Despite much discussion on the subject, a single clear and concise definition of just what a virtual team is does not really exist. Some will use the term to describe any situation where one or more team member is working remotely to the balance of the workforce, others will use it only to describe specific situations such as large and complex organisational structures where teams of personnel work remote to each other. Then just to confuse matters the terms ‘work share’ and ‘distributed team’ also appear from time to time. In an earlier article I discussed the differences between virtual team and work share, and realistically distributed teams and virtual teams are interchangeable terms, both describing essentially the same form of work practice.
There are many varied understandings and concepts of a virtual team, ranging from a organisational structure where one person works remote to the rest of the team through structures where groups work remotely to one where a large number of individuals all work separate from each other. There are also different durations of participating in the team, ranging from short term membership where one or more persons join a virtual team from a matter of a few days to those where everyone is permanently part of the distributed group.
Forms of virtual teams
With the broad possibilities of form of a virtual team it is worth considering the different structures they can take to better understand the challenges and benefits each brings.
- Individuals working remote from each other – Though less common than some of the other forms of virtual teams described below, there are many different situations where single individuals work collaboratively while not meeting face to face to perform their work. Typical among these are organisations with a representative in each city or state with responsibility for the operations or marketing, and some research structures where individuals will work in their home research organisation on collaborative projects without actually meeting to work.
- Large co-located teams with individuals working remotely – This form of team is quite common, where a technical specialist or a support person is not located with the rest of the group. The specialist may be separate because they are needed in their base location or because they are not needed as part of the main team for any number of operational reasons, typically those located remote to the team will be assigned specific tasks and a clear point of interface, will undertake their assigned work and deliver their outcomes to the main team. In many instances the remote team members may be known to some members of the core team and will have previous professional relationships with them which can make the separation easier to manage but where this is not the case, specific vigilance is important to ensure the remote team members are included in group discussions and information sharing.
- Several teams working separately from each other – This form of virtual team is found in organisations and projects where specific skills are found are available in clusters, such as several design centres working collaboratively on a project. Typically the teams will be brought together for the project with each assigned a series of tasks and an area of the project to work in. Coordinating these teams falls to a number of key interface managers and an overall team or project manager and the teams will collaborate until one or all finish their assigned work then they will disperse.
Duration of Virtual Teams
Virtual teams can be either a short term temporary structure or a long term and permanent part of an organisation.
- Short term virtual teams – This is a very common form of virtual team, one where the team is assembled to undertake a specific project or task lasting between days and a couple of years, after which the team will disband and the team members move on to other work. It can be quite common, particularly in small and very short duration virtual teams for some or all of the team members to assigned to multiple projects concurrently.
- Long term virtual teams – Long term virtual teams occur in organisations where there is a continuing need to work globally as part of their day to day business, there are many different instances of this occurring, ranging from airlines and global businesses to research organisations and manufacturers where their operations span the globe and there is a continuous need for personnel to interact.
So, just what is a Virtual Team
As can be seen fro the above discussion the definition of a virtual team is made complex by the range and forms these teams can take, essentially all of the variations described are virtual in that the team members do not work together in close physical proximity but instead work at distance. Consequently, it is difficult to develop a single set of guidelines for how a virtual team should function or how to train people to work as part of them, every case is different and every different virtual team will have its own specific challenges. A virtual team is any team where some of its members work remote to the balance of their colleagues as part of their normal working role.
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations establish and run high performing virtual teams, we combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can asset your business.
Please enter your details below to subscribe to our newsletter.