October 02, 2015

Team Types 2: The Virtual Team

Team Types and their Characteristics

The Virtual Team

There are four principal team types to be found in most large organisations: The Traditional ‘Intact’ Team, The Project Team, The Teaming Work Group and The Virtual Team.

While they share many characteristics, each team type is unique in terms of how it interacts with its environment; the establishment and management of each posing its own particular set of challenges.

Developing a team and maximising its effectiveness requires an understanding and recognition of its particular characteristics and the challenges it is likely to encounter.

The figure below broadly describes the four types.

Team Types

The Virtual Team

The Virtual Team is characterised by team members who work together and share a common set of goals but are based in different geographical locations, who rarely or never physically meet and whose primary mode of communicating with each other is electronic.

The Virtual Team concept was originally conceived to facilitate innovation between experts who could not, would not or did not have the time to travel.

Today—and for an increasing number of organisations—the Virtual Team is a necessary means of operating a business that is driven by:

  • communications technology advances;
  • globalisation;
  • the ability and necessity to remain competitive by minimising costs in the deployment, strategic placement and management of human resources;
  • the potential for optimising employee retention by offering a range of flexible employment conditions;
  • the opportunity to source the best possible staff (and skillsets that are unavailable locally) and
  • 24/7 operations.

A virtual team is not an appropriate model where a team relies heavily on sequential and integrated work such as manufacturing. Also, virtual teams almost always experience a time lag in communications and hence in decision making. In work situations where each team member depends on what the other is doing in the immediate term a Virtual Team will not work.

The Benefits of a Virtual Team

  1. Building teams with geographical spread has benefits for both organisations and individual team members
  2. Decision-making tends to be more effective where collaborative conflict management styles have been successfully deployed.
  3. Diversity brings different perspectives and opinions, offering greater potential for innovation and synergy. Groups of individuals from differing backgrounds are more likely to participate in group decision-making.
  4. Talent can be sourced globally at the most competitive cost.
  5. Home-workers are potentially more productive and less stressed through having more control in their lives (potentially) and fewer disruptions (such as commuting) in their day.
  6. Virtual teaming has the potential to engender equality discouraging age, race and disability discrimination as team members work with others whose differences challenge their assumptions.
  7. The reliance on technology mitigates some of the challenges of diversity e.g. an email communication does not transfer accents and carries fewer noticeable language differences than verbal communication. Cultural barriers are not removed but are shielded from view.
  8. Employees with special physical needs may be able to participate more easily in teams where communication is virtual and where existing office accommodation and/or workspace limitations may be an impediment.

Challenges for the Virtual Team

Virtual Teams also pose major challenges for both the effectiveness of the team in achieving its goals and its leadership.

  1. Cultural diversity can have negative impacts when not managed or appreciated. Contentious issues may include failing to recognise national holidays and religious obligations or problems resulting from language barriers, interpretation and styles of communication.
  2. Satisfaction tends to be lower in the Virtual Team due in part to lower levels of trust between team members. Without face-to-face communication trust is more difficult to establish and maintain.
  3. Transactive memory—a memory system through which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge—rarely exists in the Virtual Team and can not be effectively transmitted to new members by traditional means. Similarly, contextual knowledge tends not to be preserved or to remain available. Traditional teams capture, accumulate and leverage both of these intuitively in day-to-day, face-to-face communication. The Virtual Team must create these artificially and consciously work at ensuring their availability and transmission.
  4. It is likely that certain people will not adapt well to working virtually due to the processes, the learning curve, a fear of the technology and a new working environment that may feel alien to them.
  5. Working across multiple time zones can be contentious if one subset of members is continually required to attend out-of-hours meetings in order to accommodate another set of members.
  6. Virtual team members must operate with a high degree of independence requiring close attention to delegation and shared leadership. This infers a requirement for higher levels of trust and processes that support both the leader and the team member.
  7. Isolation can impact negatively on morale and motivation for the remote(r) member(s) of a team. Virtual teams require a greater focus on rules, protocols and regulations and need to be more formal in their operation. People are social in nature and when forced to work alone may struggle with being isolated and missing many of interactions that are taken for granted in a traditional workplace. The sharing of information—and the sense of security and engagement it provides—around the coffee machine, the watercooler, even the smoking shed is denied to the virtual employee along with all the informal communication processes of the organisation.
  8. ‘Membership creep’ is a phenomenon of the Virtual Team. Typically, individuals invited to contribute on a specific issue begin to be included on an increasing range of issues. The team grows unchecked leading to increased communications and confusion.
  9. Maintaining a manageable team size is therefore important. As a general rule teams should not comprise more than ten people. The late Harvard University Professor Richard Hackman noted that it takes ten conversations for every person on a team of five to touch base. However it can take up to 78 conversations for a team of 13!

Virtual Teams are Different

Virtual Teams are created very often in the belief that they can operate in the same manner as Traditional or Project Teams.

Increasing numbers of organisations are adopting the Virtual Team concept and many fail to appreciate the challenges and to develop specific and appropriate policies and protocols to support this unique means of working.

In such cases, the potential for financial benefit can be quickly eroded. Lojeski and Reilly (2008) found that Virtual Teams — where the organisation did not develop a strategy to meet the challenges of the virtual world—could suffer decreases in performance by as much as 50%, in innovation by 93%, in satisfaction by 80% and in trust by 83%.

Furthermore, little or nothing has been done to develop leaders to lead these teams.

Virtual Team Leader Attributes

The role of the virtual leader is more dramatic in terms of impact than it is for other team types. Leading a Virtual Team requires a high level of skill and focus in the following areas:

  • Developing and maintaining clear and compelling goals.
  • Managing performance.
  • Communicating (including rules of communication respecting diversity and team needs).
  • Replacing implicit assumptions with clear rules and protocols.
  • Developing and maintaining trust between team members.
  • Delegating.
  • Fostering shared leadership.

Virtual Team Member Attributes

Equally important is the degree of skill of those who comprise the team. Research indicates the following attributes are critical to the long term success of the team:

  • Self-motivation.
  • Ability to work Independently.
  • Ability to work effectively without control and structure.
  • Strong results orientation.
  • Strong communication skills.
  • High emotional intelligence.
  • Resilience.

Making Virtual Teams Work

In establishing a Virtual Team and in order to maximise its potential, the organisation and the leader should pay attention to the following:

  1. Leaders need specialised training to lead and manage a Virtual Team as it requires a different mind-set and approach to that for dealing with traditional team types. Advanced skills in delegation, fostering shared leadership, goal setting, role clarification, relevant technologies, communication and performance management are essential for an effective Virtual Team leader.
  2. Members should possess (or be appropriately trained in) the attributes outlined above.
  3. When assembling a Virtual Team it is important to recognise that bigger isnot better. Membership creep should be assertively managed while rules and protocols for who should participate in virtual team meetings should be set out.
  4. Clear goals and roles for the Virtual Team tasks and processes are essential. There can no room for ambiguity. This is a leadership responsibility from the outset and must be continually reinforced and clarified. Goals must be compelling so that a sense of purpose and direction for team members is reinforced.
  5. A low common denominator may need to be set for the technologies used so they are accessible to team members in terms of (i) the level of domestic bandwidth available to homeworkers, (ii) the variance in bandwidth availability in different countries or regions, (iii) the operating systems being used and (iv) the ability of members to actually learn and use the technologies. The most advanced or sophisticated technologies may simply not be appropriate. The leader must be trained in the use of all the technology that is deployed and should be capable of understanding and effectively dealing with any problem issues that are likely to arise.
  6. Rules should be set for communicating virtually but so too should the rules governing direct communication (via telephone, text etc.) between members. Appropriate, effective and innovative use of data sharing facilities play a key role in the efficient operation of the Virtual Team and in striving to accumulate and preserve transactive memory and contextual knowledge.
  7. Some of the key variables and stages that must be addressed in establishing a Virtual Team include:
    Kick-off and socialising the team members. Despite its virtual nature, the team should come together physically at least once per year and preferably once per quarter. These meetings have a major impact on trust and esprit de corps for the team.
    Ensuring a robust induction process for new members to the team with a mentor or buddy system and making time available for new members to meet with existing team members on a virtual, but individual basis.
    Rotating multi-timezone meeting times in order to fairly distribute the requirement to work outside of office hours.
    Developing a set of Rules of Engagement and committing to these rules without exception. These rules should be developed by the whole team and not simply imposed by the leader.
    Establishing milestones to enable a sense of progression and achievement for the team.
    Being available as leader on an individual basis and not just in the context of performance management.
    Building virtual socialisation processes either into every team meeting or through specific initiatives to support cohesion in the team.
    Recognising success and individual contribution.
    Developing true delegation (i.e. responsibility with power) and engendering trust between team members and between the team leader and team members.


Virtual Teams offer a range of opportunities for cost-saving, resource optimisation innovation and flexibility that contribute to making an organisation more competitive … though the model is not appropriate for every business type.

To maximise the chances for success, organisations must recognise that Virtual Teams are not the same as Traditional or Project Teams and so the approach to their establishment and management must be different.

Virtual Team leaders require a specific set of skills to lead these teams and team members require a specific set of attributes for the organisation to gain the best return.

Finally, Virtual Teams require a high level of formality in order to manage the logistics of multi-site team-working and to compensate for the lack of instant, face-to-face contact while capturing as many as possible of the beneficial, informal human traits of working ‘together’.

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