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Working in diverse teams
Working in diverse teams

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1 What is a virtual team?

The term ‘virtual team’ first started to appear in organisations in the 1990s. The advances in technology that recent years have brought, along with the increasingly global nature of business, has led to the development of different ways of working.

A ‘virtual team’ describes a team that is using technology to work across a range of different locations, organisations or even countries. The defining characteristic of these teams is that they do not meet face-to-face but use a range of technology to communicate. The challenges of working in a virtual team are many and include those that you have explored in previous weeks for working in teams generally. However, for virtual teams, alongside these issues are new challenges in both the use of appropriate technology, and new ways of thinking and operating.

In June 2011, the BBC reported that an estimated 1.3 million people in the UK were working at home full-time and 3.7 million were working at home part-time (BBC, 2011). They pointed out that alongside Germany, the UK was leading the EU in the number of virtual team-workers (MindTools, 2017). This could be made up of people who work from home or people who work at a remote location.

Image of a woman working at home on a laptop on a table.
Figure 1 Working at home

There are several different definitions for what a ‘virtual team’ is, but the common features of all of these definitions are:

  • there is a common goal to be achieved or task to be performed
  • individuals or groups may not be physically located in the same place
  • team members can be separated by time as well, but do not need to be
  • technology is used to aid communication.

A frequently used description of a virtual team provided by Fleming (2006, p. 7) is ‘working together apart’ (Figure 2).

One implication of these different definitions is that it is always worth checking exactly what is meant if you are asked to work as part of a virtual team in your job.

Described image
Figure 2 Working together apart

Years ago it would not have been possible to work in this way as there was not the necessary technology. Consider for a moment how technology has progressed since 1800 (Table 1), which has led to this point where synchronous (at the same time) and asynchronous (not at the same time) communication is possible.

Table 1 Development of technology towards virtual collaboration
1970 Fax
1995Virtual team software (though this was asynchronous only)
2005Web based virtual team software (synchronous and asynchronous) development of Web 2.0

Web 2.0 describes the current state of online technology compared to the early days of the web or what might be referred to as WWW or Web 1.0. There is no need for to have a lesson in technology here or explore in detail how the web used today has developed. It is sufficient for your needs to know that originally the web was a static site, whereas the web you see and use today is characterised by more user interactivity, more connectivity and enhanced communication channels.

Next you will consider virtual team-working and its advantages to both the employer and employee.