to Teamwork Meeting Summary
3: Summary of Research on Virtual Teams
A virtual team is a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time, and organization boundaries using technology. (Lipnack, Stamps) What sets virtual teams apart is that they routinely cross boundaries.
More professional workers are finding themselves as members of virtual teams, consisting of members in remote locations who work together primarily through computer-mediated communication.
Frequently, members of virtual teams are not closely supervised. Rather, they function as empowered professionals who are expected to use their own initiative and resources to contribute value to customers and other stakeholders.
Traditional organizations are designed around work functions, wherein specialists from a particular occupational category are grouped together.
You can ascribe two main reasons to why virtual IT teams are being created today: necessity and recruitment. As global companies create geographically dispersed technical support centers, they need IT staff to function around the clock. Hiring over a wider geographic area and accommodating the desires of workers can help companies deal with the technical labor.
In some companies, team members work half a block away from their colleagues; in others, they may be half a world away. Virtual teams may consist of employees from one company, or they may include representatives from several organizations. They may convene for a few days to solve a problem, a few months to complete a project, or exist permanently.
Virtual teams are groups of geographically and/or organizationally dispersed coworkers that are assembled using a combination of telecommunications and information technologies to accomplish an organizational task. Virtual teams rarely, if ever, meet in a face-to-face setting.
The number of home-based workers in the U.S. rose 20% last year  to nearly 24 million, reports the Washington-based International Telework Association & Council. This growth, along with the pressures on organizations to expand globally, has prompted many firms to staff business and IT projects with geographically dispersed individuals, according to Jessica Lipnack.
Information compiled by the Harvard Business School in May 1998 conservatively estimated that 15 million Americans worked in "virtual offices." That number is growing 20 percent yearly. The GartnerGroup predicts that by 2002, there will be more than 108 million people worldwide working regularly outside a traditional office.
Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps predict that in the coming decades most people will do at least a portion of their work this way.
The use of teams is on the rise, and with a quarter of a billion people on the planet already online, the face-to-face aspect of normal working relationships is changing dramatically.
For the first time since nomads moved into towns, work is diffusing rather than concentrating. Officially, we have moved from the Industrial to the Information Age.
"Virtual teams are the people-operating systems for the twenty-first century." [Lipnack, Stamps]
The 9-5 office, as we have known it is more often than not-not.
All of us are smarter than any of us.
Webs of technology and trust link virtual teams.
The greater the trust, the lower the cost of communication and relationship building. Trust greases the skids of cooperation.
Boundary-crossing networks and virtual teams decrease the cost of transactions, open new channels of cooperation, and expand social capital, allowing new patterns of trust to develop.
The new corporate reality -- a centralized company with a decentralized employee base.
"The virtual team is smarter than the traditional team because most of its communication is digitally encoded and there is a repository of shared information-- postings to Web sites, e-mails, documents. Because the team is working almost exclusively in a digital environment, information is not getting lost," Lipnack says. (But some disagree and say that since informal communication is missing, teams aren't as productive; others believe it's more productive because of increased employee satisfaction).
The mobility and flexibility in business practices promised by the Internet and the virtual office will require the re-engineering of many business processes, as well as enterprise tools to expand connectivity and communication.
"It's 90 percent people and 10 percent technology. It's clearly an area where the hard stuff is really the soft stuff." [Bob Buckman of Buckman Labs in Memphis, TN]
By bringing people together to pursue shared aims, they add to the stock of social capital-they frame new relationships and bank trust that they can draw upon in the future. Social capital consists of relationships among people and accumulates when three factors are present: trust, reciprocity, and dense social networks. Social capital doesn't behave in quite the same way as physical capital. Matter, when used, degrades. Information, when used, accumulates. SC produces two beneficial bottom lines: the value of a task contributed to by expertise regardless of its location; and the value of the relationships generated to achieve those results.
Today the emphasis is on relationships that depend upon rich links in multiple directions and dimensions.
Q: How can
companies make virtual teams work when the workers are in different countries,
as is the case with offshore development?
Productivity demands are at an all-time high as companies strive for higher profit margins and a larger share of the global market. Organizations expect results in a shorter period of time, while minimizing time away from the job and the costs of travel and administration. How can companies grow in productivity and profit while delivering quality to the customer more quickly?
Virtual teams face the same challenges as traditional teams: egos, power plays, poor self-esteem and leaderlessness. But these virtual failures are complicated by the absence of face-to-face interaction and by distance and time. When problems occur, open communication is critical and must be maintained to develop the element of trust that is needed to be effective.
Not all employees are suited to work on virtual teams. Some prefer a traditional office situation because it provides camaraderie and a work routine that may not require much independent action. Virtual teams, by their very nature, require independent action, such as proactive discussion initiated by team members.
If something is missing on a virtual team, it's informal conversation time; you're missing out on those corridor talks between the sales and technical people that sometimes bring about very good results.
In many cases, virtual teams include members from different functional areas of an organization, thereby increasing the team's coordination requirements. Customers, vendors and other business partners may also contribute members to virtual teams, further increasing their diversity and their communication and coordination requirements.
Although an obvious solution, ensuring effective communication within cross-functional teams has always been difficult. Even in high-performing teams, communication across functional divides presents a constant challenge for members who must simultaneously represent their trained specialization and subordinate their interests to the shared goals of their teams. Contributing to the challenge of effective cross-functional communication is the fact that an increasing number of cross-functional teams span geographic and temporal boundaries.
In the face of this wider range of choices (media, protocols, and formats), team members must learn to mix old and new technologies.
Both managers and workers felt new challenges: the need to communicate over distance and the need to take more initiative in solving problems rather than turning to managers for direction. [study]
Benefits may not be realized if a virtual team lacks purpose, is poorly managed, suffers from technical difficulties, lacks proper communication and is beset by cultural problems.
"We routinely find out we're miscommunicating, that we forgot to inform a person in the loop, that some people had different expectations as to what's going to happen."
"When there's a problem, it takes longer to figure it out and know it's going to be a problem, and it's harder to know what to do about it," says Duarte. Both she and Lipnack have seen virtual teams run aground for several reasons: lack of purpose, poor leadership, communication snafus, technical glitches, and failure to close cultural divides.
In trying to develop a training curriculum, the group had no program charter, no agreement as to the roles and responsibilities of each member, no face-to-face kickoff, and a leader who was lousy at program management. They were also hampered by a lack of trust and respect.
As workers increasingly interact in a virtual mode, it is imperative that they rebuild the interpersonal interaction necessary for organizational effectiveness. While the virtual team presents a number of challenges in this area, it also presents the potential to recreate the way work is done. Within the virtual connection lies an opportunity for efficiencies and team synergy unrealized in traditional work interaction.
Q: What are
some critical success factors for creating virtual teams?
One major reason why many virtual teams fail is because they overlook the implications of the obvious differences in their working environments.
The steps that teams take to cope with their network nature-using collaborative technologies and designing flexible organizations-not only compensate for capabilities lost, but also establish the basis for extraordinary performance.
It's essential to develop a level of trust where you can say anything and not regret it or feel that it will come back to haunt you. Only then are all the communication paths open. Complete openness and freedom lead to unconstrained thinking, which leads to good science or good art or good whatever you're doing.
Developing trust in cyberspace is an important challenge, note the authors (Lipnack, Stamps), since we only want to work online with people we trust. Team members can build trust as they build their social capital or "credit," which comes from sharing expertise and the manner in which it is shared. Following through on a promise is the fastest way to build trust in any environment. The authors point out, "In virtual teams, power comes from information, expertise, and knowledge, the new reservoir of wealth."
For a team
to work effectively, its members need to trust one another. They need
to be sure that everyone will fulfill his or her obligations and behave
in a consistent, predictable manner. What drives the evolution of trust
in conventional settings is direct, face-to-face interaction -- the kind
of interaction that does not take place in virtual teams," says Jarvenpaa.
"Instead of evolving slowly through stages, trust in virtual teams tends
to be established -- or not -- right at the outset. The first interactions
of the team members are crucial."
"Virtual teams have been around long enough now that people are beginning to recognize them as a fundamental shift in the way people work," says Andy Campbell, a virtual teams consultant for Applied Knowledge Group, in Reston, Va. "What virtual teams begin to get at is a better fit in the way humans organize for work, and in the way information technology dispenses information."
Regular and accurate communication becomes overwhelmingly important for global teams.
"Passing off information to another virtual team member requires a certain level of discipline. We have to summarize the issues in an analytical engineering fashion. We have to be clear. Everything you say and do must be clear, because there is no room for confusion," Campbell says.
Campbell also says, "The success of a virtual team also depends on the ability of individual members to be self-starters. Employees working in remote locations must be able to set goals and accomplish tasks even though the boss isn't peering over their shoulders. "People who don't like to open up to other people and who need artificial deadlines are not going to do well on virtual teams."
Miller says virtual teams work well at BakBone Software [global company] because considerable attention has been devoted to communication and information sharing with his 13 team members, all of whom have programming backgrounds in C or C++. In addition to communicating via the shared database of customer support information, he favors regular conference-call meetings. Rodriguez says being a virtual team member at BakBone taught him how to carefully ask his Japanese co-workers questions (yes/no questions always result in "yes" response). Such savvy communications skills are the key to making the virtual team work across cultural boundaries.
But despite the cultural and time differences, the virtual team works well because the people on it know each other via continuous interaction.
Outsourcing has become a way of doing business in IT, and its challenges must be confronted by a good work management system.
Its growing popularity can be attributed to its many benefits, including the ability of organizations to engage in business internationally without spending large amounts of money or requiring their employees to relocate or suffer chronic jet lag. Additionally, virtual teams break down geographic barriers that may prevent companies from finding the best people to do a job.
Duarte, who has worked with NASA, Nortel Networks, and Johnson & Johnson, among other clients, emphasizes that companies also must allocate time and money to train virtual team members to manage projects at a distance, work with people from different cultures, and communicate and interact effectively. They also need to provide the resources to bring teams together face to face when necessary. "No virtual team we know of ever failed because of technology," she says.
In networked organization leaders have to use influence and powers of persuasion, which is much more complex and much more challenging than giving orders.
Q: What are
some of the latest technologies that enable virtual teams?
The company [NY & Israel] tries to overcome obstacles via e-mail, a shared Web server, conference calls, and soon will incorporate videoconferencing to their communications tools.
Virtual teams must be organized. "We have not found anything better than project management software. One way of evaluating people is on deliverables. Are they delivering what they said they would, and is what they are delivering producing the results the team decided to measure itself on?"
Another catalyst that has changed the way we do business is the Internet. In addition to its role in e-commerce, the Internet has been critical for supporting the asynchronous collaboration and communication required by today's geographically distributed businesses.
Technologies such as videoconferencing, groupware (software that facilitates collaborative work), and Internet/intranet systems now supplement earlier technologies such as electronic mail, telephone/voice mail, and facsimile transmission.
Conser says he often spends the first 10 to 15 minutes of a videoconference trying to get the equipment to work. His team's e-mail also has been problematic; members receive unexplained error messages and have trouble sending and opening attachments.
At NASA a Virtual Resource Center provides an array of technological tools-including a system to archive virtual-team members' documents, an online calendar, a tracking system for assigning work and keeping up with its progress, online discussion rooms, and a directory of team members. Such tools are often described as "groupware," a catchall term for electronic technology that virtual teams can use to communicate and work collaboratively.
Some allow team members to work together simultaneously. These include desktop and real-time data conferencing, through which members can share and store common documents; electronic meeting systems, which allow members to brainstorm, analyze issues, outline proposals, and make comments and suggestions; electronic displays, which work like chalkboards; and video- and audioconferencing. Others - such as e-mail, group calendars, electronic bulletin boards, Web pages, and shared database systems - let people interact according to their own schedules.
Synchronous technologies enable team members to interact at the same time. These include desktop and real-time conferencing, electronic meeting systems, electronic display, video conferencing, and audio conferencing. Asynchronous technologies, which facilitate delayed interaction, include E-mail, group calendars and schedules, bulletin boards and web pages, non-real-time database sharing and conferencing, and workflow applications.
Duarte and Snyder rate E-mail as most useful for generating ideas and plans and for collecting data; useful for problems with answers; and least useful for problems without answers and for negotiating technical or interpersonal conflicts. They note that E-mail has a low cost, is easy to use, is widely available, fits with the culture of most organizations, is cross-platform compatible, and has high permanence. They also point out that E-mail is subject to misuse for messages requiring high symbolism, and has low social presence and information richness. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, none of the ten techniques was rated useful or most useful for resolving interpersonal conflicts. In addition, none of the technologies may be appropriate when the issues are highly emotional or ambiguous, or when the team is newly formed or short-lived. In such cases, the authors recommend face-to-face meetings.
"Many of us were raised at time when you measured people by the amount of activity they were engaged in," Applied Knowledge's Campbell says. "Conventional managers still base a lot of their assumptions of an employee's effectiveness on observations such as, 'Do they look like they are working?' The idea is that if people appear to be working, then they must be, even though we know that is not necessarily true."
Campbell says that virtual teams hold out a promise that employees will be judged more on what they actually do than on what they appear to be doing. "If you do virtual teams right, the chances are much higher that you'll get an evaluation that is not influenced by other things."
Those who run virtual teams also believe they can manage employees effectively without seeing them every day. BakBone's Miller is not worried about evaluating employee performance because, in a support center, he can measure the time it takes workers to solve problems. He also visits the four support sites periodically.
Nortel's Parks, too, is not concerned about not seeing his team members frequently enough to keep close tabs on their work. "I don't think you can get hung up on exactly what people are doing day-to-day or hour-to- hour to achieve their objectives. You have to focus on the objectives themselves and see what's measurable."
Like co-located teams, members of a virtual team comprise a community of practice. Using available resources, they develop practices that reflect their unique needs, both task-oriented and social. They create and share knowledge and socialize new members to team practices. Their learning is situated in practice even though their situation is one that spans geographic boundaries and cultural divides. Not only do these findings provide implications for the management of work in virtual teams, but they also reinforce the value of viewing work, even virtual work, as a community of practice in which learning is situated. [study]
Situated learning thus differs from formal training, in which knowledge is codified and transferred to learners in special training sessions. Situated learning occurs within communities of practice as members adjust to each other's needs. In some corporations, such as Xerox, awareness of situated learning has led to revisions in training programs so that members of teams may learn together within a shared work space. Such practices are undertaken with the full recognition that communities of practice rarely follow "corporate doctrine" or implement "canonical knowledge." Rather, communities of practice establish idiosyncratic knowledge that reflects local experience and meets local requirements. Tacit knowledge is generated and transferred by members as they work together.
Although working in virtual teams permits infrequent face-to-face communication, learning can be effectively situated in virtual space. [see study results in Strategies section] Work practices can emerge as a product of community interaction. The practices devised to coordinate work pace and work schedules succeed because they respond to local needs. Learning how to work virtually is indeed situated in practice rather than imposed from above or from the outside. Managers of virtual cross-functional teams need to understand this phenomenon and use a "hands-off" style that empowers team members. It is doubtful that managers could anticipate every team need and develop formal work practices to guide team members.
Clients want to know how to overcome information overload, how to manage their time and make decisions, and how to build and manage remote teams. "People still want a quick fix, and it takes more than that," he says. "Learning how to be in a virtual team and perform at a high level isn't something you can get in a two-day lecture....It's a behavioral thing.
When Hewlett-Packard's Tines found himself struggling at the helm of a virtual team six years ago, he found consultant Metes, who taught him how to structure and manage meetings, make sure everyone on the team was participating and contributing, and get the most out of technology.
Nortel's D'Angelo helped create a Web page that offers advice to people within the company's information-services organization about how to develop team charters, define roles and responsibilities, plan kickoffs, and lead or manage virtual teams. The page is linked to a site for project managers, who often found themselves grappling with the difficulties of working with people at a distance.
Others have developed more formal training programs. Shell Oil, for example, established a Network Learning and Support Center in Houston as a sort of paramedic service for virtual teams. The center, which has been operating for nearly a year, [1999 article] provides first aid and ad hoc assistance, says Carolyn Yapp, one of the developers. It is also building a tool kit to help virtual team members learn to work together more effectively.
VeriFone takes new employees on a journey into virtual space on one of their first days on the job. Baty says when he joined the company, an employee in Philadelphia walked him through the system over the phone, then pointed out where he could find a series of tutorials on everything from using the computer system to making travel plans and submitting time cards from a remote location. She then monitored his progress with the tutorials, helping him through trouble spots and answering his questions.
Sun Microsystems' corporate university offers a course that teaches managers to communicate better with employees at distant locations, hold effective meetings, communicate across different cultures, and deal with technical issues.
Duarte and Snyder would like to see more organizations provide the kind of training in which people actually practice setting up remote agendas, running virtual meetings, dealing with performance problems, conversing with others at a distance, and leading a team of remote members. They also would like to see better training in appropriate use of technology so members don't bury each other in so many e-mail messages that they start to tune each other out, and for teams to learn how to manage, store and distribute the information they generate.
The virtual team's role transcends traditional fixed functional roles, requiring virtual team members to be prepared to adapt to a changing variety of assignments and tasks during the life of any particular team.
Critical competencies for virtual team leaders are performance management and coaching, appropriate use of technology, cross-cultural management, career development, building trust, networking, and developing team processes. They define six critical competencies for team members as project management, networking, the use of technology, self-management, crossing boundaries, and interpersonal awareness.
Ask Jessica Lipnack what the workplace of the future will look like, and she will describe a scene that sounds as if it comes from a galaxy not so very far, far away.
Lipnack, CEO of NetAge, a West Newton, MA, firm that helps organizations avoid the pitfalls associated with using virtual teams, predicts that powerful online workstations will one day replace our PCs - and our cubicles. Here's how it will work: As a writer for TRAINING, I could fire up my computer and head for the virtual editorial department without having to leave home. Once there, I would not only find my own works in progress, but a log of published stories and the background information used to produce them; notes on sources; and minutes from our editorial meetings. If I needed to see photos for a story, I could "walk" down a three dimensional hall to view them in the art department. Along the way, I could pick up electronic messages, pass finished assignments on to my editors, and chat with co-workers next to an online watercooler.
We're now at a crossroads, charged with bringing together competition and cooperation, or "co-opetition." Networked organizations promote independence with interdependence. They encourage specialization simultaneous with integration. And they celebrate the individual and the group.
Teams need a structure to work successfully across time and distance. In Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques That Succeed, authors Deborah Duarte and Nancy Tennant Snyder list six steps for creating a virtual team, of which each acts as a support beam that helps uphold the structure.