Information technology is providing the infrastructure necessary to support the development of new organizational forms that could revolutionize the workplace and provide organizations with unprecedented levels of flexibility and responsiveness.
Thanks to globalization and the advent of the Internet, unusual teams whose members may never meet face to face have come to proliferate in what have come to be called ‘virtual teams’. This term is used to cover a wide range of activities and forms of technology-supported work, and refers to work groups whose members are spread out geographically but are linked together via computer and communication technologies.
Virtual teams are often assembled in response to specific needs and characterized by three things:
Their flexible composition
Their ability to traverse traditional organizational boundaries and time constraints, and
Their preponderant reliance on communication technologies to communicate with each other.
Virtual teaming has been associated with a number of important benefits and advantages. On one hand, they have been found to facilitate increased participation, as the nature of the communication technology allows members to work based on their own schedules; on the other hand, at the individual level, potential advantages of high virtuality include higher flexibility and time control together with higher responsibilities; work motivation; and empowerment of team members. Team members must be proficient in the use of interactive technologies, working across time; distance; organization; culture with sensitivity to project and time parameters; and able to network.
Virtual teams tend to have more of a task-focus and less of a social-focus than traditional teams; when compared to traditional team members, virtual team members generally report weaker relational links to teammates. However, socio-emotional development in virtual teams cannot be neglected and it is very important to focus on relationship-building; this includes interaction processes designed to increase feelings of inclusiveness and belonging to the team that are hypothesized to foster cohesion and trust. For this reason, if it is feasible for team members to physically meet, these early meetings should focus on relationship-building because these experiences can strengthen the socio-emotional development of the team and foster later success by improving performance and enhancing learning.
Trust development is crucial for the successful completion of virtual team projects. Virtual teams that exhibit high trusting behaviors experience significant social communication as well as predictable communication patterns, substantial feedback, positive leadership, enthusiasm, and the ability to cope with technical uncertainty.
Trust is not one-dimensional, but changes as a relationship develops. To build trust in virtual teams, it is essential to ask effective questions, generate clear and concise objectives, include a project implementation plan, and build tell-and-ask patterns. Moreover, in order to grow the virtual team’s culture and identity it is important to enhance the development of communication and meetings protocols and include the promotion of virtual socializing skills in addition to making, sharing, and celebrating good news as well as diagnosing problems.
Cohesion is an important aspect of the virtual team as it has been associated with better performance and greater satisfaction. Collaborative technologies hinder the development of cohesion in virtual teams–in fact, traditional teams had higher levels of team cohesiveness. However, while virtual teams begin with lower cohesion, over time, virtual team members exchange enough social information to develop strong cohesion.
The core of any virtual team process is communication along with the need to create a team of excellent communicators; for this reason, the selection of the right technology for most effective communication turns out to be fundamental.
Because of the distributed nature of their work unit, virtual team members have to rely heavily on information and communication technologies. A company with very effective virtual teams recognizes communication as the key to success and needs to create an explicit reward system designed to foster a culture of extensive information sharing.
The frequency and predictability of communication, and the extent to which feedback is provided on a regular basis, improves communication effectiveness leading to higher trust and improved team performance.
Senior leadership must recognize that virtual teaming is fast becoming a preferred and useful way of working.
Virtual team leaders perform a variety of functions within the team; for example, they need to develop team members into one cohesive unit, and constantly monitor and manage ongoing team performance. It is also critically important that managers clearly define the virtual team’s role within the context of the organization’s greater mission. Team leaders must also define a shared language and align their team on goals, roles and responsibilities; coordination is inherently more of a challenge because people are not co-located, so it is important to focus and clarify the details of task design and the processes that will be used to complete them.
Finally, leaders’ one-to-one performance management and coaching interactions with their team members are a fundamental part of making any team work, so it is key to make these interactions a regular part of the virtual team rhythm; using them not only to check status and provide feedback, but to keep members connected to the vision and to highlight their part of “the story” of what you are doing together.