If we’re talking purely about their goals and functions…nothing, really.
Like all other teams they are formed to solve a problem, do a project, perform a service, or come up with some answers. What makes them so special is that they are able to pool together talent and expertise from anywhere (and sometimes anytime) regardless of geographic location. Their flexibility and geographic spread allow businesses to be more responsive and competitive, not to mention more economical (Bell & Kozlowski 2002; O’Leary & Mortensen 2010).
The idea sounds brilliant in theory, but with humans being the tricky creatures that we are, it doesn’t always work out as expected.
While technology now easily bridges physical distances, it doesn’t as easily bridge social and psychological distances. Since members are separated, they must work with each other primarily through mediated technologies like phone, e-mail, videoconferencing, etc. This can cause problems in building the trust and intimacy needed to work well with each other (Dubé & Robey 2008). It can also lead to trouble coordinating roles and schedules, that is, knowing who is supposed to do what and when (O’Leary & Mortensen 2010).
Never fear! This beast can be tamed. One useful way is to examine the opposing tensions that crop up in virtual teamwork and how virtual teams balance these issue. Dubé and Robey (2008), sampling 42 people across 26 organizations, identified five apparent contradictions of virtual teamwork which will also be discussed more thoroughly in future blogs.
Virtual Team Paradox #1: A Need For Physical Presence
1. The number one tension they found was that virtual teams require physical presence. Even though the whole point of having virtual teams is that they transcend geographic limitations, it turns out that some things just need to be worked out face to face, especially as tasks get more complex. One participant of the study noted that even when you think everything has already been worked out over the phone, there always seem to be some hidden issues that can’t get resolved until you meet face to face. While video- or tele-conferencing can help lessen the need for face-to-face meetings, most people still feel they aren’t able to completely substitute them. Only in one special case was a participant comfortable meeting with his team completely via computer-mediated communications. In this case, the participant had been with the organization a long time and knew most of those he worked with virtually, and the team had lots of prior experience working together. So going completely virtual is possible, but ironically, it takes face-to-face time to make it happen.
Virtual Team Paradoxes #2 & 3: Structure vs. Flexibility; Synergy vs. Independence
2. In order to be flexible virtual teams actually have to be very disciplined and structured in their communications and meetings. It’s important to have clear, detailed plans and objectives so everyone is on the same page. It’s essential to standardize the the format for documentation and work processes to make the exchange of information flow smoothly. The tension is not getting so stuck on your structure and procedures that you can’t change them as needed.
3. The third tension is related to the first because it has to do with the barriers of not working face to face. It’s not surprising that virtual teams work together easiest when they split the project so each member can do their jobs independently. But the lack of interactive collaboration in this setup often defeats the whole purpose of a virtual team: To bring together outside expertise in the hopes that the synergy of their respective talents and skills will result in something new and special and outrageously good.
Virtual Team Paradoxes #4 & 5: Socializing vs. Work; Mistrust vs. Trust
4. The last two tensions have to do with the contradictions inherent in building work relationships. These are also present in conventional teams, but are more pronounced for virtual teams.
Much as some people would like to keep everything strictly business, in real life we aren’t built that way. Socializing and getting to know someone on a more personal level goes a long way in being more productive at work. People are more friendly and willing to help those with whom they have a personal relationship. This is tough for virtual teams because their whole reason for getting together is for work. Even if they want to socialize, people feel conflicted about using virtual work time to talk about other things.
5. This leads to Dubé and Robey’s (2008) final tension which is that mistrust is needed to establish trust among virtual team members. At one panel discussion of the Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conference I attended this year, Carol Sormilic, IBM Vice President, talked about the cultural differences in placing initial trust. In the US, you get nearly 100% trust when you first meet someone which you gradually lose if you don’t live up to it, while in China, trust starts at zero and builds up over time as you earn it. Virtual team trust culture functions more like Chinese culture. You start off with little trust which has to have the opportunity to be built up over time.
Bradford S. Bell and Steve W. J. Kozlowski. 2002. A Typology of Virtual Teams: Implications for Effective Leadership. Group Organization Management, 27(1), pp. 14-49.
Line Dubé & Daniel Robey. 2008. Surviving the paradoxes of virtual teamwork. Information Systems Journal, 19, pp. 3–30.
Michael Boyer O’Leary and Mark Mortensen. 2010. Go (Con)figure: Subgroups, Imbalance, and Isolates in Geographically Dispersed Teams. Organization Science 21(1), pp. 115–131.