Spotlight on Virtual Teams – What Makes Them Work?
By Susan Parente, PMP, PMI-RMP, PMI-ACP, PSM I, CSM, CSPO, CISSP, CRISC, RESILIA, ITIL, GCLP, MSEM
In MBA programs, we often learn methods and techniques for efficient and effective project management. But how do we use these methods when our team is not co-located? In our current age of social networking and global businesses, knowing how to work with virtual teams is becoming a requirement.
If we think about it, we have all worked with a virtual team: professionally, through volunteering, in our communities, or on a personal project. So, how can we use the project management methodologies in our toolbox to support high performing virtual teams?
A virtual team is defined as a group of individuals who work exclusively by using communication technologies to interact with one another while in different areas, and often, different time zones.
What are some of the benefits of virtual teams?
- Ability to work asynchronously, from anywhere
- The team can consist of the best of the best (best personnel resources by skill, not limited by location)
- Reduced expenses and increased productivity
Virtual Collaboration in the Office
You may have worked on a team that was defined as virtual, but have you considered that your current team may be working virtually, even if you are in an office?
What we may not realize it that some of our company office work already requires virtual collaboration. In this 24/7 global environment, which includes working with vendors or supplies from around the world, working after hours, working while on business or personal travel, we email and share documents even with the person who sits next to us – for example, on SharePoint or another document management system. Not to mention phone calls and conference calls, which are both very common forms of virtual communication. Knowledge of virtual teams has become a necessity for project management success.
Even when team members are a few cubicles away, we may find it easier to talk via phone. When team members are in sales or consulting services and frequently meeting with clients, they will primarily communicate via phone or email. How about work we do after hours, on weekends, and while traveling? As well as if we are working with our project team, we are working in a virtual team environment.
The Shift to Virtual Work
What has caused this shift to virtual work? Firstly, the focus on knowledge and information, which has resulted in the proliferation of electronic devices. The internet and social media create an environment which is multicultural, distributed, and asynchronous. Having no boundaries also allows teams and organizations to obtain the most skilled and experienced team members.
Virtual teams also support efficient progress, allowing global teams to work on a project 24 hours a day. As each area ends its day, they can pass their work on to the next set of team members, who have just started their day, in a relay race fashion. Our global economy has also brought businesses to broad locations, which helps businesses’ desire to expand from where their offices are located and include the world in their potential market. If clients or customers can be geographically displaced, why not our teams and organizations? An even better question is, if our environment has transformed so greatly, would it not make sense that we transform ourselves to continue to be effective as project managers and team members?
Benefits to Organizations and Team Members
There is no denying that virtual teams provide a cost savings for organizations. Cost benefits may include reduced travel time (daily commuting and overnight travel) and reduced office space costs (including the reduction in time to set up a new office or company headquarters, to support employees in a particular region). Teleworkers also often pay for their own utilities and office spaces.
There are added benefits to team members, as well, including improved work-life balance and flexibility which has a positive effect on team members’ morale and productivity. This is especially true for employees who have traditionally traveled to work with clients, vendors, or team members (those called “road warriors”).
Virtual meetings also increase communication. Teams don’t need to wait until they have a scheduled off-site meeting or long business trip to communicate effectively, and scheduling is simplified with shorter meetings. One thing to consider is that face-to-face techniques of working with others may no longer be effective when applied in a virtual environment.
Striking a Balance
Yes, there are a number of technologies to support virtual teams and organizations, but how can we use these tools effectively, striking a balance with the project management and people management tools we have used over the years to work collaboratively?
Trust and team leadership are important foundations for building successful virtual teams. The dynamics and tools for virtual teams are not the same as with co-located teams, so simply using these tools without considering new ways of working together will not result in the team performance we expect.
Some say that virtual team will never be as effective as co-located teams. Perhaps it is a matter of using different strategies to support virtual teams. There are certainly a number of successful virtual teams who have completed extensive work in short periods of time, which would otherwise not be possible due to resource constraints if the team members were co-located. Virtual teams can be far more dynamic than traditional teams and have fewer resource constraints than their counterparts.
About the Author
Susan Parente is a project engineer, consultant, speaker, author, and mentor who leads large complex IT software implementation projects and the establishment of Enterprise PMOs. An IIL Trainer and Consultant, Mrs. Parente is also an Adjunct Professor at Post University, Montclair State University, and the University of Virginia, and a principal consultant at S3 Technologies, LLC. She has 20+ years of experience leading software and business development projects in the private and public sectors, including a decade of experience implementing IT projects for the DoD. Mrs. Parente has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Rochester and a MS in Engineering Management from George Washington University.