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Virtual Teams

Due to change in the contexts in which organizations operate, corporations today need to be present in almost every corner of the world in order to survive in an increasingly competitive market. Virtual teams have emerged as a modern way of organizational collaboration due to AIT and possibilities provided by internet networking. Particularly, in the case of virtual teams, numerous publications have shown that this field of research is steadily becoming more valuable to academics. The majority of publications discusses challenges faced by virtual teams (e.g., Her- tel et al., 2005; Martins, Gilson & Maynard, 2004; Powell, Piccoli & Ives, 2004). The papers argue that virtual teams are composed of geographically dispersed workgroups who communicate predominantly through electronic means.

Alongside the evolution of virtual leadership, virtual teams have progressed and have become a vital object of research over the last two decades. Distributed teams differ from face-to-face teams in the sense that operational work occurs predominantly in physically distributed contexts. Social cues, facial expressions, and body language might disappear (Townsend, DeMarie & Hendrickson, 1996). The number of virtual teams within international corporations is rising due to composition of teams according to competences rather than proximity (Weisband, 2008). As such, distant teams are expected to meet performance expectations (or even perform better). The attribute virtual is used as a synonym for geographical distribution between team members themselves or team members and leaders (Weisband, 2008, p. 5)

Virtual teams are characterized as groups of individuals working while geographically distributed from each other (Hoch et al., 2007; Townsend et al., 1998). Hor- witz and colleagues (2006) add the technological component and conceptualize virtual teams as “groups of people working on interde-pendent tasks, geographically distributed, conducting] their core work mainly through an electronic medium” (p. 474). According to this definition, virtual team members communicate with each other primarily through technology (Hertel et al., 2005; Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). Using terms similar to previously stated definitions, the authors describe virtual teams as consisting of two or more people collaborating in order to achieve a common goal in which at least one team member works at a different location, organi?zation or timing so that communication is conducted predominantly via electronic media (Hertel et al., 2005, p. 71). Virtual teams by definition have no option but to make use of technology in order to stay informed (Zakaria et al., 2004). These teams are known for their dynamic membership, which implies that membership changes readily according to different needs and stages of the project (DeSanctis & Poole, 1997). In addition to their large virtual component, most virtual teams, whether project based or permanent, practice at least some face-to-face contact between team members and leaders. The degree of virtuality can then be assessed using the number of face-to-face meetings or the number of different work locations (Hertel et al., 2005).

Global virtual teams have and will become one of the predominant methods of team collaboration in international corporations (Zakaria et al., 2004). Global virtual teams form an alteration of traditional virtual teams in which members usually acquire different functions. Zakaria and colleagues (2004) refer to global virtual teams as geographically distributed, of diverse national and cultural background, and occupying various functions (p. 17). Particularly, in human resources (HR) functions, managers are eligible for virtual teaming before other departments, as HR supports so many different functions within an organization (Townsend et al., 1996). Yet, only one third of virtual teams are seen as effective (Goodbody, 2005). This may be because traditional teamwork differs from virtual collabo-ration and teams are often not well prepared. Long decision-making processes and preliminary misunderstandings in communication make problems more complex (Dube & Pare, 2001). Searching for the catalyst of virtual team failure in literature, a prevalent theme is that obstacles often arise due to the lack of face-to-face communication and the complexity of technology. Distributed team members might therefore have to invest greater effort to communicate and share information with their team members and consequently might keep information to themselves (Bradner & Mark, 2008). Virtualization not only promotes complexity, it also inhibits the sharing of sensitive knowledge between team members (Breu & Hemingway, 2004). Furthermore, the need to raise cultural competences might be especially integral to global virtual teams (Weisband, 2008).

Teams often consist of individuals with diverse backgrounds. Diverse team members may support each other and teams can benefit from synergies that result from members’ differing expertise and perspectives. Particularly in product development and electronically based learning environments, virtual teams might be feasible, whereas it poses a limitation in certain contexts (Cohen & Gibson, 2003). Hertel and colleagues (2005) similarly claim that virtual teams are particularly suitable for tasks based on information rather than physical work, such as research and devel?opment or project management. What happens early in the establishment of virtual teamwork might be critical to success, performance, satisfaction, and trust (Avolio & Kahai, 2003). Early face-to-face meetings, ideally prior to virtual collaboration, are vital for the development of group work. Moreover, face-to-face meetings can enhance task accomplishment significantly (Kirkman, Rosen, Tesluk & Gibson, 2004). However, others argue that meeting face-to-face early in the process might not be as relevant (Caulat, 2006; Staples & Zhao, 2006).

In order for effective teamwork to evolve, some basic principles must be considered. First of all, every group should learn how to become a group (Schein, 2010). Agreement on a common language among team members is vital. Consensus on who is a member and who is not should be clarified upfront and roles need to be assigned. Standard operating procedures should be based on rules, and criteria need to be set for rewarding or punishing members. The role of leaders comes into place, as leaders serve a purpose similar to an initiator, and are generally the ones who start discussions (Schein, 2010). Particularly the latter may be difficult as virtual teams are more anonymous than face-to-face teams (Avolio & Kahai, 2003). Team members’ commitment can be increased by assigning higher degrees of responsibility to the individuals (Horwitz et al., 2006). Furthermore, cognitive and interpersonal skills as well as oral language skills are regarded as essential in an international organizational context (Bikson et al., 2008). Spontaneity and informal conversations are also considered positive for virtual teamwork. Thus, it is clear that setting targets and deadlines alone does not contribute to enhancing working relationships among team members as informal exchange is missing (Caulat, 2006). Non-work related conversations might enhance personal relationships and in turn lead to greater trust and commitment (Hertel et al., 2005).

In a case study analysis conducted by Fairfield-Sonn (1999) the author identified key determinants of problem solving teams which help the groups to perform better in a distributed setting. First and foremost, the researcher mentions the time needed to request and receive support in case help is needed. The second challenge is the degree of responsibility as the teams have to truly make their own decisions. The third critical factor is the extent to which the teams receive internal or external expert advice. The last factor is the sensitivity among leaders toward providing appropriate rewards and recognition to the team members. During virtual teamwork, transactional leadership may help to provide course corrections; however, leaders should promote the attitude that team members should preferably correct themselves or each other instead of simply accepting corrections from the leading person (Davis, 2004).

Zander, Zettinig and Makela (2013, p. 229) summarize critical challenges of global virtual teams as (1) goal alignment, (2) knowledge transfer, and (3) motivation. The researchers differentiate operational and mutual team goals. Operational team goals are clear to team members, whereas mutual goals are usually assumed to be known by everyone. Both types of goals influence team effectiveness. Knowledge transfer or knowledge sharing are by-products of communication. For them to occur, members need to establish trust which usually develops through shared experiences. The scholars further describe leadership style as a potential influencing factor for demotivation. The authors associate this with cultural and personal complexity. Yet, adaptation to individual cultural preferences of team members has been found to create a negative impact on team culture. The researchers delineate the virtual teamwork process in three phases (Zander et al., 2013, pp. 230ff):

  • (1) Welcoming phase
  • (2) Working phase
  • (3) Wrapping-up phase

The welcoming phase is defined by the alignment of goals, building of relationships, and definition of tasks. Here, leaders need to clarify the goal of the virtual collaboration, as overall goals might be interpreted differently by individuals. A real environment needs to be established and a social setting must be defined, which may include language and priorities. In creating a mutual understanding of each other and developing trust within the group, relationship building might be the most essential part in the welcoming phase. It serves as an introduction and sets the social context in which each individual is acting by making this context visible to others. Knowing individual circumstances is vital to understanding team members and it helps if group members disclose their personal backgrounds as this facilitates team socialization. The welcoming phase closes with the delineation of the task itself. Leaders have ownership of the project; they have to clarify and align the understanding of expected outcomes among team members.

During the working phase, processes actually come into place and team members start working to-gether. This phase contains three main activities: (1) assigning roles and processes, (2) coordinating means, and (3) operations. It is vital to establish the means of collaboration. Not only communication media but also decisionmaking processes need to be defined. Particularly, team leaders are ascribed an essential role in this phase as they must define the roles and responsibilities of each individual in the group. It must be clear to all members, where specific expertise and resources lie within the group. At the same time, rules of collaboration are set up mutually. Coordinating the tools with which the work is done later should be a mixture of rich and less rich media. It must be appropriate to the situation and capabilities of all participants. With operations, the authors refer to the process of supervision of teamwork by leaders, stating “the leader needs to shift roles between being a facilitator of processes, guiding members, connecting people, creating common context and following progress closely” (Zander et al., 2013, p. 234).

Finally, the wrapping-up phase entails the finalization of the project and debriefing of the group. During finalization, the group should discuss common achievements together with a group reflection coordinated and directed by the leaders. The debriefing session should then broaden the group’s understanding of how tasks have been approached, how processes progressed, and which conflicts arose. Debriefing represents an essential last step in (virtual) teamwork as it encourages open feedback and serves as basis for continuous improvement. (Zander et al., 2013).

Conversely, virtual teaming also might present competitive advantages. In fact, cultural boundaries, once overcome, might be used to create cultural synergies instead and to uncover innovative solutions (Zakaria et al., 2004). Furthermore, creativity increases with the diversity of the team and new ideas are usually accepted faster as teams can work 24 hours on a project taking advantage of time zone differences (Horwitz et al., 2006). Resources utilization can be improved through more flexibility with team members (Symons & Stenzel, 2007); employees might perceive greater empowerment (Hertel et al. 2005), and operating costs might be reduced (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Predominantly, in regions suffering from low infrastructural development, virtual teamwork can integrate people with reduced mobility (Hertel et al., 2005).

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