Building Virtual Teams

Virtual  Teams and Global Teams: What’s the Difference?

Virtual teams or geographically dispersed teams (GDT) share commonalities with their global cousins, but there are also some significant differences that can affect the success of the team.

Similarities between the teams:
When setting up virtual teams, there are some things both domestic and global teams need to be successful.
Pick the right people: go for diversity in specializations, but remember that virtual team members will have multiple reporting lines. Virtual team members must be open to new experiences.

  • Choose the right technology: it’s critical to recognize that work is done by people, not technology. Virtual teams are managed by people and mediated by technology, not the other way around.
  • Start the team off right: define the team’s purpose and vision, set specific processes for common understanding, and begin by building relationships before jumping into tasks. The team will need clear goals for work and productivity. Although a facilitator could be used to further these objectives, it’s important to train the team for self-facilitation for success in the long-run (Briggs, 2009).
  • Gain commitment: make sure all team members understand their roles and responsibilities. It’s important that when virtual teams work together, there is a sense of presence. Maybe using photos for the people who are online, or some video and/or audio communication. Another important factor is to ensure to align reward systems (Briggs, 2009) to the new method of work. Consider a combination of team and individual rewards for goals met.
  • Develop a rhythm of communication: the expectations of when and where to communicate provide some predictability in an otherwise unpredictable project. Communication also the primary way to build trust in virtual teams, an often difficult objective.

Developing trust is difficult when you don’t know your team mates, haven’t met them, and don’t actually see them work. Managing global teams adds another layer of complexity.

How global teams differ:
Symons and Stenzel (2007) in their article “Virtually Borderless: an examination of culture in virtual teaming” for the Journal of General Management identifies incremental challenges that global teams face.

  • Technology: considering global teams must rely on technology to mediate tasks, it’s important to be aware of the differences in technological connectivity and infrastructure in other countries. Note also that highly relationship oriented cultures (vs. task oriented like the U.S.) might first resist the use of technology to work across borders. This difference does reinforce the need to pick the right person. Even in relationship oriented cultures there may still be people that would jump at the opportunity.
  • How leadership is expressed: this factor varies among cultures as well. Cross cultural conflicts are inevitable on global teams, making the leaders, or facilitator’s ability to value diversity and show cultural competence a must on global teams. Although some leadership behaviors, like “dynamism, decisiveness, and honesty” (Stenzel, 2007, pg. 4) are common to most cultures, some attributes, like “ambition, formality, risk-taking and self-effacement are valued in some cultures but not others (Stenzel, 2007, pg. 4). The role in leadership for building trust is pivotal, so not adapting to these difference could cause team failure.
  • Intercultural Competence: when working on global teams it’s important to note that national and functional cultures are stronger than organizational cultures, however, corporate culture can predispose team members to work better cross-culturally, and therefore, place a big part in the success of global teams. It’s critical that all team members understand the dimensions of cultural difference so they are armed with strategies and self-awareness techniques to resolve intercultural conflicts.

As a final thought on what it takes to be successful in global teams, I’d like to leave you with this list from Mary Jane Westerlund (2008), a global team leader. Global team members need nine essential qualities (pg. 35):
1. Adaptation skills
2. Attitude of modesty and respect
3. Understanding of the concept of culture
4. Knowledge of the host country or other cultures
5. Relationship building
6. Self-knowledge and awareness
7. Intercultural communication
8. Organizational skills
9. Personal and professional commitment
These qualities enable team development in any realm, but definitely in global teams and team development plays a critical role in the success of virtual teams both domestically and globally.

Briggs, R. N. (2009). Principles for effective virtual teamwork. Communications of the ACM , 52 (4), 113-117.

Stenzel, C. a. (2007). Virtually borderless: an examination of culture in virtual teaming. Journal of General  Management , 32 (3), 1-17.
Westerlund, M. (2008). Superperformance in a remote global team. Process Improvement , 47 (5), 32-37.