Organizational Behaviour is the study of the structure and management of organizations, their environments, and the actions and interactions of their members (Huczynski and Buchanan, 2013). This essay is majorly based on the article, ‘Virtual Teams: What Do We Know and Where Do We Go From Here?’ by Luis L. Martins, Lucy L. Gilson and M. Travis Maynard from the Journal of Management, 2004. It covers the topics of a virtual work team, goal setting, leadership, conflicts as well as motivation.
Why this article?
The Wall Street Journal reports that more than 50% companies with more than 5000 employees use virtual teams today.
What is a Virtual Team?
Due to the increasing de-centralization and globalization of work processes, many organizations have responded to their volatile environments by introducing virtual teams, in which members are geographically dispersed and coordinate their work predominantly with electronic information and communication technologies (Hertel, Geister & Konradt, 2005). A virtual team is an example of a boundary-less network organization from where a temporary team is assembled on an as-needed basis for the duration of a task (Jarvenpaa, Knoll & Leidner, 1998).
Advantages of Virtual Teams
Knowledge, skills, and abilities
One of the strategic reasons for virtual teams is to combine core competencies of specialists from different locations. In these cases, the main selection criteria for virtual team members are their professional/technical KSAs (knowledge, skills, abilities) and expertise (Hertel, Geister & Konradt, 2005). As a virtual employee can easily serve on multiple teams, geographic location is no longer a criterion for team membership (Bergiel, Bergiel & Balsmeier, 2008). Such flexibility allows an organization to maximize its human resources by allowing skilled team members to serve several tasks at a time.
The significant expenses associated with accommodation, travel and various daily allowances may be reduced and even eliminated as virtual teams communicate via technology (Bergiel, Bergiel & Balsmeier, 2008). Virtual teams enable organizations to obtain a vast geographic reach while maintaining an effective contact with employees and consumers. For example, the director of workplace solutions for IBM estimates a $50 million saving in travel and downtime costs using virtual teams.
Virtual teams generally use computer-mediated asynchronous communication (CMAC). CMAC allows multiple threads or concurrent themes of conversation to occur from multiple contributors all at the same time, instead of being restricted to turn-taking like in face-to-face communication and hence overcomes the production-blocking problem and does not interrupt their train of thought. Virtual team communication tends to be more task-oriented than face-to-face teams.
Interdependency in Tasks
Creating task interdependence as a structural management practice related to task design mainly affects team effectiveness due to team members’ perceptions of the instrumentality of own contributions (Hertel, Konradt, Orlikwski, 2004). Task type is critical to the success and speed with which virtual teams make decisions. This can be seen by creating a task structure in which team members work closely with each other, coordinate their activities in a way where one member accomplishes her or his task has strong implications on the work process of other team members.
Goal-setting and Motivation
Geographical and cultural diversity makes the goals setting very critical for virtual teams. Hence, the team’s goals effectively become a uniting force, which incorporates the organization’s strategy, objectives, and needs of team members. According to Locke’s Goal setting theory; Locke and Latham provide a highly developed goal-setting theory of motivation. The theory emphasizes the relationship between goals and performance. The motivational impact of goals can be affected by ability and self-efficacy.
Cohesiveness has been associated with greater satisfaction; highly cohesive groups, regardless of communication media, were able to exchange information more effectively (Chidambaram, 1996) which was found to positively impact team effectiveness for dispersed student teams working to generate case solutions.
Challenges faced Virtual Teams in Organizations
Leadership is a central challenge as all kinds of direct control are difficult due to geographical diversity (Hertel, Geister & Konradt, 2005). Bowditch and Buono (2001) explain that while team leaders are skilled in dealing with interactions at same time/same place, they generally lack the experience and expertise to guide and facilitate interactions in virtual teams (Huczynski and Buchanan, 2013).
Researchers suggest that trust is important in virtual teams. Yet, it is one of the biggest challenges faced by virtual teams. Misunderstandings and fear of exploitation can escalate more quickly in virtual teams s due to reduced face-to-face interactions (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). For example, Orange, the mobile communications branch of France Telecom, is a fast-moving business in a dynamic, unpredictable and competitive market. At Orange, low levels of trust among the virtual team members were identified at the lowest ranks.
Conflicts occur due to misunderstandings and reduced communication and physical contact. Moreover, timely detection of conflicts is difficult in virtual teams due to the reduced co-presence of team members (Martins, Gilson & Maynard, 2004). Hence, there is a need for guidance on conflict resolution and management in virtual teams (Hertel, Geister & Konradt, 2005). The diversified cultural patterns of members also trigger conflicts in the decision-making process in virtual teams.
Virtual Teams are an inevitable part of organizations today because of the increase in growth of companies and their global reach. The essay reflects the challenges as well as advantages of having virtual teams within organizations and hence reflected certain general managerial principles to follow while managing virtual teams:
as stated by (Hertel, Geister & Konradt, 2005):
A strong need for clarified team goals and team roles that are not in conflict with commitments to other work units.
– Careful implementation of efficient communication and collaboration processes that prevent misunderstandings and conflict escalation due to reduced communication cues,
– Creating experiences of interdependence within the team to compensate for feelings of disconnectedness, for instance via goal setting, task design, or team-based incentives.
Developing appropriate ‘kick-off’ workshops and team training concepts to prepare and support the teams for the specific challenges of virtual teamwork.
Nonetheless, the research on virtual teams in the article referred is still at an amateur stage. It shows a lot of scope and promise for further research as it’s rare to see an organization without virtual teams today. Instead of just comparing it to face-to-face teams, there can be an in-depth research on each of its attribute individually through various theories and journals which have been utilized in prior research on teams, as well as on new theoretical bases that are uniquely relevant to virtual interaction, to develop a more theoretically grounded understanding of the functioning of virtual teams.