Non-team-players are better at virtual work. Do you agree with this statement? Are virtual workers rather introverts, avoiding contact with other people? If this is true,
Can virtual teams ever be successful? Let us explore different aspects on what it means to work successfully in a virtual team.

A Definition of Virtual Teams
First we need to define the term “virtual team”: the members of a virtual team are separated by time and/or distance. They work on a common goal and communicate using digital platforms.

Due to this definition there are merely some special circumstances of rather technical nature, that distinguish a virtual team from ordinary team: temporal and spatial separation and the means of communication. Members of such a work group still have to act as a team that pursues a common goal.

However, these technical circumstances impose rather extreme challenges on team work.

A Definition of Ordinary Teams
To dig deeper, let us define an ordinary team as to be the pure contrary of a virtual team, but still being a team. Hence, the members of an ordinary teams work colocated and at the same time. They work on a common goal and communicate directly.

Open-plan Workspaces Are Overrated

This definition might be the root cause for creating open-plan offices or group offices. Do you know those, did you work in one? If yes, be honest: didn’t you buy headphones with noise cancelling? If you didn’t, perhaps your desk-neighbour did so? This might indicate that tearing down some walls, can create a new set of walls.

Walsh in his 2018 Paper “Designing Work: Collaboration Versus Concentration in Open Plan Workspaces studies shows, that up to 60% of open plan workers are dissatisfied with sound privacy and feel regularly disturbed by others while trying to focus. Walsh continues and observes, that cubicles, i.e. half-height walls that divide single desks to give some privacy, do not solve the problem: people begin to communicate by e-mail with their colleagues in the same room. Which technically results in working in a virtual team while sitting in the same open plan office.

Many new approaches in office design are still being developed. Walsh’s paper provides a useful overview. The ideal solution on how to colocate people in order to collaborate efficiently and effectively is still to be found.

However, as we see, colocation does not prevent teams from working in a virtual way.

Working on a virtual team most often is equated with working alone at home. However, this must not be true: the definition of a virtual team – namely working separated by time and space – does not require the team members to be sitting in a lonely room. Many people like to be surrounded by other people, even with headphones on, but having the opportunity for some direct human communication during their individual breaks. Even who never sees his teammates easily can organize a workspace together with others – be it in a group office or in some public co-working space.

Which Work For Virtual Teams?

Let us add another aspect to our considerations: the type of work performed by virtual teams.

No doubt, agriculture and industrial production cannot be done virtually. Even tasks which require to exchange physical semi-finished goods are not best suited for virtual work. Virtual teams usually perform knowledge work. Though the outcome of knowledge work may in the end lead to some physical output, like a house or a new vehicle.

To do knowledge work effectively, we have to focus and concentrate on our tasks. This is an aspect which favors virtual teams, because each of us can create a space for himself, where she can focus on the task at hand. Everybody can choose his personal work rhythm. For some people this is early in the morning, others prefer working evenings or nights.
What about Cyberslacking?

Working whenever and wherever you want? Is that not a heavenly setting? Really?
Or does it favour what we call “cyberslacking”, i.e. doing private stuff during working hours.
This phenomenon is not unique to virtual teams. Cyberslacking is also being observed in ordinary teams. And it gives a bad feeling to team leaders and managers.

Do people really dedicate all their time and attention to the task, they are paid for to work on? It is easier in colocated teams to walk around and check whether the computer screens show work-related stuff.

But even if the latter is the case, how can a controlling leader be sure, that the brain of the person is concentrated on her work? She cannot. Virtual work actually makes it even harder for such a manager. Are the team members really working or do they surf the internet or care their little children at home?

Even teammates may nurture bad feelings, when they suspect that a teammate is doing nothing, leaving the entire work’s weight entirely on their own shoulders?

The Importance of Trust

How must one behave in order to avoid this suspicious situations which may destroy chances to success? It is all about trust!

What builds trust between teammates? Ask your friends, family or colleagues and you will be surprised about the wide variety of answers. They range from: ‘In order to trust a teammate I need to know a person personally’ to ‘In order to trust a teammate the person must deliver good work on time’.

Many scientists are studying this topic for years.

In 1999 Sirkka et al did an exploratory study “Communiction and Trust in Global Virtual Teams and found: “The results suggest that global virtual teams may experience a form of “swift” trust, but such trust appears to be very fragile and temporal.”

Choi et al published in 2019 in their paper: “The mechanism of trust affecting collaboration in virtual teams and the moderating roles of culture of autonomy and task complexity“. They collected data from 483 respondents in South Korea to test their hypotheses. They report: “The results find that coordination and cooperation enhance knowledge sharing and that trust is critical in determining all aspects of collaboration. We find that ability, integrity, and goal congruence as well as system performance and system design are significant in forming trust. The results also indicate that virtual teams with strong autonomy have greater trust and collaboration than those with weak autonomy. Virtual teams carrying out complex tasks exhibit higher trust and collaboration than those working on simple tasks.”

These are only two examples of a wide range of research being done. Both show, that no globally valid recipes for successful virtual team work exist.

Conclusion

There are many ingredients to successful teamwork be it virtual or not. However mutual trust is omnipresent in successful teams.