2 Managing virtual teams
The ability to work together at a distance makes it possible to carry out some projects that could not otherwise be carried out, and to involve some team members who could not otherwise have been involved. It could be argued that in the present day nearly all teams are, to some extent, virtual teams. Virtual project team work has the potential to provide great benefits and opportunities. There are, however, also disadvantages and challenges that need to be addressed. The study of the difficulties of collaboration at a distance involves the comparison of such work with collaboration that takes place between team members physically located in the same space, or nearby, and present for at least some of the same working time, known as collocated working. Thus as we learn more about working at a distance, we are also gaining insights that apply to working in the same place and that can inform the management of collocated projects.
An important theme of research into the difficulties presented by distance working can be summed up by the word ‘understanding’. A key role of the project manager is to promote understanding amongst team members, and in a virtual team this becomes harder to achieve. A level of mutual understanding is necessary to allow effective collaboration to take place and the project to progress. Mutual understanding can be fostered by the use of suitable collaboration and communication tools, and therefore the evaluation and choice of the most appropriate available tools is an important activity for the virtual project team manager. To allow evaluation and choice of tools, a project manager needs to be familiar with the array of tools currently available and has to keep abreast of a fast-changing area of technology. The project manager also needs to be aware of the problems and challenges of working at a distance, and an appreciation of some of the theory of understanding in teams can assist in making the right choices.