Virtual and Geographically Dispersed Teams in Cyberspace
have become a way of life in most corporations. They are one of
the few work arrangements that enable the knowledge and experience
of many to be brought to bear on increasingly complex and difficult
problems. But teams give rise to their own unique problems of joint
decision-making, shared ownership, role clarification, etc., and
not all members are equally skilled or predisposed to work in a
collaborative way. When the challenges of virtual and remote teaming
are added to the inherent organizational struggles over interdependence
and collaboration, new problems are created and, therefore, new
and creative approaches for supporting the work and interaction
of teams become necessary.
complexities and demands of today's marketplace have also set the
stage for teams that are not necessarily co-located. Many factors
have created the increasing need to rely on teams that are not all
in the same office building at the same time, sitting in the same
conference room. These include increased globalization, mergers
and acquisitions, downsizing, decentralization, the cost or shortage
of labor, customer's requirements for fast time-to-market, the increasing
complexity of today's products and product development cycles, and
the proliferation of strategic alliances and partnerships.
trend is further fueled by employees who are increasingly making
lifestyle choices that affect their ability to work in traditional
organizations. The increase in telecommuting, flexible work arrangements,
and dual-career families significantly reduce the amount of overlap
in team members' work day. The inability or reluctance of some employees
to relocate to another city or country to "follow the work" has
created the need to find ways for people to work together who may
not be co-located. Other potential employees are choosing to become
independent consultants and contractors. They join an organization
in a "virtual" way, adding to the complexities of building a team.
of terms are frequently used when referring to teams that are not
co-located or meeting face-to-face. They are Cyber Teams (CTs),
Virtual Teams (VTs), and Geographically Dispersed Teams (GDTs).
Some subtle but important distinctions should be made about these
three types of teams. CTs are any teams that conduct a majority
of their business using electronic media rather than face-to-face
meetings. GDTs are those teams which are not co-located and must
work together to produce one project, product, or outcome. VTs are
more temporary in nature. They are cross-functional, with members
from different departments, divisions, or even companies (in the
case of strategic alliances) and may or may not be geographically
corporations have had remote sites for many years, the difference
now is that people at different locations are increasingly being
asked to work interdependently and to share accountability for a
single product, project, or outcome. The paradox here is that the
needs of the marketplace have increased the need for interdependence
and collaboration, while other market conditions and the personal
needs and desires of the workforce are decreasing the possibilities
of co-location and face-to-face communication. Properly supported
and facilitated VTs and GDTs can be one effective response to this
& Geographically-Dispersed Teams
their book TeamWork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong, Larson
and LaFasto (Sage, 1989) identify eight characteristics of high-performing
teams: (1) a clear, elevating goal; (2) a results-driven structure;
(3) competent members; (4) unified commitment; (5) a collaborative
climate; (6) standards of excellence; (7) external support and recognition;
and (8) principled leadership. There is widespread agreement among
researchers and practitioners that these are the attributes of successful
teams. However, the research that produced these characteristics
was done exclusively with face-to-face teams.
preliminary research on VTs and GDTs done by Kossler and Prestridge
(1996) at the Center for Creative Leadership and Lipnak and Stamps
(1997) suggests that these factors also apply to GDTs, but it is
more difficult for GDTs to develop these attributes than it is for
co-located teams. Although co-located teams also face issues related
to trust, leadership, consensus, decision-making, roles, conflict
management, goals, and schedules, they are intensified in and are
of particular concern when dealing with VTs and GDTs (Kossler &
Prestridge 1996). These issues, in particular, are exacerbated by
distance and the effects of significantly reduced face-to-face and
other informal contact among members.
and Facilitating VTs and GDTs
our work with teams of all types in corporations and as faculty
of The Fielding Institute's master's program in Organization Design
and Effectiveness we have developed a model for how to support and
facilitate the start-up and development of effective VTs and GDTs.
Such teams increasingly rely on various telecommunications media
to enable their work together. Without the widespread availability
of teleconferencing, video conferencing, e-mail, facsimile, voice
mail, and groupware applications, it would be impossible for these
teams to operate. Use of and reliance on these tools as the primary
means of communication among team members gives rise to a new set
of problems. Our approach, therefore, utilizes a combination of
occasional, carefully planned and facilitated face-to-face meetings
and thoughtful, strategic use of technology and telecommunications
face-to-face discussions, a message is conveyed 55% by body language,
38% by tone of voice, and only 7% by actual words. In telephone
conversations, a message is conveyed 87% by tone of voice and 13%
by actual words (Mehrabian & Ferris 1967) . CTs, VTs and GDTs
often rely on other media for access to and communication with each
other, and CTs grapple with the limitation that all they have are
the actual words. That is one reason why we believe that a facilitated
face-to-face start-up meeting is an essential ingredient for the
development of a high-performing CT. Such a start-up meeting should
The creation of a clear set of team agreements. The
team first needs to agree on what they mean by the word "team."
"Different cultures have different ideas as to what constitutes
a good team as well as a good team meeting" (Tower & Sharp 1997).
The team also needs to agree on a definition of time. If members
of the team are in different time zones or even on different continents,
what is the meaning of "Let's all have this done by Tuesday?" In
addition, different culture have different sensibilities about what
"being on time" means. We recommend the creation of Team Standard
Time. It doesn't matter whose time it is as long as everyone on
the team agrees to the same definition. This also adds to the cohesion
of the team. Even though members are located in different places,
they all can relate to Team Standard Time. The team also needs to
agree on what, when, and how information will be shared and on how
team members will respond to it (Kossler & Prestridge 1996).
If all team members are not from the same country, there will need
to be an agreement on what language the team will use for its communications.
Finally, the team need to develop process agreements that address
how they will work together and their rules of engagement.
The development of clearly articulated and agreed-upon
goals. Clear goals are important for all teams, but they are
critical for those who do not see each other frequently. When team
members are clear about what is expected of them, they are more
likely to know how and when to make tradeoffs and how to behave
when they are back at their remote site and don't have other team
members nearby for conversation and clarification. A clear sense
of the work of the team and its outcomes also enables team members
to represent the work of the team to others at team members' various
locations. This helps to mitigate the out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon
often experienced by VTs and GDTs.
The development of a clear set of roles and responsibilities.
"The role is a basic social structure that mediates between
an independent individual and expected behavior in a group.... In
virtual teams with limited face-to-face interaction, roles rise
in importance" (Lipnack & Stamps 1997). Roles and responsibilities
in groups are the basis of and define the essential relationship
among members. In work teams, they are also the basis of interdependencies
and accountabilities. When members have frequent and casual interaction,
points of confusion and misunderstanding can be dealt with in real-time.
But without such contact, the potential for the structure to break
down in the face of ambiguity and time-lags is great, bringing with
it the likelihood of members working in vacuums doing uncoordinated
and possibly competitive work.
The creation of a conflict-resolution process. Because
it is so much harder for people to deal with even minor conflict
when the can't simply "go next door" for clarification, an agreed-upon
conflict-resolution process becomes even more necessary. If this
is not done, "conflicts can get ignored because of the difficulty
of communicating by phone, e-mail, or other technologies. Unresolved
conflicts compound the team's communication and trust problems"
(Kossler & Prestridge 1996). Especially in GDTs, such problems
can (and usually do) snowball and eventually immobilize the team.
Training in the use of electronic tools and applications.
It is helpful for team members to be trained on the use of any
electronic tools and applications that they will be using before
they go to their separate locations and lose the opportunity to
ask questions "real-time." It is easy to assume that expensive tools
are the answer to the problems created when people are linked by
technology rather than proximity. Although electronic tools are
a necessary aid to VTs and GDTs, they also frequently add to the
frustration of team members. Training and help-desk assistance are
essential if the team is to get maximum benefit from any tool they
are using. The training should also address the social psychology
of the use of such media. Team members often assume that communicating
by technology is the same (or easier) than communicating face-to
face. In fact, the potential for misunderstanding and the risk aversion
that results is extraordinary.
summary, the Center for Creative Leadership's research found that
"an important outcome of [a face-to-face start-up] meeting is the
personal rapport that develops between team members. Such rapport
establishes the foundation necessary for working across distances"
(Kossler & Prestridge 1996).
with a co-located team, not all work can or will be done by the
team in team meetings. Individuals or sub-teams are frequently assigned
sub-tasks to complete. With VTs and GDTs, these tasks must be even
more clearly defined than with co-located teams. There is a higher
probability of miscommunication and/or confusion when people are
not in the same room talking to each other. Once the misunderstanding
is identified, there is a higher probability for those on VTs and
GDTs to believe they have been "wronged" by others on the team.
Therefore, it becomes necessary to clearly define the deliverables
and the milestones for any sub-tasks that are delegated. In order
for any project work to be successfully integrated, it is also important
that the interfaces between the sub-teams be identified and defined.
and GDTs require stronger leadership than conventional teams (Lipnack
& Stamps 1997). Teams that are co-located can sit in a conference
room and circle around an issue until they come to some agreement
and consensus. When the team is "meeting" in cyberspace, this process
can become an endless circling that never converges into a consensus.
With electronic communication, there is a tendency for a discussion
to never close when keeping it open is as simple as pressing the
"reply" button on the keyboard. The leader(s) must be willing to
manage the process of bringing the team to closure and consensus.
The leader(s) should ensure full participation of team members and
help to keep the multiple dialogues straight and on task. The heightened
ambiguity of working in dispersion suggests the need for increased
structure, and the formal leader must take the initiative to create
structure and define boundaries. This is not meant to control the
members or constrain initiative or creativity; without a counterbalancing
force to the ambiguity, teams quickly become immobilized. A laissez-faire
approach to CTs clearly does not work.
that are typically completed by members of conventional teams, such
as organizing or coordinating sub-tasks and integrating outputs
of individual work may require the attention of the leader in a
CT, VT, or GDT. This is not necessarily because members don't recognize
the need for such structure or don't know how to manage them under
more conventional circumstances. More likely, it is because of their
lack of familiarity with how to raise issues such as these using
a technically supported forum. If the leader creates the required
structure, which includes identifying the need; recruiting/naming
a person who will be responsible for managing the task or process;
providing the necessary support and coaching; and holding both the
task manager and the other team members accountable for engaging
and reaching closure, team members are less likely to experience
frustration and gridlock.
of Team Members
must be strong commitment from team members both to the goals of
the team and to the effort required to be on a VT or a GDT. The
technology can be frustrating, the work of the team can be complex,
and other demands on team members' time can be intense. If team
members are not deeply committed to the work of the team, it will
be easy to succumb to one of these frustrations and demands. This
is, of course, true for all teams, and the benefit of committed
members is well-proven. Work in dispersion, with its heightened
ambiguity, the need to accommodate time lags and distortion, and
the sense of isolation requires a better-than-average command of
team skills and individual presence.
should be made for periodic face-to-face team meetings. "These meetings
will help maintain and refresh connections among members and minimize
'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' attitudes" (Kossler & Prestridge
1996). These meetings can be used to resolve conflicts that may
be festering between team members, as well as to create opportunities
for team members to come together and celebrate their accomplishments.
and GDTs could not exist without the technological tools that are
available today. A number of the tools are synchronous, requiring
that people be available at the same time even if they are in different
places. Examples of this are telephone, teleconferencing, video
conferencing, and chat rooms.
tools including voice-mail, e-mail, faxes, groupware, and computer-mediated
conferencing (CMC) are asynchronous. CMC is a computer application
that allows people who are not co-located to structure and carry
on a dialogue on a particular topic. Frequently, there are tools
within the application to aid teams with prioritizing and decision-making.
We have found CMC to be an excellent tool for the completion of
project work. The benefits of CMC are that it allows for multiple
conversations to be carried on simultaneously, and it creates a
record of interaction. This type of tool allows for input to be
thought through more thoroughly than might be feasible in a face-to-face
meeting. The limitations of this type of tool are a loss of non-verbal
cues during communication, reduced spontaneity, and the time lag
between postings and replies. Computer-mediated conferencing requires
focused time and effort. Without that, it is easy to get hopelessly
behind. Lisa Kimball (1995) refers to this as the "rolling present."
"People generally consider material current if it has been entered
since they last logged on. If you have several members who sign
on four times a day, they may make it difficult for most group members
to engage with the virtual group; it will all go by too fast ."
Although CMC is not a panacea for VTs and GDTs, we have found it
to be a useful and promising tool for the completion of work that
is interdependent and requires collaboration among members.
current conditions in today's marketplace and the personal and lifestyle
choices being made by today's workforce make CTs, VTs and GDTs a
necessary component of most companies. If properly facilitated and
appropriately supported technologically, they can be an effective
competitive advantage rather than being the source of a new set
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