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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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2.2 Virtual teams

To be successful, team members need to communicate. The traditional way of doing this is through meetings both formal and informal. Such meetings would be face-to-face. However, when team members are remote, face-to-face meetings become impossible (or impractical) and the team must become virtual. You will often find that the terms virtual team, virtual working and distributed team working are used slightly differently, which can be confusing. To avoid this confusion we shall start this section by looking at what we mean by a collocated team, and then examine several definitions of the term virtual team and discuss their similarities and differences.

Activity 4

Read the introduction (pages 140 to 144) of the article ‘Distance matters’ by Olson and Olson (2000) linked below. As well as giving a general overview of remote and collocated working in 2000, there is a specific definition used by these authors to define collocated work. What is their definition?

Distance matters [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Discussion

The definition is based on an earlier one by Allen (1977), who says that team members need to be within 50 feet of each other. Olson and Olson use 30 metres as their measure of team members being within a short distance of each other, but add that the team also needs access to common spaces and shared objects, whether physical or virtual, which are made or used by the team. The authors emphasise that it is not the actual measure of distance in metres, but the shared area to meet and keep shared materials. To meet in the shared space would require team members to be in the same physical location at the same time.

The discussion in Olson and Olson shows that collocation is not just a matter of distance, it is also time. A naive definition of collocation is closeness in terms of physical distance. However, one can also be remote in terms of time. So, there are two dimensions to remoteness: space and time.

There are several definitions of a virtual team in the literature; here are a few:

  • Edwards and Wilson (2004) say that ‘virtual teams are groups of people who find themselves separated by distance and/or time, yet have common tasks to perform’.
  • The glossary in Brown et al. (2007) states that a virtual team is ‘a group of individuals who work together towards common goals primarily by using computing technology, and who are usually located remotely from each other’.
  • Levi (2007) refers to Driskell et al. (2003) to give the definition: ‘A virtual team is any team whose member interactions are mediated by time, distance and technology’. Levi goes on to comment that ‘the core feature is not the technology, but that the team works together on a task whilst physically separated,’ and that virtuality is a matter of degree; most virtual teams have some face-to-face contact’.
  • Rad and Levin’s (2003) approach differs from the other definitions in that they start by talking about a virtual project, so that the virtual team is the team that undertakes the virtual project. They acknowledge that a virtual team’s members may be from more than one organisation and may not be collocated so that they may not meet face-to-face at any time.

Activity 5

Examine the definitions given above to assess the extent to which each addresses the two aspects of remoteness, space and time.

Discussion

Brown et al. do not mention time, whereas the other definitions do. The separation in time may be due to team members being in different time zones, so that synchronous communication may need to be carefully scheduled, or it may simply be that there is asynchronous communication for other reasons, even if team members are in the same time zone. Taken further, it might be that the team members may not all be working on the activity during the same period, i.e. they may have other responsibilities which take them away from the team tasks, so that work proceeds asynchronously and communication is also asynchronous.

The common features in all the above definitions are as follows:

  • there is a goal to be achieved or a task to be performed
  • individuals or groups are not necessarily physically collocated
  • team members may be separated by time
  • technology is used for communication.

To be a virtual team the team members would be separated by distance, at least, there does not have to be separation in time. However, some face-to-face meetings may take place, either because the structure and resources of the team allows for this or the team members talk about the tasks they are undertaking for the virtual team during other work. In such cases the team is not fully virtual, but the principles of operating in a virtual team still apply as a significant proportion of the team work is virtual. Another possible situation is that some team members are collocated and others are remote. This is a virtual team as some proportion of the team work is virtual.

A team can be virtual without a difference in time. This means that a virtual team may interact either synchronously or asynchronously, or a combination of both. Even if all the interaction is synchronous, then the team is a fully virtual team if there is distance between the team members. A converse example, of the team all being in the same place but not all at the same time, is a hospital ward. There are staff on duty all the time, but the staffing changes from one shift to another. There can be face-to-face ward meetings when shifts change, and electronic and paper records are used to ensure that all necessary information is available to staff currently on the ward. Typically there is a large whiteboard with each patient’s name, the name of the consultant responsible for them, their named nurse and any additional information, such as dietary requirements or appointments off the ward. This white board is usually placed near the nurses’ station, a readily available source of important information to whoever is there.

Author’s reflection

My own experience is of working in virtual teams in two ways:

  1. The team is physically reasonably closely located, for example in the same building but not necessarily sitting together and the team chooses, for whatever reason to communicate electronically for some part of their work.
  2. The team members are located in different towns/countries/continents (time zones) from at least some of the other team members and the project manager.

From a practical point, if I am asked to participate in a virtual or a distributed team I think it would be important to check whether my understanding is the same as that of other team members.

So, a virtual team is one where there are common tasks to be performed by people who are separated by distance and/or time and their interaction is electronic. Also, from the perspective of this course, only a proportion of the interaction needs to be virtual.

The use of the term ‘distributed team’ may suggest that the team is separated on the dimension of space alone. However, many published authors use the term ‘distributed team’ to mean the same as ‘virtual team’, and this course uses the two terms synonymously. Another term you may see is a dispersed team. This may be used to mean a team that has been working together in a collocated way and has then been moved to being separated by distance or time. However, other authors use ‘dispersed’ in the same way as ‘distributed’. It is therefore important to understand the individual authors’ definitions of ‘virtual’, ‘distributed’ or ‘dispersed’, although a definition may be implied rather than explicit.

There are possible variations in the extent to which members of a team may be working at different times and/or in different places. Figure 2 shows the possible variations of time and place in the Johansen (1988) time–space matrix.

Time–space matrix
(Johansen, 1988)
Figure 2 Time–space matrix

SAQ 2

Give the definition of a virtual team as used by this course. Which of the four possible combinations of time and place best represents a collocated team in the Johansen time–space matrix? To what extent are the remaining combinations virtual? Give your reasons.

Answer

A virtual team is one where there are common tasks to be performed by people who are separated by distance and/or time, and their interaction is electronic.

  • In the Johansen time–space matrix only same time–same place is collocated because the team is in the same place at the same time.
  • Same space–different time is virtual because the team members are interacting asynchronously as they are not interacting at the same time. It need not be fully virtual because the team is in the same physical place and there may be some face-to-face interaction.
  • Different space–same time is a fully virtual team as there is no face-to-face interaction because the team is separated by distance. It is not a requirement of the definition of a virtual team for the team to interact asynchronously.
  • Different space–different time is fully virtual because the team are separated by distance. Being separated in time means that interaction is asynchronous.

Activity 6

List the benefits of a virtual team over a collocated team from the point of view of:

  1. the team as a whole
  2. the individual team member.

Discussion

  1. Your list is likely to include the following benefits to the team:
    • able to draw on wider range of individuals to be in the team
    • reduce relocation or travel costs
    • reduce costs for buildings to house the team
    • able to form the team more quickly, as do not have to wait until team members are able to physically relocate, and so complete the goal sooner.
  2. For an individual there can be benefits to being part of a virtual team:
    • less travel
    • more choice of who to work for as may have easier access to more organisations
    • more flexible working conditions.

These are all rather general benefits. More specific benefits will depend on, for example, the type of work, the individuals involved, and the technology available. The potential benefits may be different for these different types of virtual collaboration.

There are also potential disadvantages or difficulties for virtual teams, for example, issues which can arise from not being physically collocated by being in different organisational or cultural environments.

The importance of virtual teams is that they enable wider choices to be made about people and working practices. Whether this is always beneficial can be debated but current practice shows that working in virtual teams is increasing and therefore being able to work effectively in this way is significant for both individuals and businesses.