Theorizing Virtual Teams: Relationality in Dispersed Collaboration

Theorizing Virtual Teams: Relationality in Dispersed Collaboration

Chrysavgi Sklaveniti (University of St. Gallen, Switzerland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4094-6.ch001


Contemporary organizations operate in highly connected structures, with work extending beyond physical borders. As such, organisations experience the emergence of virtual teams: teams that collaborate virtually and work together, despite differences in time-zones, physical proximity or cultural backgrounds. This chapter aims to shed light on this contemporary work arrangement from a relational perspective, leading to an understanding of the dimensions of virtuality underpinning work. For doing so, the chapter begins by describing the emergence of dispersed teams as a contemporary business practice. The discussion, then, turns to ways of relating to one another on a virtual landscape, and focuses on the virtuality dimensions of time-space, leadership, trust, and the struggle between cohesion and flexibility. The chapter concludes with a projection on the future around dispersed collaboration, and with an outline of future research for advancing the understanding and practice of virtual teams.
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There is much interest today in transformations at the interface between technology and the workplace (Griffith, 2012; Orlikowski, 2000; Orlikowski & Scott, 2008; Shapira, Lewin, Schoonhoven, Argote, & Levinthal, 2014), and this chapter outlines a theoretical agenda for one such transformation; that of virtual teams. The term ‘virtual teams’ has been widely taken up to indicate work teams that collaborate online across boundaries, whether organisational, functional, geographical, temporal, national or cultural (Al-Ani, Horspool, & Bligh, 2011; Gilson, Maynard, Jones Young, Vartiainen, & Hakonen, 2015; Kelley, 2001; Wilson, Crisp, & Mortensen, 2013). To be fair, this wide uptake reflects the significant changes in infrastructure that have occurred across many organisations; but it also reflects the aspiration that the virtual makes possible new ways of conducting and knowing work life. While positioning the understanding of virtual teams in terms of their structural characteristics undoubtedly helps in familiarising with their context, it may not be equally helpful in other respects. To frame virtual teams with their physical implications for work arrangements allows a narrow appreciation of the relation of technology and the workplace; one that does not convey how relationality itself is undergoing transformation in dispersed collaboration (Puranam, Alexy, & Reitzig, 2014; Wilson et al., 2013).

As has been pointed out over years of research (Delbridge & Sallaz, 2015; Dewett & Jones, 2001; Griffith, 2012), technological integration in the workplace does not only facilitate dispersed collaboration, or renders it commonplace, it also makes virtual teams amenable to new virtual practices. However, only acknowledging the networking possibilities of virtual teams or the mobile workplaces they make available does not enable to investigate the wider contexts used by virtual teams. As put forward by Beyes and Steyaert (2012), there is a need to instil a relational perspective to advance the understanding of organisational phenomena beyond physical distance. Following on from here, this chapter goes on to discuss virtuality from a relational perspective (Gergen, 2009), arguing that the technology, for which the rise of the virtual serves as occurrence, is not collaborative in and of itself. It is only in the ‘doing’ of relational practices virtually that technology becomes collaborative. Thereupon, the chapter puts forward an understanding of how virtual teams change the relation between technology and relationality.

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