“Teamwork means losing half of one’s time to explain to the others why they are wrong.”
The last 20 years have seen virtual teams become more and more popular with project-oriented organizations, for reasons which will be presented in this article. But like any team (or group of people for that matter), virtual teams face many problems – some of which derive from the virtual characteristic itself.
First let’s see what a virtual team is. Members of a virtual team are geographically dispersed: located in different regions of the country, of the continent or even “at the other end of the world”. That is why virtual teams exhibit an intense cultural diversity (language, religion, lifestyle, standard of living etc). Members of virtual teams communicate using electronic means of communication (telephone, fax, email etc); they often use specific IT&C tools and technologies: groupware, ERP (Enterprise Resources Planning), DMS (Documents Management Systems) etc. The team will usually have a temporary existence, spanning the project lifecycle. Teams can be very dynamic – in the sense that people join or leave the project as required and/or provided by availability.
Here are some strong points for virtual teams, in order to see why they are becoming a more and more utilized way of working:
- They allow for best practices development and dissemination;
- They allow for connecting “knowledge islands” into distributed knowledge networks for professional communities;
- They support increasing inter-functional and inter-department cooperation;
- They encourage improving the ability to initiate and contribute to projects beyond organizational boarders;
- Team members can work anytime and anywhere, thus overcoming geographical and temporal boundaries;
- Team members can be recruited for their competence alone, eliminating the restriction of location;
- They allow for overcoming physical impairment;
- They reduce and sometimes completely eliminate expenses for travels, rents, parking, building related expenses.
It looks like virtual teams are the ideal solution for project implementation, especially considering the financial benefits of such a team for a company: cutting costs related to traveling, rents etc. Flexibility, dynamic structure, rapid dissemination of information, professional interconnection – these are all good reasons to employ a virtual team for the project. Then were can conflicts arise from?
Sources vary, but they are nevertheless interdependent.
Another source of conflicts is the lack of face-to-face communication. Para-verbal and meta-verbal communication (gestures, mimics, body language, tone of voice) – which are extremely important – are often not a feature of communication within the virtual team, especially when communication is done via email. Such a “limited” type of communication creates misunderstandings, can give rise to interpretation and generates frustration. Relationships tend to be less intense when face-to-face interaction is missing.
Moreover, this means more difficulties for the project manager to deal with his dispersed team. For example, a conversation over the phone in which the manager asks his subordinate: “What’s the situation with problem X?” is interpreted as interrogatory, reproach-like – whereas the intention was to convey interest, and in no way a negative feeling. If the two had talked face to face, it’s very likely that the para-verbal elements would have helped to send across the right message. The solution must encourage face to face meetings as often as possible, using teleconferencing, employing Instant Messenger/Communicator type applications (which allow for a – though superficial – means of expressing feelings through emoticons).
All these elements that influence working relationships have as a primary unwanted effect rendering task-related conflicts (What does the task consist of? How to approach it? What method to use?) into personal conflicts. If task related conflicts can generate ingenious and valuable solutions, effective methods of collaboration, motivation for team members, personal conflicts however only cause tensions, frustrations, distrust – all of which are hindrances for project advancement.
The project manager has a determining role in mediating and resolving conflicts: people expect fair, impartial and constructive solutions. In organizations that have guidelines for approaching conflicts the project manager’s job is significantly easier, but it is still his responsibility to put these into practice. Since virtual teams are becoming the basic model (especially in multinationals), solutions should encourage intercultural acceptance, tolerance and understanding. Furthermore communication should be a key feature, particularly face to face interaction, which can facilitate and enhance relationships needed in all working environments.