion from anywhere in the world. This benefit can enable most companies to compete on a global scale.[citation needed]

Statistics Related to Virtual Work Both fully virtual teams and organizations that employ some virtual workers experience a high return on investment in retention, company loyalty and valuable output.

Disadvantages[edit]

Communication deficiency: The biggest disadvantage that any virtual team can suffer from is the lack of efficiency in communication, partly due to constraints in virtual communication mediums. This is also primarily due to the fact that humans communicate better when they are able to communicate with their body language.[53] Inevitably, virtual teams may face obstacles due to restrictions of the Internet which in turn may lead to incorrect assumptions if a message is not laid out clearly. Failure to properly communicate and clearly address messages or emails could lead to frustration and eventually failure.[citation needed]

Poor leadership and management: Poor leadership can result in the failure of any team, whether virtual or not; however, it becomes a much more prominent problem in virtual teams. Messages must be sent across accurately and clearly. Inability to effectively communicate to members of the team can all greatly affect a project .[54]

Incompetent team members: Virtual teams should only consist of competent and experienced team members due to the distance factor which can overtly affect the timing and completion date of a project. Projects are more likely to fail if the team consists of individuals who are lazy or lack sufficient knowledge to complete their assigned tasks. It only takes one incompetent team member to have a negative effect on the rest of the team.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  3. ^ Anne Powell, Gabriele Piccoli, and Blake Ives. Virtual teams: a review of current literature and directions for future research. The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems - Winter Vol. 35, issue 1, 2004
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  26. ^ see Powell, Piccoli and Ives (2004) p.10, Anne Powell, Gabriele Piccoli, and Blake Ives. Virtual teams: a review of current literature and directions for future research. The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems - Winter Vol. 35, issue 1, 2004.)
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  29. ^ a b Jarvenpaa and Leidner, (1999) p.807 , Sirkka Jarvenpaa and Dorothy E. Leidner, Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams, Organization Science; Special Issue: Communication Processes for Virtual Organizations, Vol. 10, issue 6, 1999, p. 791-815.
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  33. ^ a b Powell, Piccoli and Ives (2004) p.11, Anne Powell, Gabriele Piccoli, and Blake Ives. Virtual teams: a review of current literature and directions for future research. The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems - Winter Vol. 35, issue 1, 2004.)
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  49. ^ Tan et .al (2000), Bernard Tan, Kwok-Kee Wei, Wayne Huang, Guet-Ngoh Ng, A Dialogue Technique to Enhance Electronic Communication in Virtual Teams, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol. 43, issue 2, 2000, p. 153-165.
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Further reading[edit]

  • Geographically Dispersed Teams (1999). Valerie Sessa et al. ISBN 1-882197-54-2
  • Duarte, D.L., & Snyder, N.T. (2006). Mastering Virtual Teams (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-8280-6
  • Hertel, G., Geister, S., & Konradt, U. (2005). Managing virtual teams: A review of current empirical research. Human Resource Management Review, 15, 69-95. ISSN: 1053-4822
  • Lipnack, Jessica and Stamps, Jeffrey Virtual Teams. Wiley (2 edition - September 13, 2000) ISBN 0471388254
  • Wiggins, B.E. (2009, July). Global teams and media selection. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications (pp. 705–710). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/31577.
  • Konetes, G., & Wiggins, B.E. (2009, September). The effectiveness of virtual teams. In Proceedings of the Laurel Highlands Communications Conference (pp. 11–18). Indiana: Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
  • Jarvis, Dana E. (2010) 7 Essentials for Managing Virtual Teams, University Readers, San Diego, CA.
  • Carmel, E. and J.A. Espinosa. (2011) I'm Working While They're Sleeping: Time Zone Separation Challenges and Solutions, USA: Nedder Stream Press.
  • Zofi, Y. (2011). A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams (1st ed.). New York, NY: AMACOM. ISBN 0-8144-1659-4

External links[edit]