The Power of Virtual Teams

“Today’s financial woes have forced many companies to pick members of project teams from across various global locations and have them communicate virtually — by phone, e-mail and videoconference — thereby saving both time and money” (Meyer, 2010, Forbes). This bold statement from Mayer is stating the rapid growth of virtual teams conceived to reduce cost, bring new ideas or have continual production twenty-four seven around the world. In this essay I will review what virtual teams consist of in the always growing technology industry. Moreover, I will discuss arguments in favor and against virtual teams. Finally, I will review how can I use this research and implement it into my daily activities at the company I work for — Esri, which consist of some virtual teams.

What are virtual teams?

A virtual team (also known as a geographically dispersed team, distributed team, or remote team) is a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology. For example, at Esri we have a team of designers, developers and product engineers which reside across US with some of the team members working in Redlands, California and some in Portland, Maine. Our main form of communication is e-mail, instant messaging platform called Slack, phone and virtual conferences. According to Ferrazzi, “The appeal of forming virtual teams is clear. Employees can manage their work and personal lives more flexibly, and they have the opportunity to interact with colleagues around the world. Companies can use the best and lowest-cost global talent and significantly reduce their real estate costs” (Ferrazzi, 2014, Harvard Business Review). I see flexibility of virtual teams as a large benefit for both organizations as well as employees. Employees can see an increase in work satisfaction because of flexible work schedule. Organizations can observe lower costs which are an attributing factor for virtual teams. Reducing office space will in turn avoid leasing a building to fill employees with, which will reduce cost, affect the bottom line and allow the organization to allocate those funds towards hiring more employees or purchasing other assets. The key component of virtual teams is communication. If there is a minimal error or misalignment — it may cost the organization a large sum or money from misallocated use of time and resources.

Arguments in favor of virtual teams

“We’ve found that successful virtual team players all have a few things in common: good communication skills, high emotional intelligence, an ability to work independently, and the resilience to recover from the snafus that inevitably arise” (Ferrazzi, Harvard Business Review). The components motioned my Ferrazzi are critical to effective virtual teams. Successful proper use of virtual teams can return high dividends for organizations. Some of arguments in favor of virtual teams would be: Quick turnaround of projects, robust and creative ideas cause of multicultural teams and reduction in total cost due to outsourcing certain roles.

For a software company having developers in the United States, China, and London will fill all the gaps of development time. Therefore, the U.S. team will start developing a portion of an application, once they clock out — the London team can take over, then the China team. This will maximize the development time of the application causing a quick turnaround on projects and building software, while using the overlap time to communicate the work done and being passed on from one team to another. This will allow all teams to contribute to an application cycling through work and the development process.

Organizations will hire and retain individuals who can make a big difference in an organization and who can bring unique and valuable experiences. Chand from yourarticlelibrary.com states, “Virtual teams allow firms to expand their potential labour markets enabling them to hire and retain the best people regardless of their physical locations” (Chad, yourarticlelibrary.com). Based on Chad’s statement, organizations can hire the best minds no matter where they are. From my experience working at Esri — one of the largest privately owned internet software companies — it is difficult to attract talented professionals from across the world to relocate to Redlands, CA. On the other hand, creating a virtual team eliminates this problem entirely by allowing the company to hire individuals from all over the globe without the need of relocation. There is then one centralized location to work, the world wide web.

“Companies can use the best and lowest-cost global talent and significantly reduce their real estate costs” (Ferrazzi, Harvard Business Review). Virtual teams do not require buildings or offices, which is one of the most expensive aspects of operating a business. Moreover, organizations can hire extremely talented individuals from other countries often for half the salary of U.S. employees. Ferrazzi continues by emphasizing the effectiveness of virtual teams, “A 2009 study of 80 global software teams by authors from BCG and WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management indicates that well-managed dispersed teams can actually outperform those that share office space” (Ferrazzi, Harvard Business Review). The key concept of Ferrazzi’s article is the importance of effectively managing virtual teams. Successful management of virtual teams can bring great profit to organizations.

Arguments against virtual teams

Human interaction is critical to the development of people and ideas. Comradery brings teams closer together, enabling vulnerable trust and understanding. This is an aspect that virtual teams lack to truly embrace the power of team work. “Virtual teams lack the informal, everyday conversations that co-located employees take for granted — sharing information at the water cooler, solving problems on the coffee run” (Bailey, Forbes). This type of interaction is something I see as critical to innovation within teams, which is something that lacks in virtual teams. Though different cultural differences bring different forms of problem solving abilities to a team, they also come with negative outcomes if not addressed properly. For example, cultural differences in communication and what is recognized as offensive or rude: “Miscommunication is rife in virtual teams; even more so when the team spans cultures. A message that seems succinct to a team member in Tel Aviv comes across rude to an employee in Washington, while the American’s would-be polite message (‘thank you in advance…’) seems insipid to their Israeli counterpart.” (Bailey, Forbes). Leaders of virtual teams should be aware of all team members culture and identify cultural differences as well as possible issues with communication. Addressing cultural differences in communication is critical to maximizing team performance. Understanding of the team’s culture should be done prior to working on tasks to spot cultural differences within the team.

How I would use virtual teams

As the technology industry continues to evolve, virtual teams will become an even more critical component to organization’s success. “In a geographically distributed team, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability” (Meyer, Forbes). One of the features of virtual teams that I will implement at work is trust and reliability. One of the training courses I participated at Esri — Inspiring Trust — had a tremendous impact on the virtual teams I’m currently working with. It allowed me to clarify objectives, show integrity and intent, which conceives trust and shows my commitment to the team’s goals. The main principle I obtained from my training was: if there is trust within the the team, then everyone can function more consistently and effectively.

Another useful benefits of having virtual teams addressed in the articles was effective collaboration on projects and reducing costs. These principle of reducing cost (real estate & buildings) happens naturally in virtual teams in different time zones. What I can continue to apply is the principle of effective communication within virtual teams. The more effective the communication, the more precise and effective the team can be in completing objectives. Communication is one of the core and key concepts I learned from my research, which will yield immensely positive and effective results. “Teams’ communication and work reports are available online to facilitate swift responses to the demands of the (global) market.” (Chand, yourarticlelibrary.com). From Chand’s claims, virtual reports and communication work as a very effective way to quickly react and adapt to market changes or conditions with little to no lag time. Something as simple as an instant message, which is delivered instantly to teammates. This quick communication acts as an optimal tool for virtual team performance maximization.

Summary

Overall, virtual teams will continue to be a vital source or production in the software industry. I’ve had great experiences working in virtual teams and a few bad ones. These articles helped me further my knowledge in ways to maintain and sustain virtual teams and for them to remain effective and efficient. In this essay I’ve reviewed what virtual teams are and how they affect many software developers working across continents. Next I reviewed some of the pros and cons of virtual teams and how they can affect the moral, satisfaction and effectiveness of teams. Finally, I discussed some of my experiences with virtual teams. Moreover, how I can implement my research into virtual teams that I work with now and virtual teams that I’ll work with in the future.

References:

Bailey, Sebastian (2013). How To Beat The Five Killers Of Virtual Working. Forbes. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/sebastianbailey/2013/03/05/how-to-overcome-the-five-major-disadvantages-of-virtual-working/#721d0c0353d7

Chand, Smriti. Virtual Organisation: Advantages, Disadvantages and Features. yourarticlelibrary.com. Retrieved from: http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/organization/virtual organisation-advantages-disadvantages-and-features/35535/

Ferrazzi, Keith (2014). Getting Virtual Teams Right. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2014/12/getting-virtual-teams-right

Meyer, Erin (2010). The Four Keys To Success With Virtual Teams. Forbes. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/2010/08/19/virtual-teams-meetings-leadership managing-cooperation.html


Originally published at The Business of Design.