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Virtual Teams


Virtual Teams


Virtual teams are teams of people who primarily interact electronically and who may meet face-to-face occasionally.

Examples of virtual teams include a team of people working at different geographic sites and a project team whose members telecommute.

The following sections provide additional information on teams and virtual teams.




What is a team? One of the more accepted definitions comes from Kazenbach and Smith in Wisdom of Teams.

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Generally, teams have from two to twenty-five people. More than that, they tend to break into subteams. Teams need complementary skills or the right mix of skills to do the job assigned. These skills fall into three categories: technical or functional expertise, problem-solving and decision-making skills, and interpersonal skills. A team's purpose and performance goals go together. Both must be clear or confusion will likely result. It is important that the team own and commit to the purpose and shape it if necessary. In addition, teams need to develop a common approach or method on how they will work together to accomplish their purpose. Finally, groups become teams when they hold themselves accountable for the outcome.

What is a virtual team? There are several different definitions of virtual teams, but what these definitions have in common is that, in addition to being a team, virtual team members are physically separated (by time and / or space) and that virtual team members primarily interact electronically.  This researcher defines virtual teams as teams of people who primarily interact electronically and who may meet face-to-face occasionally.


Reasons for Virtual Teams


Reasons for virtual teams center around the differences in time and space for team members.

  • Team members may not be physically collocated.
  • It may not be practical to travel to meet face-to-face.
  • Team members may work different shifts

Specifically, teams may be distributed because of the new realities facing organizations such as:

  • organization-wide projects or initiatives
  • alliances with different organizations, some of which may be in other countries
  • mergers and acquisitions
  • emerging markets in different geographic locations
  • the desire of many people and government organizations for telecommuting
  • the continuing need for business travel and information and communications technologies available to support this travel
  • a need to reduce costs
  • a need to reduce time-to-market or cycle time in general (the increasing velocity in business)

Types of Groups

  Four basic types of groups of people exist:
  • Task groups
  • Friendship groups
  • Command groups
  • Interest groups

These groups also can exist as virtual groups. For example, an example of a virtual command group would be a national sales team distributed throughout the United States. An example of a virtual task group could be a small software development group of people telecommuting to their office. A virtual interest group could be a group of investors sharing strategies and outcomes. A friendship group might be represented by a virtual community.

Certainly other examples exist and some groups overlap as well.

Note: This researcher uses the term "virtual team" in this web site as a "virtual task group" or a "virtual command group" where team members are focused on a specific set of goals..


Strategies for Virtual Teams

  The following tips come from research into virtual teamwork.
  • Hold an initial face-to-face startup
  • Have periodic face-to-face meetings, especially to resolve conflict and maintain team cohesiveness
  • Establish a clear code of conduct or set of norms and protocols for behavior
  • Recognize and reward performance
  • Use visuals in communications
  • Recognize that most communications will be non-verbal -- use caution in tone and language

Technology Supporting Virtual Teams

  Virtual teams are supported by both hardware and software. General hardware requirements include telephones, PCs, modems or equivalent, and communication links such as the public switched network (telephone system) and local area networks. Software requirements include groupware products such as electronic mail, meeting facilitation software, and group time management systems. See the section on Technology for more examples.

One way to think about teams is that teams are a network organization -- a set of nodes and links -- wherein the nodes are of course the team members and the links are the communications channels or primarily face-to-face interaction.  In virtual teams, the nodes are the same -- team members -- whereas the links are primarily virtual (electronic) and software is used to mediate the interactions.  In simple terms, then

virtual teams = teams + electronic links + groupware


Benefits of Virtual Teams

  Several benefits of virtual teams include the following:
  • People can work from anywhere at anytime.
  • People can be recruited for their competencies, not just physical location.
  • Many physical handicaps are not a problem.
  • Expenses associated with travel, lodging, parking, and leasing or owning a building may be reduced and sometimes eliminated.
  • There is no commute time
Date last revised:
June 05, 2006
David Gould, Ed.D.
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