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Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams
Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams

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1.1 Interactions: technology and people

Individuals, groups, teams and communities of practice use technologies (tools) to support their work and social activities. These technologies are used for communication, planning and record keeping and the many other activities associated with working together or completing a task. There are growing numbers of working environments where colleagues interact electronically. Many people have experience of working with others who are not in the same building. It is reasonable to assume that this is not difficult as there are now so many ways of communicating. The telephone and email is commonly used, but also telephone conferencing, video conferencing, software which combines text, video and audio, and so on.

Activity 2

Select an electronic tool that you commonly use to interact with colleagues or friends. How much do you know about the features of this application? How might you identify whether there was something else within this application that could be useful to you? If there was more to learn about the tool, would you know how to find out about it?


Use of electronic tools in place of face-to-face communication can change both the style of the interaction and the extent to which information is exchanged. The effectiveness of communication, whether electronic or face-to-face, may rely on individuals’ own skills. Individuals can use their own self-awareness to identify aspects of communication in which they need to develop their skills further. When using electronic tools for communication, individuals also need to be aware of their skill in using the tool itself.

Author’s reflection

Microsoft Outlook is the email application used most widely by The Open University’s office-based staff. It has many features of which I was unaware. Talking to a colleague I noticed that she had coloured flags on emails in her inbox and that she could group the emails by these coloured flags. I was intrigued, because I had recently been feeling that dealing with email required me to move rapidly from one subject to another. I identified that using these flags might enable me to organise my email so that I could deal with related topics at the same time. I still need to do some manual sorting but the time taken in learning this feature of Outlook was worth it for me as it reduced the fragmentation of my time. This improvement in efficiency of using a form of electronic communication started with a face-to-face interaction.

This course looks at some of the key principles behind working in a virtual team and the impact of technology on collaboration. Tools for collaboration and techniques for evaluating software tools and technologies are discussed. By the end of this free course you should have knowledge and insights into the principles, but also have some experience of using tools to communicate and collaborate. The course will enable you to develop skills in evaluating and choosing tools to support a virtual team, or if you do not have this choice you will be able to understand the limitations for your team of the tools available and then work more effectively with them.

Activity 3

Imagine that you are going to be working in a team where the team members will meet face-to-face once, for a briefing by senior management. This briefing will cover the technical details of the project and no time is allocated to meet informally with other team members. Thereafter, there will be regular meetings, all of which will be by remote conferencing. Which aspects of this situation are already familiar to you and which aspects are new to you?


Even if you have not worked in a virtual team before you may have some similar experiences to draw on. Some collocated teams do not allocate much time to team building or ‘ice-breaking’ activities to enable team members to get to know each other when interacting on team activities. However, a virtual team could allocate time to electronic ice-breaker activities. Ice-breaker activities can range from introducing oneself by using a communication tool that is to be used by the team, to more complex activities.

Having regular meetings is a common feature of project teams and you may be aware of the use to which agendas, reports, minutes, and action lists are put. There are likely to be equivalents in a virtual team. The mechanisms by which meetings of the virtual team mentioned in the activity will take place are not explained, but it could use synchronous audio or video conferencing facilities. A virtual team may also use standard communication technology such as email and telephone.

The purpose of this activity has been to show you that you already have some experience to draw on.

There are three aspects to electronic collaboration: the technology, the people, and the processes (Figure 1). Attention needs to be given to all three of these if the collaboration is to be successful.

People, processes and technology as components for virtual project teams
Adapted from Coleman and Levine, 2008, p. 23
Figure 1 People, processes and technology as components for virtual project teams

Working in virtual teams started several decades ago, based on technology that has developed over the last century. This development can be seen in Table 1.

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Table 1 description

The table has three columns. The headings are ‘Period’, ‘Technology’ and ‘Type of interaction’

Under these headings there are 6 rows.

The first row is period 1800s, technology is telegraph. Type of interaction is one to one communication, asynchronous.

The second row is period 1900s, technology is telephone. Type of interaction is one to one communication, conference calls, synchronous.

The third row is period 1970s, technology is fax. Type of interaction is one to one, one to many, fast delivery of written communication, asynchronous.

The fourth row is period 1980s, technology is email. Type of interaction is one to one, one to many, very fast delivery of digital files, asynchronous.

The fifth row is period 1995 onwards, technology is virtual team and workplace software. Type of interaction is many to many, shared access to secure virtual file structure and communication, usually asynchronous.

The sixth row is period 2005 onwards, technology is web-based virtual team space software. Type of interaction is many to many, shared access to virtual workspace, can be synchronous or asynchronous.

Table 1 Development of technology towards virtual collaboration
PeriodTechnologyType of interaction
1800stelegraphone-to-one communication, asynchronous
1900stelephoneone-to-one communication, conference calls, synchronous
1970sfaxone-to-one, one-to-many, fast delivery of written communication, asynchronous
1980semailone-to-one, one-to-many, very fast delivery of digital files, asynchronous
1995 onwardsvirtual team and workplace softwaremany-to-many, shared access to secure virtual file structure and communication, usually asynchronous
2005 onwardsweb-based virtual team space softwaremany-to-many, shared access to virtual workspace, can be synchronous or asynchronous
(Coleman and Levine, 2008, p. 71)

Examples of many to many communications which can be used by virtual teams are:

The ability of users to generate content, to be active participants rather than passive consumers, is an aspect of the development of the World Wide Web sometimes known as Web 2.0. The development of Web 2.0 can be very important for virtual teams because the new Web technologies and services allow the shared use of tools independent of computer operating systems, the type of device being used to interact with the Web, and the organisational infrastructure of the users.

Changes in technology have led to changes in working practices, and these changes have themselves driven development in tools for collaboration.