The aim of this module is to describe how virtual teams differ from collocated ones. What virtual teams have in common with all teams is that team members must communicate and collaborate to get work done and/or to produce a product. Virtual teams, unlike traditional ones, however, must accomplish this by working across distance, time, and/or cultural boundaries and by using technology to facilitate communication and collaboration.
Keywords: Team types, characteristics
Audience: Program and project managers, team leaders, HR/D
In today's business environment, organizations adapt quickly or die. Gaining competitive advantage in a global environment means continually reshaping the organization to maximize strengths. The use of teams has become a common way of doing this. The formation of team can draw talent quickly from different functions, locations, and organizations.
Organizations have to be able to form world-class teams to quickly address customer problems, develop products, and deliver services, but these teams often operate virtually. For many teams, travelling and having continual face-to-face meetings is not possible and the most efficient or effective way of working.
Organizations that do not use virtual teams effectively may be fighting an uphill battle in a global, competitive, and rapidly changing environment. Organizations that will succeed in the next decade have to found new ways of working across boundaries through, processes, organization, technology, and people.
There are many different configurations of virtual teams. Virtual team members need to have a solid understanding of the type of virtual team they work in and the special challenges each type presents. What these teams have common with all traditional teams is that team members must communicate and collaborate to get work done and/or to produce a product. Virtual teams, unlike traditional ones, must accomplish this by working across distance, time, and/or organizational boundaries and by using technology to facilitate communication and collaboration.
There are seven basic types of virtual teams:
Networked teams; Team membership is diffuse and fluid; members come and go as needed. Team lacks clear boundaries with the organization.
Parallel teams; Team has clear boundaries and distinct membership. Members work together on a short-term basis to make recommendations for improvements in organizational processes or to address specific business issues. Team works in short term to develop recommendations for an improvement in a process or system. Virtual parallel teams are becoming a fairly common way for multinational and global organizations to make recommendations about worldwide processes and systems that take into account a global perspective.
Project or product development teams; Team has fluid membership, clear boundaries, and a defined customer, technical requirements, and output. Longer-term team task is non-routine, and
team has decision-making authority, the results are specific and measurable. A typical result is a new product, information system, or organizational process.
Work or production teams; Team has distinct membership and clear boundaries. Members perform regular and ongoing work, usually in one functional area, such as accounting, finance, training or research and development.
Service teams; Team has distinct membership and supports ongoing customer, network activity.
The technicians "follow the sun" or "help desk", are situated so that one team always is operational Management teams; Team has distinct membership and works on a regular basis to lead corporate activities.
Action teams; Team deals with immediate action, usually in an emergency situation. Membership may be fluid or distinct.
It is easy to characterize the types of virtual teams using the same categories as traditional teams they can, however, be much more complex. Check the complexity index based on the following questions (1-2= some complexity, 3-5= moderate complexity, 6-8= high complexity)!
• Has members from more than one organization
• Has members from more than one function
• Has members who transition on and off the team
• Is geographically dispersed over more than three contiguous time zones
• Is geographically dispersed so that some team members are 8-12 hours apart
• Has members from more than two national cultures
• Has members whose native language is different from the majority of other team members
• Has members who do not have equal access to electronic communication and collaboration technology
• Has members who are not formally assigned to the team
Fisher, K. & Fisher, M.D. (2001) The distance manager. A hands-on guide to managing off-site employees and virtual teams. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Duarte, D.L. & Snyder, N.T. (2001) Mastering virtual teams. Strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Lipnack, J. & Stamps, J. (2000) Virtual teams. People working across boundaries with technology.
New York: Wiley & Sons.
For most organizations, being virtual is a matter of degree. The relationships of any actors being them individuals, dyads, teams, projects, organizations or networks can be characterized with four dimensions: space (same place vs. different, dispersed place), time (same, synchronous vs.
different, asynchronous; permanent vs. temporary), mode of interaction (face-to-face vs.
electrically mediated) and diversity of actors (similar vs. different) (see Figure). Depending on the angles and their combination, we can speak, for example, about co-located or multi-site teams, permanent or temporary teams, etc. Virtual organizations are specific constellations of the four dimensions. Even the simplest combination of these four dimensions generates sixteen types of organizations, which describes the variety of demands for organizational design and development.
Mode of interaction
= non-virtual organization
Space (same place – dispersed).
• Multi-located working raises several questions. The degree of dispersions varies a lot already in traditional organizations. The distance influences inevitably the communication opportunities. The basic question is, if longer distances have varied effects on the arrangements of virtual working?
Do trust, identification, cohesion, and commitment exist in virtual teams and upon what are they based? Is a trust qualitatively different from traditional conceptualisations of trust? Swift trust?
Time (synchronous – asynchronous, permanent - temporary).
• Time touches virtual organizations in at least two meanings. First, how to organize and work concurrently and at different times? Second, virtual organizations are mainly temporary structures.
They have their life cycle, and resulting effects on their members’ tasks, roles and attitudes.
Mode of interaction (face-to-face – electrical).
• What are the most effective ways of communicating social information in virtual teams? We need to understand the effective leadership styles and contrast virtual teams with and without initial face- to-face contact. ‘Virtuality’ or ‘Virtualness’ is often considered as the synonym of electrical communication. A lot of promises are loaded on the information and communication technologies supporting virtual working. How do these tools and artefacts really support virtual organizations and what is their usability?
Individual diversity (similar – different).
• Dispersed working in different companies and countries bring along employees with diverse cultural, ethnical and linguistic backgrounds. What is the diversity’s real influence on virtual working?
• Virtual organizations are temporary structures having their life cycle. Member diversity is inevitable. Research is needed on the virtual team member profile, task requirements, and technology capabilities. Why some groups are capable of addressing problems and conflicts early on in the group’s life? What are the necessary conditions for virtual teams to learn dynamically and engage in team processes that allow the teams to redirect their activities at a halfway point or at a similar logical point of their life?
• Boundary management in virtual organizations. How is knowledge and learning best transferred from one globally dispersed virtual team to another? What kinds of change models are needed to help managers to transform hierarchical organizations into virtual organizations?
• Performance of virtual organizations. How the effectiveness of changes from traditional to virtual models can be measured? What is the relationship between social capital and business success?