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Contextual Factors

Contextual work factors can influence the KSAOs required for workers to successfully perform their tasks. We draw attention to several contextual factors that exert a considerable influence on virtual team processes and outcomes. These factors are broadly classified as: the degree of team virtuality; the geographic, temporal and cultural boundaries spanned; the team’s life span (whether ad hoc or long-term); the nature of the task and team leadership; and the types of outcome or criteria desired from the virtual team.

The degree of team virtuality

Kirkman and Mathieu proposed three important dimensions to define team virtuality: ‘the extent to which team members use virtual tools to coordinate and execute team processes, the amount of informational value provided by such tools, and the synchronicity of team member virtual interaction’ (2005, p. 702). Each of these dimensions can be used to determine the degree ofvirtuality a team possesses. The first dimension, technology reliance, suggests that virtuality increases as the reliance on technological devices increases. Some teams may work in close physical proximity and primarily communicate face-to-face, while others rely mainly on technological devices such as email, video-conferencing, mobile phones and groupware (software applications that facilitate group work) for communication and information exchange. Most teams, however, fall between the two extremes, using a mix of face-to-face and virtual means to interact and communicate.

Informational value, the second dimension, is closely linked to the technologies the team is using. The medium used differs in the amount of information richness each medium can carry (Daft & Lengel, 1986). Face-to-face interaction, with its ability to convey information by simultaneously using verbal expression, para-verbal and non-verbal cues, facilitates effective communication and provides information that is rich in meaning. Technological media that come close to imitating face-to-face interaction would therefore be less virtual. Kirkman and Mathieu (2005) argue, however, that in addition to direct communication, technological media can be used to transmit data in a way that increases the informational value of the exchange, thereby reducing virtuality. Therefore, instead of richness, they suggest the broader term ‘informational value’ to determine virtuality. The greater the informational value provided by the media, the lower the virtuality.

The third dimension is the synchronicity of communication. When media such as face- to-face communication and video-conferencing are used, messages are sent and received instantly and information exchange takes place in real time. In email communication, on the other hand, there is a time-lag between sending and receiving messages. This could be disadvantageous if feedback is required immediately, but could also prove advantageous if the exchange requires a more thought-out and reasoned response (Rasters, Vissers & Dankbaar, 2002).

The above three dimensions can be used to categorize teams based on low, moderate or high virtuality. At one extreme, teams with low virtuality rely less on virtual tools and have higher informational value and more synchronous informational exchange, while teams with high virtuality have greater reliance on virtual tools, lower informational value and more asynchronous informational exchange. Researchers have examined the impact of high virtuality in terms of issues such as anonymity (Sassenberg & Boos, 2003), personality characteristics (Lee-Kelley, 2006; Staples & Webster, 2007; Straus, 1996), communication patterns (Bhappu, Griffith, & Northcraft, 1997; Hightower & Sayeed, 1996; Hiltz, Johnson & Turoff, 1986; Jonassen & Kwon, 2001; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler & McGuire, 1986), cohesion (Chidambaram, 1996; Lind, 1999; van der Kleij, Paashuis & Schraagen, 2005; Warkentin, Sayeed & Hightower, 1997), trust (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999; Wilson, Straus & McEvily, 2006), participation (Siegel et al., 1986), decision making (Adams, Roch & Ayman, 2005; Hollingshead, 1996; Siegel et al., 1986; Straus & McGrath, 1994), team performance (Andres, 2002; van der Kleij et al., 2005) and member satisfaction (Adams et al., 2005; Andres, 2002; Chidambaram, 1996; Jonassen & Kwon, 1996; van der Kleij et al., 2005; Warkentin et al., 2006). Although results have not been consistent, virtual teams are believed to be more task-focused, less personal, more uninhibited, prone to greater status equalization and participation among members, and take longer to build relational links and trust.

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