Raise your hand, if you never worked in a virtual team!

Which one is your category?

  1. Decided hand raising – you never worked in a virtual team.
  2. Hesitating? Is my team a virtual team?
  3. No hand raising – you already worked in a virtual team.

Let us first define the term “virtual team”: the members of a virtual team are separated by time or distance. They work on a common goal and communicate using digital platforms.

As Bataresh and Usher State in their Paper, that a report in 2011 from analysts from Gartner inc, projected that by 2015, about 75% of knowledge-based project work will be completed by distributed virtual teams.

There are many more reports and surveys of the kind, i.e. in Harvard Business Review, Ferrazzi  stated in 2014, that in a survey 79% of 1700 knowledge workers reported working always and frequently in dispersed teams.

Some time passed since these statements were made and I am sure, that the numbers are still valid or have even increased.

If you already worked in a virtual team, then you are most probably a “knowledge worker”, hence your main working tool is your knowledge, and your most frequently used touchable tool is your computer which is connected to the internet.

As “social animals” human beings are most effective when working in groups and teams. In the stone age men and women assembled their forces and hunted mammoths in groups. And they collected berries in groups protecting themselves against the forces of the saber-toothed tigers. Communication in these groups has first been non-verbal. Language evolved later and is a result of living and surviving in groups. Thanks to this social habits mankind survived and arrived to the present day.

Long gone mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. Today’s challenges differ in unlimited ways. But social habits still are deeply encoded in human DNA. The fact, that so many groups of people work together without benefiting from non-verbal communication is quite new.

Even though deeply encoded in human DNA, teamwork is prone to frictions and conflicts: Rivalry, self-fulfillment and egoism are equally deeply encoded in the human DNA.

Hence – organizing teams to work effectively together is not easy a task – may be, it has never been a task for one person to fulfill, but rather an emergent pattern in groups of people with a common goal.

When facing the decision whether to work in or to rely on a collocated team or rather a distributed and hence virtual team, people need to ponder the following trade-offs:

  • Personal liberty and self-fulfillment versus no personal contacts
  • Team cohesion versus technical hurdles
  • Frictions through cultural differences versus power through diversity
  • Overall control versus highly motivated and specialized people
  • Less travel expenses versus higher expenses for acceptable communication technology

All these elements are interrelated and might be seen as cause-and-effect pairs rather than trade-offs as visualized here:

The next articles in this series will enter more in detail into these trade-offs and show how these are enforced in virtual teams.

Fact is: Working on virtual teams is not for everybody and leading a virtual team is a big challenge.