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Virtual: something that exists in essence but not in actuality

Simon Mac Rory

The term ‘virtual’ applied to a team is an interesting concept based on the definition of the word above. The inference is that these teams do not really exist! Contributor Simon Mac Rory.

Yet we know that they do, and organisations are becoming more and more dependent upon them. Maybe there is something we can take from this definition that will help with creating awareness that virtual teams are not the same as any other team. They are different in how they operate and in the way they must be led to be effective. The type of person selected for a virtual team needs additional skills and a different level of emotional intelligence to operate comfortably in the virtual world. The assumption cannot be that it is just another form of the traditional or project team and can be managed and resourced in the same manner as a collocated team.

In a work context, the virtual team, geographically dispersed team, distributed team or remote team, usually refers to a group of individuals who work together from different geographical locations. They can even be from various physical locations within a building or campus. The defining feature of this kind of team is that it relies on communication technology, in its many varied forms, in order to collaborate.

The virtual team was originally conceived to facilitate innovation between experts who could not, would not or did not have the time to travel. Today the virtual team is a necessity of doing business driven by globalisation, financial considerations, real estate costs, travel costs, commute times, talent availability and acquisition costs, employee flexibility demands and 24/7 operations.

The virtual team is the Robusta coffee bean of the team world. Yes, it is a variation of the traditional team or project team (so still coffee, still a team) but, in reality, it is a completely different breed and this must be recognised. The Robusta bean tastes different and has nearly double the caffeine. The green bean of Robusta is about half the cost of the Arabica green bean. For sure, the virtual team is the Robusta bean of the team world.

The strengths
The virtual team can deliver increased productivity and a better contribution to the bottom line. Team members tend to be more focused on the task at hand and the virtual world is a flatter world in terms of organisational structure.

Decision making tends to be better where collaborative conflict management styles are developed, which is a prerequisite for a virtual team. The diversity of the group brings different perspectives and opinions, ensuring a greater range of options and leading to substantial increases in innovation. The release on technology also mitigates some of the challenges of diversity e.g. email communication does not transfer accents and carries fewer noticeable language differences than verbal communications. Cultural barriers are not removed; rather, they are shielded from view where they are irrelevant.

Infrastructural cost reduction can be substantial in a well-developed virtual team strategy. Home working, in particular, drives savings in a range of areas. From a reduction in physical space required and the associated reduced facilities costs to a reduction in administrative costs and employee support services, all in all these can add up to a considerable amount.

The challenges
Cultural diversity can have negative impacts when not managed or appreciated, from simply failing to recognise national holidays or to more complex issues surrounding language barriers and interpretation. Styles of communication can also have an impact, with some cultures practising very direct communication and others finding this uncomfortable. The generation gap can be highlighted in this kind of team, as older members may struggle with the virtual environment whereas younger members may feel immediately comfortable with the technology. Time zones can become a critical and contentious flash point if not managed fairly in terms of meetings, deadlines and project deliverables.

Satisfaction tends to be lower in the virtual team, in part due to lower levels of trust between team members. Without face-to-face communication, trust is more difficult to establish and maintain. Lojeski and Reilly (2008)* found that virtual teams, where the organisations did not develop a coherent strategy to meet the challenges of the virtual world, could suffer a decline in performance by as much as 50 percent, innovation by 93 percent, satisfaction by 80 percent and trust by 83 percent.The gain made can be quickly lost and the supposed financial benefits become a cost rather than a saving.

Virtual team members must operate more independently than the traditional team. This calls for increased delegation and shared leadership. This infers a requirement for higher levels of trust and process that support both the leader and the team member. the required independence of the team in terms of their operations can lead to isolation and issues of belonging impacting morale and motivation. Leaders need to pay attention to this aspect. When part of the team is collocated, and others are remote, it can have a significant impact, with remote members quickly feeling left out.

The imperatives
Virtual teams can be very effective, but it must never be assumed that they are simply another traditional or project team. To maximise the potential from this type of team, the organisation needs to develop a clear and unambiguous strategy that recognises the uniqueness of the virtual team and the fact that, as a team type, it has very particular demands if it is to be successful. Enabling technology platforms alone is not the answer…

*Lojeski, Karen and Richard Reilly. Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise.Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008

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