The use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) is more popular than ever in both educational and corporate settings. Schools and corporations are using virtual communication to replace or supplement in-person classes and meetings. Many educators and managers are taking it a step further, having teams work in a virtual setting with members rarely or never meeting each other in person. Can a virtual team be as successful as a team where everyone works in the same physical location? Does anything different need to be done to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact? This article identifies unique factors for virtual teams, and then provides recommendations and guidelines that can help virtual teams be successful. With the right planning, virtual teams can equal or exceed the performance of face-to-face teams.
Purpose Of Teams
Teams are used in both educational and corporate settings for tasks such as process management, problem solving, and project work. In a team, the leadership is shared and the members are mutually responsible for the outcome of the team. Team tasks are interdependent; they require collaboration among the team members, and teams are empowered to control how they reach their goals (Yancey, 1998).
What is a virtual team? What makes it different from any other team? A team is considered virtual because much or all of its communication takes place outside traditional in-person meetings, instead using electronic technologies such as e-mail or video teleconferencing (Grosse, 2002). Common characteristics of virtual teams are:
The participants are physically separated.
They are dependent on communicating using some form of CMC.
They have no prior history together (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998).
The context, as it relates to the work environment, also makes a virtual team unique from a traditional team (Gluesing et al., 2002). Language and cultural differences that exist in geographically dispersed teams also present challenges to virtual teams (Grosse, 2002).
Many variables have been considered in researching team effectiveness and its impact on team performance. Alge, Wiethoff, and Klein (2003) studied the impact of a team’s past history or intended future on a team’s ability to communicate effectively and make good decisions. The research focused on whether the fact that a team had worked together in the past or expected to work together in the future affected the team’s performance in both in-person and virtual team environments. Panteli (2003) categorized teams as short-term and long-term teams and studied situational factors that affected team performance. Grosse (2002) examined the pros and cons of communication methods for virtual teams and the impact of cultural differences. These research efforts have attempted to characterize teams and then determine the variables that affect virtual team performance.Top
Team Success Factors
While virtual teams face many more unique challenges than a traditional team that has geographic proximity, the two do have similar goals. According to Rubin (2002), there are four key principles that are important to follow when creating a team environment:
Team members must have relevant assignments. In other words, they must feel that their participation matters.
Goals are interdependent and shared accountability exists for the team’s results.
The team is provided a clear and gradual path to self-sufficiency.
Team members are provided with the tools and time that they need to continually improve business performance.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Virtual Team: Much or all of team communication takes place outside of traditional in-person meetings, instead using electronic technologies such as e-mail or video teleconferencing (Grosse, 2002).
Structuration Theory: The richness of a medium is not static, but changes through the appropriation process or through how it is used (Ocker & Fjermestad, 2000).
Shared Accountability: All team members are responsible for achieving team outcomes, not just the team leader or manager.
Context: Describes the working environment and atmosphere including policies, work hours, work climate, and work goals.
Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): Using technology-based tools such as e-mail, chat programs, or conferencing tools to communicate at a distance.
Synchronous Communication Tools: Communication occurs real time. Conferencing tools are synchronous. Participants must be together at the same time for the communication event to occur.
Asynchronous Communication Tools: Communication does not occur in real time. Communication can be received “any time.” E-mail is an example of an asynchronous tool as an electronic mail message waits for the recipient to open it.