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The Dynamics of Virtual Teams Published: Sunday, October 7, 2007 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

Pieces of research are already in the street and the indicate that virtuals teams differ from conventional teams in that they show greater diversity in work norms and expectations, greater reliance on technology as a vehicle of communication, and greater demands on the team leader (Mohrman, Cohen, Dyers, Avery and others).

Unlike traditional co-located teams, virtual teams are assembled with individuals from different locations with greater diversity of cultures, background languages, and business functions.  They cannot rely on often face-to-face meetings and must communicate using much wider variety of technologies.  Members can choose from a range of communication technologies to coordinate work activities, including e-mail, electronic displays or whiteboards, bulletin boards or Web pages (including team calendars and chat rooms), teleconference (audio or video), or multipoint, multi-media technology (a combination of full-motion video, white boards or audio links).

A prevention note is that the potential for miscommunication is much greater when team members cannot meet face to face, but rely on electronic and technological devices.  Also, the demands on the team leader are much greater on virtual.  In additional to the needed leadership skills (coaching, mentorship and facilitation), virtual team leaders must have enough cross-cultural and cross-functional experience to be aware of potential conflicts in work norms and expectations.  It is important to educate team members with regards to the challenges of coping and managing differences and help the team establish a set of commonly understood and agreed- upon work norms and expectations.

These leaders must be proficient with the use of a variety of communication technology, and dedicate extra time to preparing and making sure members are prepared for meeting so the interactions can be productive.  A fundamental dimension is that leaders must communicate frequently on an individual basis with each colleague.  Side conversations are critical to resolving disagreements and managing tensions, negotiating compromises and making sure each person feels understood and heard by the leader.

As research by us and many other scholars, there are four common problems that impact virtual teams more than co-located teams.  These are: 1) Lack of trust and mutual understanding.  2) Un-met expectations. 3) Lack of training and effective use of communication technologies. 4) Lack of effective team leadership.

A fundamental problem with virtual teams is that members show diverse cultural backgrounds and skills and a limited history of working together (and sometimes limited history of working together again in the future).  Although building trust and mutual understanding among team members is critical for any team, it is much more important in virtual team setting.  To enhance trust all members should understand what each other bring to the team, and at kickoff meetings it is desirable to review each team member’s personality profile and background.

Unmet expectations are a source of team conflict.  In the case of virtual teams, there are three dimensions that have to be stressed.  1) Require communication behaviors. 2) Clearness of the decision making processes.  3) Establish conflict resolution behaviors and processes.

Virtual teams must communicate long distance, and this requires members to understand how, when and the frequency for using particular communication technologies.

We want to emphasize the following team design and management proposition: The demands of managing a virtual team exceed the demands of traditional teams.  The team leader role is vital and is much more challenging that the team leader role in traditional teams.  The empirical proposition is that the team leader should allocate 50% more time to the project than she/he would be spending to a co-located team working on a similar problem (organizing all team meetings and activities electronically and phone exchange on one to one basis).

Effective virtual team leaders must devote extra time monitoring the morale of team members and concerns they may have with other participants of with the team leader.

Copyright 2007 QBS, Inc.


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