2.4 Successful virtual team work
As well as having an understanding of the technologies and tools for collaboration and the challenges of distance working, the project manager can study successful project teams at work to identify common factors that allow success.
Virtual teams can be remarkably successful, even outperforming collocated teams, argue Majchrzak et al. (2004) in their article ‘Can absence make a team grow stronger?’ This article, co-written with the authors, Lipnack and Stamps (2000), of a popular book on virtual teams, describes a survey of successful virtual teams undertaken in the early 2000s. In this article, the authors describe several case studies of successful virtual teams and they identify three rules that were instrumental to the success of the virtual teams they surveyed.
Read through the articleby Majchrzak et al. (2004) and briefly summarise the three rules that the authors highlight. (Note: for technical reasons this link goes to the top-level of the journal and further navigation will be required to find the paper. Right click the link above to the journal and choose to open it in a new window or tab. You will need to first select the year (2004), followed by the volume and issue (Vol.82, Issue 5 March/April). Finally scroll down to locate article 20 called ‘Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?’)
Majchrzak et al. (2004) identify three rules as important to the success of the virtual teams they surveyed. Briefly stated, these rules are: exploit diversity, use technology to simulate reality, and hold the team together. These rules are summarised below.
Exploit diversity within the team
In successful teams, team members with different perspectives and backgrounds worked together to devise innovative and creative solutions to problems. Individual members did this by capitalising upon their differences within the team, rather than seeing their differences as a barrier that had to be overcome. Differences of opinion, which almost inevitably arose because of the team’s diversity, were channelled so they generated solutions to problems rather than acrimony between team members. This is captured in the simple phrase ‘light, not heat’.
Use technology to simulate reality
In other words, use information technology to bring people together in the virtual realm. In the teams surveyed by Majchrzak et al., many teams found email and video conferencing to be poor ways to communicate and collaborate. Instead, most teams used conference calls and shared websites. It is possible that the findings regarding video conferencing would be different today, with improved hardware and software and in particular great advances in available bandwidth. Note that the article did not use the term ‘wiki’, but a wiki is an example of a shared website. Conference calls tended to be used for discussion (particularly to discuss areas of disagreement) whereas shared websites were used to record team decisions and remind members of their commitments. In other words, the shared websites were used as virtual noticeboards or team rooms.
Hold the team together
Communicate frequently to keep the team together. This is required to prevent some of the hazards of teamwork from arising: mistrust between team members, clique formation, and the distraction of other activities unrelated to the team’s activities. The team leader has an important role to play in keeping in touch with each team member and in holding the team together. Strategies such as asking team members to work in ad hoc pairs for short periods provide an effective way of helping team members to get to know each other better, and to discourage the formation of cliques. In summary, frequent, effective communication is a critical success factor for a virtual team.