Thesis: Virtual Teams

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¶ … Virtual Teams

Because all organizations are comprised of people and people have been coming together in organizations of various types for millennia, teams have been a natural part of how humans get things done. While the purpose and nature of teams have varied over the years, one constant factor that characterized almost all teams was the need for personal, face-to-face exchanges to achieve the team's goals. In the Age of Information, though, things have changed in fundamental ways and so-called "virtual teams" are becoming increasingly commonplace in industries of all types. While virtual teams offer a number of advantages over traditional team formats, there are some important constraints and challenges involved in using this approach to teamwork that must be taken into account to maximize their effectiveness. To determine what these challenges are and how they can best be addressed in various organizational settings, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning virtual teams to provide a working definition, what is involved in forming virtual teams, and their respective advantages and disadvantages. An analysis of the challenges involved in administering virtual teams is followed by a discussion of how these challenges can be resolved. A summary of the research and important findings are provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

What is a Virtual Team?

Virtual teams are also known as distributed work groups, and share some commonalities with other types of teams. For example, Kerber and Buono (2004) note that, "Like any team, a virtual team works on interdependent tasks guided by a common purpose. But unlike traditional, collocated teams, a virtual team works across space, time, and organizational and geographic boundaries" (p. 4). Likewise, Roebuck, Brock and Moodie (2004) report that, "Virtual teams have become an integral part of many organizations because of all increase in corporate restructuring, competition, and globalization. A virtual team is one that conducts its work almost entirely through electronic technology. Virtual team members, who are typically dispersed both geographically and organizationally, rarely meet face-to-face while relying on technology for task-related communication" (p. 359).

Forming Virtual Teams

Forming virtual teams can be accomplished in the same manner that other types of teams are created provided they all have access to the telecommunications hardware and software needed to communicate with each other and have the training and expertise required to use these tools effectively. This means that it may not be possible to simply pick and choose virtual team members in a haphazard fashion, and forming effective virtual teams demands that team members not only know how to use computer-based applications efficiently, they must be amenable to participating in these types of teamwork settings in order to collaborate with other team members. Appointing a virtual team facilitator or leader who can help those members with less expertise in using the telecommunications tools can also be useful (Salmon, 2003). A virtual team facilitator or leader can also help the newly formed virtual team establish a mutual rapport that will contribute to their productivity. According to Roebuck et al., "People who are being prepared for participation in virtual teams need to be taught methods of increasing the likelihood of getting off on the right foot with each other" (Roebuck et al., 2004, p. 360). Performed properly, though, a virtual team formed from willing and capable members can achieve a great deal of collaboration despite being separated geographically. For instance, according to Eom and Lee (1999), "Virtual teams equipped with information technologies are invalidating the old 50-foot-rule -- 'If people are more than 50 feet apart they are not very likely to collaborate'" (p. 12). Besides team member selection, there are some other advantages and disadvantages involved in creating and administering virtual teams and these issues are discussed further below.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Teams

Advantages. Not surprisingly, the virtual team format provides a number of advantages for both small and large companies, particularly those that compete in the globalized marketplace. In this regard, Kerber and Buono report that, "Virtual teams allow organizations to bring together critical contributors who might not otherwise be able to work together due to time, travel, and cost restrictions. In addition, virtual teams can enhance the available pool of resources by including people from outside the sponsoring organization, such as supply chain affiliates, members of partner organizations, or external consultants" (p. 5). In addition, virtual teams provide a means by which companies can recruit, hire and retain the most qualified employee who may live long distances away and who might be otherwise unable or unwilling to relocate to take a position with the company. Likewise, virtual teams provide the flexibility that companies need to adapt and realign the team when project requirements change or team members depart (Kerber & Buono, 2004). According to Kerber and Buoni, "Just as important, virtual teams facilitate the implementation of corporate-wide initiatives in global organizations and are especially valuable for companies in which these initiatives must adapt to local cultures" (2004, p. 5).

Disadvantages. Many managers may prefer a face-to-face management style that is more difficult (but not impossible as described further below) with the virtual team format, and keeping track of productivity and performance can be particularly difficult when virtual team members enjoy a high degree of autonomy in their operations. For instance, Reed-Woodard (2007) emphasizes that some of the disadvantages of virtual teams "can include miscommunication, breaches in security, and lack of worker productivity. Workers outside the office need as much managing as workers in the office, just in different ways" (p. 76). Moreover, some team members may have more expertise and are therefore more comfortable using various telecommunications media for communication. More importantly, perhaps, there are some profound communications constraints involved with even the most sophisticated virtual team arrangements and despite the introduction of video conferencing tools and Web cameras, there is still a basic disadvantage involving communication between individual team members and management; therefore, virtual teams can require specialized technologies, group decisions can take longer than in face-to-face settings, and virtual teams may experience more problems in collaboration (Reed-Woodard, 2007). Other challenges related to virtual teams are discussed further below.

Challenges of Virtual Teams

While many challenges associated with virtual teams are similar to those of traditional teams, the challenges are exacerbated by time and geographic separation. Virtual team leaders generally experience some constraints in coordinating virtual team's efforts and aligning their performance with organizational goals, particularly in those cases where team members are unable to meet with each other on a face-to-face basis before beginning serious work (Kerber & Buono, 2004). According to these analysts, "Moreover, in the absence of face-to-face communication and interaction, virtual team members may have less understanding of each other, potentially contributing to misunderstandings and conflict" (Kerber & Buono, 2004, p. 5). This point is also made by Roebuck and her associates who emphasize, "Because communication is often seen as the most important factor in coordinating work among team members, effective communication is vital for virtual teams. However, in virtual teams, separated by geographical distance, the process of developing a shared understanding is more challenging" (p. 360).

Therefore, a fundamental challenge associated with virtual teams is overcoming the dearth of face-to-face interaction available. According to Roebuck et al., "When meeting in person, team members can depend upon voice levels, smiles, and raised eyebrows to determine whether they are being understood; however, virtual teams do not have these nonverbal cues and can fail without communication strategies to manage the lack of face-to-face communication or silence" (p. 360). Because research continues to confirm that human communication is predominately nonverbal, virtual team members do not enjoy the same level of communication available to their face-to-face counterparts (Roebuck et al., 2004). As noted above, although videoconferencing tools and Web cameras can take up some of the slack in this area, Roebuck and her colleagues emphasize that even the most sophisticated videoconferencing tools may not capture facial expressions when transmission problems occur, in those cases when team members are off-camera, and when someone uses the "mute" function (Roebuck et al., 2004). As a result, virtual team members must take this constraint into account during their collaborative efforts and remain cognizant that others may not be able to discern as much information from team interchanges as they are used to achieving (Roebuck et al., 2004).

Another communication challenge for virtual teams is establishing and maintaining personal relationships between individual team members. In this regard, Roebuck and her associates emphasize that, "Successful teams are founded on a relationship of trust, and relationships are easier to build face-to-face. Virtual teams are confronted with the challenge of establishing trusting working relationships through technological interaction alone" (p. 360). Consequently, it is important for virtual team leaders to help facilitate the establishment of productive relationships between team members from the outset.

A final challenge is taking advantage of the expertise and knowledge that each virtual member brings to the setting. In this regard, Roebuck and her associates point out that, "While a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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