A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams

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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An Overview of

Virtual Teams

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

their operations.

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.

Technology Enablers

• 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.

Cost Considerations

• 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!

People Expertise

• 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

each other?

+ 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.”


“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



“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.”


“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.”


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