Global technological advancements have greatly revolutionized the way human beings interact and work the changes being witnessed are on the rise. This has left organizations with no option but to style up look so as to leverage on the numerous opportunities that have become available. Faced with increased pressure to survive in a competitive market, organizations are increasingly turning to the use of virtual teams. The need for virtual teams is further reinforced by the desire for organizations to work in a collaborative environment (Kimball, 1997).
Shachaf and Hara (2005) defined a virtual team as a group of individuals doing work in an interdependent manner with a shared purpose but separated by distance, time and organizational boundaries. The individuals forming the team are only able to reach one another using technologies such as video conferencing, email and any other appropriate social networks.
Unlike traditional teams that place so much emphasis on physical meetings, there is little or in some cases, no face to face encounters present in virtual teams. The operation of a traditional team will mostly take place in a synchronous fashion and in the same location and time. Whereas it is much easier to deal with issues that may affect the operation of a team in a traditional setup, a virtual team lacks the critical mechanisms needed to handle problems associated with the functioning of the team (Montoya-Weiss, Massey & Song, 2001).
Benefits of Virtual Teams
According to Bell and Kozlowski (2002), major advancements in information and communication technology have led to the creation of complex jobs that require highly skilled manpower. The need to get the right people to for the job is, however, fulfilled through the implementation of virtual teams. By setting up a virtual workplace, it is possible for an organization to access highly qualified persons from wherever they may be to do a job. This enhances the organization’s ability to quickly respond to the ever rising competition. Virtual teams also allow employers to offer flexible work environments to allow individuals to perform work related tasks while at home, on the move or wherever they may be (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002). Other benefits include cost reduction, expansion of the labor market, and sharing of skills among professionals in the same field (Cascio, 2000).
Types of Virtual Teams
Although a virtual team is usually treated by many as being just a single type, Bell and Kozlowski (2002) pointed out that virtual teams can actually be distinguished by placing them in different categories based on their characteristics and how they are constituted. Kimball (1997) for example, identified three classes of virtual teams; the executive virtual team is composed of the management team in the organization and is usually responsible for the operations of some division within the organization, the project virtual team on the other hand is generally created to complete an identified task. The members of the project team are usually chosen based on their skills relative to the project task. Traditionally, project teams will exist during the life of the project and can be dissolved once the project is done. The third type is referred to as the community of practice virtual team and is constituted to offer support to individuals who happen to be in the same profession and are working collaboratively to accomplish a task. A key motivation for the members of this kind of virtual team is learning and members are allowed to join the team voluntarily (Kimball, 1997).
From Traditional to Virtual Teams
When moving from a traditional system to a virtual one, various issues must be addressed for the organization to reap the benefits associated with the use of virtual teams. According to Kimball (1997), one of the key considerations is to ensure that the organization has well designed and fully tested team management processes in place. It is also important to have all managers trained on how to effectively manage virtual teams and team members equipped with skills of working in virtual teams. Skills such as emailing, video conferencing, blogging, skype etc are very critical for team members and even managers to be familiar with (Kimball, 1997). It is also very essential for an organization to adapt to the new approach of doing work and stop thinking in a traditional manner. Any old structures of operation must be redesigned to create room for the new work culture. Proper information technology systems must also be available to support the virtual team. It may also be necessary to come up with a reward system that can work well with the new team structures (Kimball, 1997).
The Place of Information Technology in a Team
The role played by information technology in enhancing the operations a team is very important and cannot be underestimated. Apart fro the email system, several other tools are available today for linking groups of people together. Blogs and wikis for example, are freely available and very user friendly. Besides making it possible for team members to share information and exchange ideas, they can also help in tracking the progress of a team’s work. Security for these networks may be reinforced by ensuring that team members have login accounts to minimize incidences of unauthorized access to sensitive information. Although blogs are very restrictive and will only let one post articles and comments, wikis will let authorized team members to view and edit documents.
Clearly, the use of information technology will strengthen the operations of a team and will certainly make it possible for an organization to get a team of experts from different geographical areas to work on a project together.
Leadership Challenges in Virtual Teams
The implementation of a virtual system comes with several tests that obviously have to be dealt with. The challenges of managing virtual teams spring from the fact that these teams are widely spread geographically and more often than not, far away from the manager. This presents one of challenges for virtual team managers as they are left to wonder how best to manage a group of people they cannot see (Cascio, 2000). Another concern for managers is whether or not their employers will still value their services as managers when in reality; all they are doing is to supervise people remotely. If not well tackled, this concern may create job insecurity among managers and consequently, their performance may be affected negatively (Cascio, 2000). Again, although it is important to ensure that the implementation of a virtual team is supported by all the affected departments, managers must put in place rules and regulations that must be adhered to by every member of the team (Cascio, 2000).
With the increased use of technology, the need for virtual teams will continue to grow. It is therefore critical for organizations to be strategically positioned so as to enjoy the benefits of the new work structures. For effective implementation of virtual teams will, however, organizations must have well defined directives for creating and implementing virtual teams.
Although not exhaustively, a number of challenges have been identified in this paper and these should be dealt if virtual teams have to be of any benefit to an organization. Apparently, poor performance of virtual teams will result from lack of attention to key design considerations. A considerable amount of time must therefore be spent setting up an effective virtual team.
Bell, B. S. & Kozlowski, S.W. J. (2002). A Typology of Virtual Teams: Implications for Effective Leadership. Group& Organization Management, 2002; 27 (1): 14-49.
Cascio, W. F. (2000). Managing a Virtual Workplace. Academy of Management Executive, 2000, 14(3): 81-90. Web.
Kimball, Lisa (1997). Managing Virtual Teams. Toronto: Team Strategies Conference. Web.
Montoya-Weiss, M. M., Massey, A. P. & Song, M. (2001). Getting it Together: Temporal Coordination and Conflict Management in Global Virtual Teams. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Academy of Management Journal – In Press. Web.
Shachaf, P. & Hara, N. (2005) Team Effectiveness in Virtual Environments: An Ecological Approach. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing. Web.