Developing Virtual Work Teams Essay, Research Paper
Abstract As a result of global competition, the computer age, and excessive travel expenses, many people now work in “virtual teams” that transcend distance, time zones, and organizational boundaries. Virtual teams have evolved as a way to make working across continents and countries an easy, practical way to achieve superior results– people must no longer be co-located, or in the same place, in order to work together. Planning and design are key to virtual team success. The design of the organization, the team, and the job is the basis for building a successful virtual team. In addition to these factors, the work must be coordinated through technology and the stakeholders in the project must interact and keep each other updated. Lastly, when the employee finishes a project and must re-enter the host organization or another virtual team, planning by both the team member and the host organization is essential. Virtual Teams “Until recently, when you said you worked with someone, you meant by implication that you worked in the same place for the same organization. Suddenly though, in the blink of an evolutionary eye, people no longer must be co-located – or, in the same place – in order to work together. Now, many people work in ‘virtual teams’ that transcend distance, time zones, and organizational boundaries” (Lipnack, 1 1997). The term “virtual” was born in the computer industry, describing virtual memory, which is hard disk space used as temporary memory. When a software program knows there will not be enough memory to perform a certain task, instead of stopping the user from completing the task, it will use the hard drive as temporary memory. This enables the user to perform complex tasks that could not be achieved on standard memory (George, 1996). The term “virtual” applies to teams in a similar way. Instead of organizational or geographic boundaries preventing employees from working on complex tasks needed to gain a competitive edge, virtual teams fool the organization into thinking that the team members work together in the same space and time with the same set of organizational norms (George, 1996). Virtual teams are like project or natural work teams with added components. The latter may consist of members with cross-functional backgrounds from the same company, in the same location. They work together to solve problems in their day-to-day jobs. However, teams become virtual when you add any of the following three components: Different geography or locations of team members: Virtual team members can be located in different parts of a city or in different parts of the world. As the distance increases and more time zones are crossed, the window of synchronicity in the workday narrows. New England is six hours behind Europe, and people in California leave work just as their counterparts in Japan start their next day (Lipnack, 1997). Team members from different organizations or parts of the organization: Team members can be from different organizations or from different parts of the same organization. For example, a semi-conductor industry research organization in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, uses virtual teams to prioritize projects. Linking people from across North America, project teams from 12 semi-conductor companies, sixty universities and twenty-four government agencies focus on the kinds of research customers need most. Team members use computer technology to share data, run presentations and rank categories of research (George, 1996). Different durations or lengths of time that members work together as a team: Depending on its mission, a virtual team may unite for a project that lasts a few days, months, or years. For example, the semi-conductor organization referenced above created their team in order to prioritize 200 research programs. The virtual team “met” for two days and prioritized the programs at a cost of ten million dollars instead of at a cost of twenty million dollars in two weeks (George, 1996). The teams become more virtual as each component is expressed to a greater extent. The team becomes more and more virtual as the team is made up of members from different geographies and companies and the more they form and reform for ongoing work (George, 1996). Virtual teams are on the verge of exploding in companies around the world. Global competition, the computer age, and excessive travel expenses have evolved to make working across continents and countries an easy, practical way to achieve superior results. Using a combination of technology and teams, many companies are pursuing virtual teams to increase technology and knowledge transfer, increase the speed of solutions and decrease bottlenecks or delays between customers and suppliers or geographically dispersed employees (George, 1996). However, in the mad rush to implement virtual teams, companies may underestimate the need to plan and design around the differences inherent in virtual teams. Assuming that employees who have been team members in the past can make the transition to a virtual work team environment without planning and design, is like sending them on a collision course with disaster (George, 1996). Creating virtual teams is not as easy as pulling together a cross-functional team to solve a problem. Because the make-up and locations of the team can be quite heterogeneous, unprepared team members collide with mistrust, unrealistic or unequal expectations, cultural differences, co-ordinating work logistics, group dynamics and leadership issues (George, 1996). Trust: Employees from different locations, cultures, and technical backgrounds are likely to mistrust how their information will be used. Whether their contributions will be well represented outside the team, or the degree to which other team members will make an equal contribution. Expectations: Without the usual organizational walls to serve as general parameters, virtual teams need guidelines up front. These enable the team to set personal as well as team expectations for what they are and are not allowed to do. Managing expectations up front is necessary in a creative environment like a virtual team to offset frustration with the system and other team members. Cultural differences: Without addressing cultural differences, even those between different departments within the same organization, group dynamics — cohesion, participation, commitment, etc. ? are likely to damage productivity and willingness toward working together in the future. Work Co-ordination: Response and collaboration are paramount to achieving superior speed to market or complex business problem solutions. Virtual teams need advanced computer and communication technology to share databases, spreadsheets, proposals, and presentations. Then they need an expedient way to discuss options and prioritize alternatives without having to spend their most productive time in expensive face-to-face meetings. Group dynamics: Because virtual teams often operate over the telephone or computer instead of in the same office at the same time, they have less face time which builds rapport. Thus, group dynamics are more difficult to manage and conversations over e-mail can be easily misconstrued. Leadership: Virtual team leaders are less able to keep visual tabs on their employees because of different locations. Leaders must influence employees they do not see on a daily or weekly basis and who may not report to them or even belong to their organization. The leader’s job is to proactively manage the factors of the collision course mentioned above without creating status differences within the team. Favoring members of a particular culture, organization or technical background disrupts work co-ordination and may reduce group process and productivity. An automobile manufacturer tried to implement virtual teams as a means of bringing a new car to market more quickly. Team members came from two companies with radically different operating philosophies ? one was highly entrepreneurial and the other traditional. The result was that they actually doubled developmental time. Why? They failed to integrate the corporate cultures of the two organizations, top management did not spend enough time focusing on the team’s direction, the team met too infrequently and, as a result, there was too much turnover among team members. How then do you build virtual teams and avoid the collision course (George, 1996)? Planning and design are key to virtual team success. These important elements should be considered when developing and implementing successful virtual teams: Organizational DesignJob designTeam DesignCoordination of work through technologyInteraction with stakeholdersRe-entry Organizational Design Organizational design refers to the overall direction teams will take, the structure of how they are configured, and the systems that support them. Companies interested in building virtual teams, within their own company or with other customers and suppliers should focus on at least the following important components of organizational design: Define the business goals the team will work within: Heterogeneous and dispersed teams, like virtual teams, may need more help with focusing on business goals or the context in which they operate. Virtual team members need to be involved in developing project goals that meet the needs of the whole organization. By being involved in developing the larger goals for the project, team members are more likely to focus on mutually understood business needs, rather than individual agendas (George, 1996). Behavioralize team values that will guide how the team works together: Prior to start-up, virtual team members need to recognize how each team member behavioralizes their value set. Especially where values practice gaps exist, team members should develop practices that support multi-cultural, multi-functional work (George, 1996). Develop an infrastructure for involvement: Once the business drivers and values for the team are developed, organizations should develop an infrastructure for the involvement of members themselves and other employees from the host organization (George, 1996). Design the configuration and boundaries of the team to enhance productivity: People that actually do the work can generally design teams and their support systems more accurately then management alone. Furthermore, people who design teams usually have the most ownership for their success (George, 1996). Job Design Job design is a profile of what work team members are expected to do in their “no walls” world of the virtual team. Organizations must design the virtual team members’ jobs as tangibly as possible. Important job design steps for virtual teams include: Defining a realistic job preview: A realistic job preview is an account of how the virtual employee will spend his/her time and describes in depth how the working environment will be. Realistic job previews help the virtual employee understand what he/she is getting involved in, thus helping the employee cope better with the virtual environment (George, 1996). Realistic job previews typically include the harsh or negative aspects associated with the job, too. Designing job accountability: One of the hidden dangers always lurking on the sidelines of virtual teams is the ethic that everyone needs to be involved in everything. You can avoid this recipe for disaster by clarifying which tasks need everyone’s input and which do not. A simple responsibility matrix captures the set of relationships between members and tasks (Lipnack, 1997). Giving decision-making authority to the team: Teams are better able to make timely decisions when organizations take the time to specify decision-making authority. This authority is best clarified through responsibility charting for decisions (Mohrman, 1995).
Discussing compensation issues with team members: This is regarded as the ultimate dilemma in redesigning jobs for virtual teams. Virtual work necessitates pay based on contribution to, and completion of, complex projects. Members are measured on their ability to collaborate with others and solve problems with little direct supervision, using more data and expertise than ever before (George, 1996). Providing feedback for employee development and recognition: It is important to remember that virtual team members need, and deserve, feedback from supervisors too. Virtual team members do not have the benefit of receiving feedback from supervisors on a daily basis, therefore, special times should be set aside during which supervisors provide this feedback. Team Design Identify the Players: People or purpose, which comes first? The natural impulse is to immediately come up with a list of people. The more practical approach is to first draft an initial purpose and then identify whom you need to involve (Lipnack, 1997). For instance, if the goal of the team is to build a new sports car, you would need to involve people from design, marketing, finance, and manufacturing. Create an Identity: A team’s name is its smallest mental model. Names may be dull but descriptive, creative expressions of a mission, or wild things that capture people’s imagination. Consider using a formal name that clearly communicates what the team is about. For example, one of the teams at California-based Sun Microsystems uses the formal name “Sun Services Live Call Transfer Team” and uses a short tag for internal use – LCT (Lipnack, 1997). Statement of Purpose: The act of writing a vision or mission statement and then hanging it on the wall has become the well-deserved object of ridicule in many organizations. However, when the exercise of writing a purpose statement becomes the basis for the group’s work, it is a powerful source of energy. The importance of a virtual team going through a process to make its purpose tangible cannot be overstated. Ultimately, this means writing down the purpose and charter, however informal. Construct a prose statement of intent that answers the question “Why are we doing this?” Make explicit the team’s mission — its top-most goal and motivation to action. Although it may be difficult, it is essential that the virtual team gets the purpose right and makes it clear to everyone (Lipnack, 1997). Name the goals: To get from abstract vision to concrete realization, you need to organize and decide who is going to do what. Start by naming the key goals of the team. Keep the major categories to a handful or two at the most. Assess whether the set of goals covers the statement of purpose and the overall result. Well-conceived goals become the major components of the team’s work and the seeds around which subgroups form to actually do the work (Lipnack, 1997). Make connections: To reach people in the virtual world, you need to know their many addresses. Contact and location information is central to the team directory. Collect the many addresses that people and organizations have including office locations, traditional postal addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers, e-mail accounts, Web page addresses, server names and meeting places (Lipnack, 1997). Coordination of Work through Technology Virtual teams benefit enormously from face-to-face meetings and these are particularly important in the early phases of development (Lipnack, 1997). Some experts suggest that 25% of team interaction should be spent in face-to-face meetings (George, 1996). If meeting face-to-face is too costly or otherwise constrained, the many interactive technologies available to virtual teams will be even more crucial to the communication process. Electronic communication and digital technologies in particular are providing a historically unprecedented ability to work together at a distance (Lipnack, 1997). In addition, virtual teams are unlikely to capitalize on their members’ collective experiences or complete their project fluidly without the use of appropriate technology tools (George, 1996). Four kinds of technology can assist in making work coordination for virtual teams relatively simple and highly effective: In addition to “traditional” video conferencing, desktop video-conferencing is now being used. In desktop video-conferencing, a camera is mounted on the top of a person’s computer monitor and team members are able too see and hear one another, as though they were gathering informally in a colleague’s office (Lipnack, 1997). Groupware software enables teams of people to work on the same document at different times. Software programs such as Lotus Notes allow team members to share ideas and information, work together on projects, and take part in group discussions with all team members. It also allows team members to create and share documents that include text, presentation graphics, scanned images, sound, video and more. Most importantly, this software offers several levels of security so that sensitive information is not compromised when collaborating with people outside of the organization (Lotus, 1997). Newsgroups, bulletin boards and electronic mail on the Internet linking to a world-wide, networked computing community with millions of users from government, business, research, industry and education (George, 1996). Intranets are essentially communication tools that operate by linking an organization’s computers in a way similar to the Internet. It is a closed network, however, which is accessible to people within the organization (and maybe approved outsiders). Like the Internet, its users access it by means of a piece of software called a “browser,” which allows them to look at pages of text and images which are hosted on a company server. The user clicks on links written into these pages to go to other pages. The potential for collaborative work is enhanced by Intranets, it provides a means for team members to have a “window” on each others’ progress and assist each other in troubleshooting (Lake, 1997). Design of Interaction with Stakeholders In the case of temporary virtual teams, losing regular contact with the members’ host organization can be problematic for the team member, the team, and the organization. For the team member, losing contact can mean a lack of information to a direct supervisor about contributions to the virtual team. As a result, the team member’s performance review contains a black hole where all the effort put into the team remains an unknown and is not a career enhancement (George, 1996). For the team, losing contact can mean straying off-course into the ditch. Virtual teams are highly creative and can quickly lose focus based on individual members’ interests. Staying in touch with the larger organization(s) can ensure that the team does not stray off-course, losing valuable project development time (George, 1996). For the organization, being out of touch with the virtual team can mean missing key lessons about how the team forms, coordinates its work, and disbands. Other employees will certainly be less interested in participating in a virtual team if the organization is perceived as looking the other way when it comes to virtual teams (George, 1996). Each of these entities should develop ways of interacting and staying in touch that best fit their own needs. Identifying a liaison, whose duty it is to communicate and stay in touch with the other teams, is one option. Virtual Team Re-entry For the virtual team member who is part of a temporary team, re-entry into the host organization or to another virtual team can be like astronauts re-entering the earth’s atmosphere in a space capsule. When returning to earth after being in orbit for weeks, astronauts face extreme heat, may feel disoriented, and fear that their parachute will not open. Virtual team members face the same conditions and fears when re-entering their own organizations or joining another project team (George, 1996). Re-entry is a double-edged sword. For the organization, speed of re-entry or speed to quickly re-form new project teams is paramount to their competitive edge. Team members, on the other hand, are concerned with making the transition to another meaningful job assignment and receiving credit for contributions to the last assignment (George, 1996). Planning from both the team and the host organization(s) are especially useful in the re-entry phase. Virtual team members need to alert their respective organizations that members are on the verge of re-entry, which helps leaders more effectively plan how to utilize the knowledge and skills gained by the virtual member (George, 1996). Team members can also chronicle lessons learned about forming and work coordination based on the type of work done, customer or supplier organization requirements, etc. Lessons learned compiled in a virtual team handbook or computer database can drastically reduce the ramp up time for entry into a subsequent project teams. Organizations must also design re-entry or rotation schemes that address the re-entry concerns for performance management, compensation, and career development. This allows re-entering employees to better cope with the needs of the virtual organization and not burn up upon re-entry (George, 1996). This is essential for maintaining the employee’s motivation and acceptance toward working in virtual teams. If the employee perceives that negative aspects of working in virtual teams outweigh the benefits, he or she will be less willing to work on a virtual team in the future. Results The results of virtual work teams are as revolutionary as the teams themselves. Clearly, there are special concerns and risks involved with implementing virtual teams but, there are also obvious rewards. When targeted to the right kind of interdependent project and when properly designed, virtual teams can revolutionize the workplace by providing customers with faster, more innovative and previously unheard of business solutions (see Appendix). Also, they create new ways for employees to make outstanding contributions while enhancing their quality of work-life (George, 1996). Appendix Dallas-based Maxus Energy is an oil and gas exploration and production company. The company is operating a contract for Pertamina; the Indonesian government’s oil company, to develop the country’s massive oil resources. In 1985, the two organizations knew that oil production would decline rapidly after the first few years. The complex business dilemma Maxus needed to solve was to find a way to maximize oil and gas production and offset the typical drop in production that occurs after the first few years of oil field operation. This problem could not be solved with business as usual methods. Maxus formed a team of geophysicists, geologists, engineers, and oil drillers whose British, Dutch, Indonesian and American team members had vastly different backgrounds. In addition to their difference in technical background, team members also had diverse values and cultural norms. Americans are usually direct, task-oriented, and loyal to one company, whereas Indonesians tend to be more relationship driven, subtle and indirect, and have multiple loyalties to the company and the government. How did Maxus organize the team? Planning was key. By planning the role of team members and leaders, establishing clear parameters and goals, and by developing team norms around time required for meetings and deadlines for reports, Maxus was able to capitalize on the team’s differences. Maxus Energy’s multi-functional, multi-cultural teams avoided a 15% reduction in oil production and actually added to oil reserves (Solomon, 1995). BIBLIOGRAPHY George, J. A., “Virtual Best Practice,” Teams Magazine, November 1996, pp.38-45. Lake, A. “Flexibility: The Interactive Forum on New Ways of Working.” http://www.flexibility.co.uk [27 October 1997] Lipnack, J. and J. Stamps. Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time, and Organizations with Technology. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1997. Lotus. “Lotus Notes Network.” http://www.lotus.com [10 November 1997] Mohrman, S., Cohen, S., & Mohrman, A., Jr., Designing Team-Based Organizations: New Forms for Knowledge Work. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995. Solomon, C.M., Global Teams: The Ultimate Collaboration, Personnel Journal, 1995. ————————————————————————