Virtual project teams have become increasingly important, and they deliver many benefits to organization. However, there are difficulties associated with virtual project teams that managers need to be aware of. These revolve around communication issues, including trust, information flow, communication styles and sociological issues such as personal culture and the political nature of communication. It is recommended that managers develop a keen understanding of the differences between virtual team communication and conventional business communication. In addition, managers need to be clearer with respect to responsibilities, time frames, types of information that should flow and other aspects of team management. In general, virtual team management needs to be more regimented than conventional team management in order to be effective and deliver to the organization the benefits that virtual project teams promise.
The information superhighway has allowed for the emergence of virtual project teams as a viable means of bringing together the knowledge and experience within an organization. That projects no longer need to be completed by people working at the same site results in new opportunities for organizations, but the rise of virtual project teams also presents some challenges as well. This paper will outline the nature of virtual project teams, the opportunities and challenges associated with this new form of workplace collaboration and will attempt to outline some of the best practices associated with virtual project teams.
A traditional project team was a group of people that had been brought together physically to work on a project. A virtual project team performs the same function, but without being brought together physically (Bryce, 2006). Communication technology such as email, online chatting, video chat and other electronic communication methods are used to facilitate communication among team members. As the Internet has facilitated the rapid transmission of complex documents, the use of virtual project teams has exploded. The primary difference between a virtual project team and a conventional project team, therefore, rests with the differences in the methods of communication that are used.
The major issues with respect to the implementation of virtual project teams, therefore, revolve around issues of communication and trust. Communication styles and forms function differently in a virtual environment than they do in person. Non-verbal communication in particular is often missing from the virtual project team. In addition, managerial oversight of virtual project teams is made more difficult by the barriers to communication that are inherent in virtual project teams.
The benefits of virtual project teams are clear. Virtual project teams lower the costs of putting together a team; they allow talented people who would be otherwise unwilling to relocate to work with one another; they allow for certain functions to be offshored, and VPTs allow for a greater range of expertise to be introduced to the project. Virtual project teams are often considered to be more responsive as well, since information travels faster than people do (Bergiel, Bergiel & Balsmeier, 2008).
Jarvenpaa & Leidner (1998) identify communication and trust as central issues that arise with the increased use of virtual project teams. Teams interacting primarily through electronic means often do not communicate as often, and at times they do not communicate as clearly as they would if they were working in person. It is argued that the sociology of organizations is not congruous with virtual project teams. Interpersonal interaction takes different forms; as most organizations are designed around in-person interaction, virtual interaction is not as neatly compatible.
Chen, Yuh and Hui (2008) elaborate that trust is a central issue. Trust, they argue, is something that humans inherently have more of in their dealings with one another when those dealings are conducted in person. In a virtual project team, it is therefore more difficult for team members to build trust with another. Trust is essential for virtual project teams because it facilitates better sharing of information, stronger collaboration and more efficient use of resources. For virtual project teams to succeed, a climate of trust must be created by management among the different members of the team. This presents a challenge because the channels through which communication flows are not as well-developed as in person. In addition, the challenges are greater -- the virtual project team may involve actors with multiple competing interests, different corporate and personal cultures and other elements that increase in intensity as the result of increased geographic diversification of team members.
In addition to the problem of personnel management, the flow of information also needs to be managed within the virtual team. This is especially important when members are in different time zones, as there could be a situation where the project is in a state of constant progression, and the team members would need to be kept aware of this state. Information technology is what facilitates virtual project teams in the first place, but the precise nature of the technology used, in addition to the timing and volume of information flows, is a critical issue for management of virtual project teams. Workers must still be able to get the information that they need, when they need it. How the information is archived and recalled on demand is an essential component to building an effective virtual project team (HBS, 2001).
More complex issues relating to virtual project teams include the softer issues associated with the maintenance of corporate culture and the methods of addressing the political nature of the organization. The concept of the organization as a political entity, governed by the interactions among it members, highlights the challenges associated with a virtual project team. Political interactions change in nature when the means of communication change -- many rely on direct personal communication. As a result, the way in which the political nature of the organization functions is subject to change as the result of the team being virtual in nature.
For the managers of virtual project teams, oversight is another key issue. This relates to the issue of trust in that the manager must find ways to trust the team members without having direct physical access to them. Clear delineations of responsibility are required for virtual project teams to function effectively, but management must also take care to develop more formal means of evaluation of team members and enforcement of quality and responsibility standards. Again, this issue dovetails with issues of corporate culture and intercultural communication, increasing the risk of miscommunication and other such challenges for the manager.
Recommendations and Summary
Bryce (2006) provides a useful starting point for effective management of virtual project teams. His tips including the identification of team members; it is easy in a team environment to include other people without telling the team manager and it is easy in larger teams for the team manager to forget about some team members. Bryce also recommends defining standard methods, techniques and tools. It is important that communication and information flow be conducted in a consistent manner, so that all data is moved to all people in accordance with expectations. The risk of miscommunication is lowered considerably when there are clear standards governing what needs to be communicated, by what means and when. Bryce also recommends establishing standard and routine reporting cycles. This will keep the flow of information between team members and to team management both consistent in form and regular in interval. This will aid management in understanding the status of the project and the responsibilities that the team members have.
What is noteworthy is that managing virtual project teams is in many ways no different that managing any other team. The difficulty lies in the ability of managers to understand that the means by which these tasks are performed will be different in a virtual project team. In addition, managers need to be clear that the most important difference between conventional project teams and virtual project teams lies…