Thursday, July 24, 2014

Virtual teams have become a necessity for business collaboration

Working in virtual teams used to be an exception in everyday business collaboration. In our current age of social networking and global businesses, knowing how to work successfully with virtual teams has become a necessity!

A virtual team is a group of individuals who work across different time, space and organizational borders using communication technologies to interact with one another. You may not have worked on a team that was defined as virtual, but have you considered that your current team works virtually, even if you are working in the same location?

What we may not have realized is that some of our company office work involves virtual communications, and you are actually using some form of virtual collaboration already. In this 24/7 global environment, which includes working with vendors or suppliers who are not on-site, working after hours and working while on business or personal travel, we email and share documents, even with the person who sits next to us. Phone calls and conference calls are also highly prevalent forms of virtual communication.

What has caused this shift to virtual work? The internet and social media create an environment which is multicultural, distributed and asynchronous. Having no boundaries also allows teams and organizations to obtain the best of the best skilled and experienced team members.

Virtual teams also support the speed of progress, allowing global teams to work on a project 24 hours a day. Our global economy has also brought businesses to broad locations, where many businesses desire to expand their focus beyond the areas where their offices are located, to include the world in their potential market. The Malcolm Baldrige School of Business offers a course, which I teach, BUS604: Virtual Teams and Organizations, that covers this material extensively 

There is no denying that virtual teams provide a cost savings for organizations in both reduced travel time and reduced office space costs. There are also added benefits to team members, including improved work-life balance and flexibility, which has an effect on team members’ morale and productivity.

Virtual meetings also increase communication. Teams don’t need to wait until they have a scheduled off-site meeting or take long business trips to communicate effectively. Also scheduling is simplified with shorter duration meetings.

So, there are a number of technologies to support virtual teams and organizations, but how can we use these tools effectively?

Trust and team leadership are important foundations for building successful virtual teams and organizations. The dynamics and tools for virtual teams are not the same as with collocated teams, so simply using these tools without considering new ways of working together will not result in the team performance we expect. This is why team development is even more critical for virtual teams. When a team is high performing, working virtually will not impact their effectiveness as much as when the team is low performing.

Some say working as a virtual team will never be as effective as collaborating in person. Perhaps it is a matter of which strategies are used to support virtual teams. There are certainly a number of successful virtual teams who have completed extensive work in short periods of time, which would otherwise not be possible due to resource constraints, if the team members were collocated. Virtual teams can be far more dynamic than traditional teams and have fewer resource constraints than their counterparts.

Consider the teams you work on and what work you do that is virtual. Also, consider how including virtual work for your team might be beneficial to the team members and to meeting the project objectives of the team. 

Susan Parente is a Principal Consultant at S3 Technologies, LLC and an Associate Faculty member at Post University. Parente has 13+ years’ experience leading software and business development projects in the private and public sectors, including a decade of experience implementing IT projects for the Department of Defense.