A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams
Author: Yael Zofi
Pub Date: August 2011
Print Edition: $21.95
Print ISBN: 9780814438329
Page Count: 272
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814416600
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I N T R O D U C T I O N
An Overview of
Walk into any office today and you know that things are not as
they were a decade ago. If you engage employees in conversation,
many of them will say that they are working on some
projects with colleagues who do not work in the same building, the
same city, or even the same country. Ask them if they have met these
teammates and some employees may claim to have viewed pictures
posted on the Internet, while others may describe introductions made
during webcam meetings or a visit to a corporate off-site event.
Clearly our business landscape has changed.
The virtual team, VT for short, is a work arrangement in which a
group of people share responsibility for goals that must be accomplished
in the total, or near total, absence of face-to-face contact. With
the rise of technology and globalization, virtual teams are now reshaping
the way we think and do business.
Organizations have always operated in multiple locations, but now,
colleagues are increasingly asked to work together across geographic
boundaries, with shared responsibility for outcomes. Global operations
have emerged throughout the world of commerce, running 24/7 on different
continents and across times zones. Many large conglomerates place
teams in different countries with the expectation that schedules will fit the
project—and follow the sun—as one team hands off work product to an-
other. This arrangement is possible because technology brings efficiencies
in creating work product and solving complex business issues quickly.
Although many virtual work arrangements exist today for employees
at all levels, the number and diversity of these types of arrangements
(whether home offices or office locations) just keep increasing.
Enabled by technology, the virtual team is a natural solution for getting
deliverables out the door in our fast-paced, global environment. Increasingly,
leaders are charged with quickly putting together teams of
individuals with appropriate skills and abilities to fit within a project’s
time line, regardless of where the talent is physically located. In such
situations, e-mail has usurped voice mail while conference calls have
replaced conference rooms.
The Need for Virtual Teams
Virtual team arrangements have become increasingly popular as companies
rethink their human capital resources and real estate expenditures.
Of course, teamwork has long been a common work value, with
many companies using teams organized around successive tasks; so,
the virtual team is only the latest accommodation to the realities that
govern work process. The virtual team is unique, however, because the
most appropriate expertise is pulled together from many locations and
even organizations—and yet team members may never meet in person.
With virtual work arrangements, recruiting talent and expertise is possible,
regardless of where people are based.
More than any other factor, information technology has enabled the
proliferation of virtual teams. With mobile devices, text messaging,
e-learning modules, and cloud computing, team members are able to interact
in more accessible ways, anywhere, anytime. Thanks to highspeed
networking technology and wireless connectivity, instantaneous
communication across the world is possible, at low cost, at a touch of a
button, screen, or keyboard. Today, we take for granted this phenomenon;
not too long ago, it was the province of futurists. This faster-paced
environment, combined with a slowed economy, brutal cost cutting, and
relentless outsourcing, has forced companies to rethink every aspect of
As businesses expand globally to new markets, they launch operations
where labor is cheap and the cost of living is lower; opportunities are provided
for local employees to collaborate on a wider scale and develop expertise.
Reverberations are felt beyond their shores as relentless
pressure builds for quickly producing more goods that are less costly,
forcing creative solutions for quicker breakthroughs. Virtual teams,
then, are beneficiaries of technology-based, cost-conscious, and globally
sourced business operations (see Figure I-1).
Figure I-1. Benefits of virtual teams.
• Online communication capabilities and technologies are continually improving virtual team
operations. Among the key enabling technologies are mobile devices, text messaging, instant
messaging, cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS), file and application sharing,
electronic bulletin/message boards, group decision support systems, real-time
calendar/scheduling systems, and e-mail.
• Online learning, distance learning, and e-learning software enable learning anywhere, anytime.
• Virtual business networking (LinkedIn) and social networking sites (Facebook) and video/web
conferencing further increase online communication.
• Technology memory recording tools track every step of complex processes; keeping records
(documentation) and learning from past processes enables speed (doing things faster) and
memory (preserving shared experience).
• Document management systems enable online libraries for information sharing, thus saving
space and time.
• Cutting down on personnel, office space (real estate), infrastructure, furniture, and supplies
that are no longer needed saves money.
• In high-rent cities, businesses can rent shared office space on an as-needed basis with all
amenities, including reception, support staff, technology, and telecom services.
• Virtual teams eliminate the need for having dedicated conference meeting space and on-site
training facilities, and related travel and accommodations costs.
• Environmental benefits include reduced commuter gas consumption and a smaller carbon
footprint. Think green!
• Global workforce means talent is anywhere and everywhere—and the workforce is mobile.
• Expertise is available and can be outsourced for numerous functions (web design, blog development,
search engine optimization [SEO], advertising, technical media/financial writing, technical
market research, administrative, public relations, marketing, and sales support).
The Virtual Landscape
Another force fueling the emergence of virtual teams is the need to move
resources quickly. Competitive factors are a compelling motivator to find
alternative work arrangements so that work processes and procedures
can mirror the accelerated rate at which the world now operates.
Organizations are aware that the marketplace is increasingly multicultural
and diverse. They know their business colleagues and customers
may come from many different cultures with an inherently different
worldview. Trade is dynamic and reflects the easy flow of goods and ser -
vices across our globe. Hand in hand with business interests creating
new global trade links is the relatively new practice of offshoring, where
core and noncore business functions are outsourced far from headquarters
to take advantage of low labor costs and the availability of
highly educated workers, with technology serving as the great equalizer.
Greater diversity in the workforce is a by-product of virtual teams,
since professionals with different backgrounds, styles, and languages
“work at the same table.” Leaders of virtual teams are challenged to create
a smooth operation in spite of the many differences at play. Given that
possibilities for misunderstanding and cultural blunders are magnified in
such situations, those charged with ensuring business success would do
well to expand their own tools and techniques to deal with diverse teams.
Leaders and managers must be flexible and able to adapt to this diverse
workforce and global consumers. Leaders must understand differences
in worldviews, communication styles, ethics, and etiquette of the
people they deal with, both internally and externally. They must understand
the historical, political, and economic reference points of different
people. And they have to do all that while managing their own tasks and
Even if you are a virtual manager at a small company, you are probably
interacting virtually with global audiences. The good news is that
you are not alone. The bad news is that you are faced with challenges of
virtual management. And that means you need to excel at multitasking
in this ever-changing virtual world.
If you are responsible for a virtual team, you are responsible for the
team’s results. Before you even begin, here are a few of the challenges
of virtual leadership:
+ Relationships. How will you get to know your virtual team
members? How will you build rapport? How will you develop
small talk about their personal interests?
+ Performance. How will you assess what kind of job they are
doing? How will you evaluate their leadership skills, their development,
and their results? When and how will you actually
observe their performance?
+ Communication. How will you keep your direct reports
updated? So much happens in a day; how will you have time to
keep all team members in the loop?
+ Delegation. When your team members work off-site some -
where and you don’t even have a chance to see them or
observe their daily work activities, how will you know who is
capable of doing what? How will you delegate assignments
and track their deadlines?
+ Team Building. Virtual team members are dispersed. How can
you build a strong team when your people have never even met
+ E-Mail. You get hundreds of e-mails a week. How will you use
e-mail effectively to manage your staff?
+ Conflict. With people so dispersed, how will you even know
when you have a conflict with a direct report? Or when your
direct reports have a conflict with each other?
+ Promotion. How do you evaluate when someone is ready for
promotion? Conversely, how do you keep from being “snowed”
by someone who’s trying to get ahead? How do you know when
it’s time to eliminate a poor performer?
+ Teleconferencing. When will you have time for longer
teleconferences? (You hate teleconferences.)
+ Walking the Talk. In the old days, we did management by walking
around. We showed people what we wanted by our own actions
and body language. How will your direct reports observe
you and your management style? How can you “model” if you
don’t see people?
+ Travel. How often are you going to have to fly around the country
to meet your direct reports? If your team is spread across
the globe, how much international travel will be required?
In this new business environment, the old skills of yesterday are no
longer sufficient. They worked fine when business was simpler. They
probably even helped you get promoted to this level. Remember when
you could actually walk down the halls and “drop in” on your direct reports?
You could observe how they ran meetings, watch them interact
with subordinates, even sit in on difficult conversations. When completing
performance evaluations, you could list examples of things you personally
observed. You could look into their offices, see family photos or
awards, and be prompted to ask about the kids or favorite hobbies. They
also dropped by your office or had lunch together to build a relationship.
Management was hard even then, but it’s a lot more complicated now.
Welcome to your virtual reality; welcome to virtual teams!
Defining Virtual Teams
Virtual teams have many names and definitions. I interviewed more than
150 virtual team managers and members in preparation for this book,
and no two interviewees defined virtual teams the same way. Virtual
teams are referred to, variously, as geographically dispersed teams, global
teams, internationally distributed teams, temporary cross-functional
teams, dispersed project teams, knowledge worker teams, communication
technology teams, technology-mediated teams, computer-supported
or computer-mediated teams, offshore teams, interdependent groups
across time and space, cyber network teams, and the list goes on.
Hand in hand with the concept of virtual teams is their powerful enabler:
information technology. I mean the popular collaborative tools that
most individuals refer to when describing how their virtual teams work.
Without these communication tools (e.g., e-mail, instant messaging, teleconference
bridges, message boards, web conferencing, webcams) virtual
teams would remain a novelty in the world of work. Yet, make no mistake.
Despite the fact that technology is the lifeline of the virtual team, its
essence still focuses on people and places.
Here are some of the more interesting definitions and descriptors of
virtual teams, gathered from the interviews I conducted with VT managers
and members from different industries:
“People who need to work together who aren’t currently in the
same office. They can also be working in different departments, or
different cities and countries, and still operate virtually as well.”
—VT MANAGER, HUMANITARIAN RELIEF ORGANIZATION
“Any team that doesn’t have a set office that people show up in regularly.
There are really two sides to it: 1) pulling together an ad hoc
team and creating a virtual team to work on a project on an ‘as
needed’ basis, and 2) virtual teams working across time zones using
—VT MEMBER, TECHNOLOGY COMMUNICATIONS COMPANY
“A group of people who get together without a solid line reporting
relationship to solve a problem. The key attribute is that virtual
teams have some accountability to deliver results, but their players
do not have a formal reporting relationship to the team leader.”
—VT LEADER, ELECTRONICS/BIOCHEMICAL COMPANY
“I see the virtual team having two definitions: 1) There are people
who work only from home. They are telecommuting and never go to
the office. 2) There are people who are geographically dispersed.
They go to an office somewhere else and may never meet. Virtual
teams work according to what needs to be done and once the project
is completed, these teams are gone.”
—SCIENTIST, TELECOM COMPANY
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