Virtual Teams The Challenges And Solutions

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This paper explores the in-depth characteristics of virtual teams and the negative attributes along with its solutions of virtual teams based on geographical dispersion, communication technology, diversity, and structural dynamism measures. Additionally, this paper explores the challenges of creating and maintain trust in global virtual teams whose members transcend time, space, and culture. The challenges and solutions are highlighted by integrating recent literature on virtual team’s effectiveness to manage trust. The results suggest that global virtual teams may experience a form of “swift” trust initially, but the trust is characterized as delicate and temporal among team members.

Definition of Virtual Teams

Many researchers and authors define virtual teams differently as virtual teams are related to a number of different types of groups. Kimble (2010) explains that virtual teams can refer to “team membership, such as sales or project teams, or members drawn from the same organization or from several different organizations” (p. 7). Specifically, members from the same organization or different can include consultants or external assessors. Kimble (2010) also states that virtual teams can refer “team members working in close proximity (e.g., in same building) or geographically distantly (e.g., in different countries), or team members may work at the same or different times (e.g., depending on whether the team members are in the same time zone” (p. 7). Additionally, virtual teams are defined as “affiliated individuals using computer-mediated telecommunications to share information electronically” (Kirkman, Rosen, Tesluk, & Gibson as cited in Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009, p. 54).

Characteristics of Virtual Teams

According to Schlenkrich and Upfold (2009), virtual teams have unique characteristics that are different than traditional teams. First and foremost, team members are usually physically dispersed and time boundaries are crossed and generally have two to twenty-five members (Kimble, 2010). In addition, some form of communication technology is involved whether it is the Internet, computer software or mobile device. However, some researchers show that it is relatively uncommon for virtual teams to only “meet” together through means of technology whether it is through the Internet, computer, or mobile devices (Kimble, 2010, p. 7). Kimble (2010) claims that it is a far more common situation is for virtual teams to meet face-to-face where most virtual teams conduct business in multiple scenarios. Moreover, some form of diversity is present in virtual teams whether it is “cultural diversity (in the form of national or linguistic diversity), organizational diversity (hierarchical versus flat or egalitarian culture), age diversity, gender diversity, and functional diversity (differences in education and experience)” (Schlenkrich & Upfold, 2009, p. 110). Furthermore, structural dynamism exists in virtual teams where functional boundaries cross and teams form and reform in a continuous cycle (Schlenkrich & Upfold, 2009). Virtual team members can also be a part of multiple teams and add different perspectives and skills to the team as a whole. For example, one member of a virtual team might serve on both the Project Management Team and Sales Team.

Modes of Interaction in Virtual Teams

Studies have depicted two main modes of interaction in virtual teams including “hot” virtual working and “cold” virtual working (Sivunen & Valo as cited in Kimble, 2010, p. 11). “Hot” virtual working is known as “closely coupled” or “online” working or work that is smooth and needing active participation of other group members. On the other hand, “cold” virtual working refers to “loosely coupled” or “off-line” working where members of a team work on their part individual. However, the members of the team who work individual, all work towards a common goal.

Types of Virtual Teams and Degree of Virtuality

Kimball, Bal and Teo as cited in Schlenkrich and Upfold (2009) discuss types of virtual teams and explain how high or low their virtuality actually is. In general, virtual teams that produce a higher degree of virtuality, hold a greater number of virtual characteristics than teams with a lower degree of virtuality. The highest type of virtual team is known as Action where these team members produce immediate responses with exchanging information, as distance and organizational boundaries are crossed. Another type of team that produces high virtuality is known as Work virtual teams where these members perform regular and ongoing work and team membership is clearly defined (Schlenkrich & Upfold, 2009). Work teams are beginning to show signs of crossing time and distance boundaries. The type of team with the lowest degree of virtuality is known as Executive and this team includes managers who are on the team based on their position in the organization. Schlenkrich and Uphold (2009) explain these teams are semi-permanent and are accountable for specific functions in the organization.

Factors that have Negative Impact on Virtual Teams’ Social Functioning and Solutions

Physical Dispersion and Time Boundaries

Gibson and Gibbs as cited in Schlenkrich and Upfold’s (2009) journal article explain that in highly geographically dispersed teams, it is harder to arrange meetings between virtual team members. Specifically, there are “shorter windows of time for synchronous meetings and many meetings take place outside of standard working time” (Schlenkrich & Upfold, 2009, p. 111). Thus, physical dispersion makes team leaders have to coordinate times more efficiently, which in turn, can cause a delay in communication and productivity. Additionally, “physically dispersed teams are more familiar with their own external content (environment) and have less shared contextual knowledge” (Schlenkrich & Upfold, 2009, p. 111). Thus, if team members are unaware of other team member’s environments, then this can produce confusion, communication misunderstandings, and poor relationship with team members.

Based on the previous paragraph, virtual teams can avoid the negative implications caused by physical dispersion and time boundaries by planning and organizing tasks, conducting virtual meetings, and collaborating with each other (Joinson as cited in Schlenkrich & Upfold, 2009, p. 116). In addition, since virtual teams is mainly done through online communication because members are physically dispersed, all team members need to understand the technology infrastructure, use the correct software, and agree on the standard technology to use for virtual meetings.

Communication Technology

With virtual teams relying on computer-mediated communication, it lessens opportunities for keeping track of team members’ tasks and roles while making it more complex to interpret information (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009). Specifically, the context is unknown where computer-mediated communication reduces non-verbal cues about interpersonal emotions such as tone, warmth, and attentiveness (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009). Thus, if one member cannot view the other member’s emotions behind executing the tasks, then it is difficult to analyze the message and give feedback. Moreover, electronic communication hinders feedback among virtual team members, as these delays cause misunderstandings and even negative feelings between group members (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009). Team members ultimate rely on communication technology to establish shared meanings of their virtual team environment and tasks (Algesheimer, Dholakia, & Gurau, 2011).

One way to prevent communication miscues between members discussed above is to assign a team leader for every virtual team in order to encourage all members to achieve shared goals. Thus, without a team leader, members would not have shared goals or a common interest. In turn, virtual meetings would act as confusing and misleading to some members if they do not know what the common goal is of the group.

Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity includes both national and linguistic diversity where “natural diversity produces different expectations for communication practices and reduces identification with the team as a whole” (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009). With national diversity, group members may find misunderstandings, stereotypes, or the difficulty to make decisions in virtual teams. Communication in different culture settings can be viewed as direct or indirect among individuals. Specifically, “communication in western cultures is viewed by individuals as direct and explicit” (Brett, Behfar, & Kern as cited in Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 112). Thus, virtual team members in western cultures might find it difficult to understand the accents with the lack of fluency of virtual team members in non-western cultures. Additionally, some researchers claim that cultural diversity can lead to opposition between members where personality differences and mutual dislike are known (Gressgard, 2011). Other issues related to cultural diversity among virtual team members are due to “ethnocentrism where the belief that one’s own nationality is superior” (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 112). For example, a virtual team member with a European nationality might think they are more superior or more affluent than an African-American nationality based on preconceived notions. Thus, ethnocentrism or even stereotyping between group members can make certain members feel offensive or weak-minded. In turn, the above social problems inhibit communication between virtual team members.

Organizational, Age, Gender, and Functional Diversity

Researchers claim that members belonging to different organizations will have different feelings and positions about power and status (Brett, Behfar, & Kern as cited in Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009). For example, members from organizations with hierarchical systems think that decisions need should be approved by upper-level management. On the other hand, members from an egalitarian culture or flatter structures think that individuals can make decisions individually rather than have management’s permission. Thus, these differing opinions on who needs to make decisions with business-related items can produce disagreements among virtual team members. Moreover, virtual team members have functional diversity where members acquire different educational, work, and community involvement backgrounds. Attitudes of superiority or inferiority can exist with functional diversity in place because people have differences in opinions based on their functional background. For example, members with a PhD can feel superior and think they are charge of the virtual team assignments where they view members with just a Bachelor’s or no degree as inferior human beings. In addition, members have different age categories and genders may experience conflict based on certain members having superior or inferior attitudes.

Overcoming diversity problems in virtual teams.

Although diversity problems in virtual teams is one of the hardest problems for mangers to overcome, managers can do so by “selecting members carefully, adapting by acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them, using structural intervention with changing the shape of the team, and using managerial intervention with setting norms” (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 117). Manager can also make sure a member is fired or taken away from a virtual team if that specific member causes problems to the team or producing unprofessional work. Managers can select members of a team carefully by choosing members that complement other members already on the team. For example, if one member is a creative thinker, maybe the manager should choose another member that is an analytical thinker. Thus, with two types of thinkers, a virtual team receives the best of both worlds to produce more effective work. Moreover, managers should know what cultural gaps they are dealing with beforehand because it will allow them to have members adapt to other members that have different culture upbringings. Specifically, managers can set up an online focus group in the beginning of the project in order for all the members to get to know each other’s personalities and culture upbringing. Online focus groups allow members to openly communicate with one another about their history and culture without judging each other. Overall, virtual teams members from “different cultures must become aware of different cultural identities in order to establish shared cognitions” (Zimmerman, 2011, p. 65).

Structural Dynamism, Non-Routine Tasks and Interrelated Tasks Problems

According to Gibson and Gibbs as cited in Schlenkrich and Uphold (2009), the authors claim that “teams with a short history together tend to lack effective patterns of information sharing and working together” (p. 112). Specifically, a highly dynamic team setting leads to doubt and more risk between team members. Thus, if members do not trust other members, then they will act reluctant to give certain information to them and not want to do business with them. In addition, researchers explain that it is more difficult to introduce new team members on board and to explain and deal with the implications when certain members leave (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009). Moreover, virtual team members may have to take on various roles and takes simultaneously, which could lead to role conflict and confusion among members. Thus, “conflicts between multiple role expectations and individuals ‘abilities to satisfy such expectations cause role overload and negative work attitudes (Bell & Kozlowski as cited in Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 112). In other words, members can become frantic and have conflicts with other members when they are assigned an overabundance of tasks. Overall, all these social roles discussed above negatively influence virtual team communication.

Structural dynamism solutions via mentoring meetings.

Structural dynamism problems discussed previously can be overcome if managers establish “firm rules of communication to avoid loss of knowledge” (Joinson, 2002 as cited in Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 117). Additionally, managers can have online mentor meetings with each member to establish strong relationships with the members. Thus, mentoring meetings give members more of a team feeling and members are able to adjust to the team quickly. Besides, mentoring meetings allows managers to know what members do not and do like about other members, what works and what does not work, and what tasks they prefer to work on. Moreover, managers may manage performance of interrelated tasks by setting regular times of group meetings, helping members out on a routine basis and “encourage informal, off-line conversation between members to ensure they are comfortable working together” (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 117). Overall, managers can avoid problems with structural dynamism by setting up regular meetings via Internet, websites, or online bulletin boards to let all members know everyday happenings of the team.

Challenges Faced with Managing Virtual Teams: Technological Problems

There are two main challenges that managers encounter when managing virtual teams: (a) technological problems and (b) organizational problems. Virtual team managers are faced with various problems that hinder their ability to enhance the effectiveness of communication and participation. According to Kimble (2010), managing virtual teams means “managing a whole spectrum of different communication strategies and techniques, as well as managing the human and social processes that nourish and support” that makes a team a team (p. 7). One technological problem is that text-only communication may be seen as impersonal and less easy to create an atmosphere of group rapport (Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009). Additionally, traditional video-conferencing entails excessive bandwidth that constrains users because some users end up having to buy additional communication capacity. Furthermore, teleconferencing includes visual disadvantages and is often discarded within months of users using it because they realize these drawbacks (Hammon, 2009). For example, many technical problems can occur when trying to establish a conference or even during a conference because the Internet can cut off or the video can show blurry images. Besides, some users of virtual teams exhibit a lack of participant familiarity with the equipment used for teleconferencing purposes.

Moreover, there are technological problems that pertain to the human and managerial issues that the observed faults in the technology cause. Building trust among team members is a major challenge for virtual teams where “online communication lacks the richness of face-to-face interaction” (Kimble, 2010, p. 11). In other words, individuals who only focus on communicating online will not show as much participation nor trust with other team members. Another technological problem a manager faces is when individuals of virtual teams display “cold” virtual working even when they shared the same office space. As discussed earlier, “cold” virtual working refers to “off-line” working where members are not in the same place and work individual. Thus, in this case, “cold” virtual working teams use technology that was “fluid and almost transparent,” but their decision about when to use it was not (Kimble, 2010, p. 11). In other words, face-to-face communication was always the preferred option for members instead of communicating online even when it became too difficult to meet face-to-face. Moreover, wanting to meet face-to-face for virtual teams can pose a problem because it can be very costly and inconvenient for many individuals and companies.

Solutions to Technological Problems: Use of Avatars

There are many tools and methods used to avoid technological problems in virtual team online settings. According to Kimble (2010), social presence is the technological solution for virtual team members that are not able to meet face-to-face. Social presence is defined as “the degree of awareness of other people in an interaction and the subsequent recognition of interpersonal relationships” (Short, Williams, & Christie as cited in Kimble, 2010, p. 11). In early years, members of virtual teams would give “contextual information” about the other person in the form of textual descriptions of what they look like in order to conquer the problem of social presence.

However, currently, individuals use avatars (computer-generated animated images) in teleconferencing to encourage social presence and prevent technological problems. As Hammon and Winsten-Bartlett (2009) suggest, a representational avatar for computer-mediated virtual teams, is defined as a “virtual representation of a user in a synthetic world that is a character in that synthetic world” (Ferry, Kelner, Moreira & Teichrieb as cited in Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009, p. 54). Each user of the virtual team can choose its own representational avatar to fit his or her persona. Then, the representational avatars are entered into the virtual team meeting room online where they can network and engage in business opportunities. Specifically, managers should employ graphical enhancements such as avatars to conquer the differences in text-language communication among virtual teams (Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009).

Avatar benefits.

The use of representational avatars has various benefits over videoconferencing among virtual teams (Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009). With the avatars shown graphically on each member’s computer, “data transmission tells the new location of the avatar to each member’s computer and allows the local CPU to do the rendering of the image” (Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009, p. 61). Thus, this process saves about 3,000 % and will definitely reduce the excessive bandwidth discussed previously as a technological problem of virtual teams (Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009). Moreover, the representational avatars used for virtual team meetings appear as a higher quality visually to the human eye than simply videoconferencing.

Avatar-enriched teams vs. text-based teams.

In Hammon and Winsten-Bartlett’s (2009) journal article entitled, “Participation and Communication in Virtual Teams using Representational Avatars,” the authors perform a study that shows results between text-based teams and avatar-enriched teams. First, avatar-enriched teams showed more enjoyment with each other and more participation than text-based teams. Specifically, avatar-based teams showed their desire for “more hats, more clothes, and more customization,” which in turn, depicts their interest for their continued use of avatars in virtual teams (Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009, p. 63). Another interesting concept Hammon and Winsten-Bartlett (2009) explored is the increased use of virtual teams using the popular avatar-based Web site, Second Life, which encourages businesses to produce meeting sites. Second Life maintains visual illustrations including streaming video in the virtual meeting rooms. Moreover, the software allows virtual team members to produce landscapes and buildings to make virtual field trips a resource during team meetings (Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009).

Challenges Faced with Managing Virtual Teams: Organizational Problems

Organizational problems also exist for managers when managing virtual teams due to identity among team members being unclear. Effective, productive teamwork becomes hard without effective communication. According to Kimble (2010), “identity plays a critical role in communication, with knowing the identity of those with whom you communication is central to creating a shared understanding” (p. 12). However, a virtual team member’s identity can be unclear because members cannot view other member’s actions or facial expressions to particular tasks. Thus, with vague identity issues, this can lead to difficulties in building a sense of collective identity and can restrain effective communication among team members (Kimble, 2010). Furthermore, identity allows members to gain a shared perspective on particular job issues and how people relate to the company as a whole. Thus, without identity, it is very hard to share knowledge successfully.

Solutions to Organizational Problems: Role of Managers to Keep Team Functional

Studies have depicted the role of team leaders and managers in order to keep the team functional because communication is obviously a key problem among virtual teams (Hammon, 2009). Specifically, to build trust among virtual team members, “managers have to give support and positive messages” (Joinson, 2002, p. 3 as cited in Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009, p. 55). Apparently, “social discussion, depth, and intimacy were greater in computer-mediated communication groups than in face-to-face groups, even for the groups with geographically dispersed and culturally dispersed who had never met face-to-face” Jarvenppa & Leidner, 1998 as cited in Hammon & Winsten-Bartlett, 2009, p. 55).

Schlenkrich and Uphold (2009) suggest that managers should create an environment that allows virtual team members the chance to participate and actively engage with each other. Specifically, managers should “encourage members to speak up, raise different opinions, engage in informal communication, encourage members to remain open to other ideas and perspectives and encourage active listening” (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 113). Moreover, managers should emphasize on developing standards based on the following: “the purpose of teams, role of members, team culture, conversation, feedback, pace of work of each member, entry and re-entry of members into the team, participation of each member, “and much more (Schlenkrich & Uphold, 2009, p. 113). Thus, managers can help their virtual team’s performance by encouraging members to ask questions about how they are functioning with other members with giving each member performance evaluations. In other words, performance evaluations allow each member to evaluate oneself and each member of the team on how well they work with others and how well they do their work.

Solutions to Organizational Problems: Application-Sharing and Roll-Call Response

Nunamaker, Jr., Reinig, & Briggs (2009) explore various other technological methods in order to find innovative ways to focus attention on task because virtual teams lack face-to-face interaction. One solution is for virtual teams to “use shared windows that allow the leader to control what appears on other people’s screens from a distance” (Nunamaker, Jr., Reinig, & Briggs, 2009, p. 114). In other words, virtual teams use application-sharing along with voice link for managers or group leaders to review or discuss a document (Nunamaker, Jr., Reinig, & Briggs, 2009). Since the changes of the documents are shared immediately, the attention stays focused on the current version instead of virtual teams wasting time looking at other multiple versions by various managers. Another method used to prevent technological problems is a roll-call response procedure. A roll-call response is “when each member of the team is asked to give an oral response to a question or problem” (Nunamaker, Jr., Reinig, & Briggs, 2009, p. 114). Thus, similar to focus groups in face-to-face settings, the roll-call response method encourages virtual team members to act attentive because they will be called on randomly to offer their opinions. By offering their opinions and insights with this method, can help members feel a closer identity between each other and build trust.

Trust as an Essential Element in Virtual Teams

Building trust is a key element in any organizational or virtual team setting. As Robert Jr., Dennis, & Hung (2009) claim, trust affects team’s performance and even more so when tasks are highly interconnected. Moreover, “trust is a critical element in enhancing intra- and interorganizational cooperation, and control” (Robert Jr., Dennis, & Hung, 2009, p. 242). In fact, trust is defined in a group context, as “the confidence that members have in each other’s dependability and expertise” (Mockaitis, Rose, & Zettinig, 2009, p. 2). Mancini (2010) suggests that “trust cannot be “designed into” an organization where it is built, like a brick wall, layer-by-layer, with shared experiences as the mortar” (p. 2). Specifically, trust gives team members the option to openly exchange and share information that is needed to gain productivity. In fact, trust is more important in virtual team settings than face-to-face settings because members communicate through information and communication technologies (ICTs) and are geographically spread out (Thomas & Bostrom, 2010). According to Mancini (2010), trust is established in virtual teams by shared, common information, the establishment of joint organizational culture and frequent interaction among members.

Difficulties in Developing Trust in Virtual Teams

There are many reasons why virtual team settings experience developing trust issues more than face-to-face settings. First, the lack of past experience will inhibit the amount of information that team members can base their judgment on other team member’s trustworthiness (Robert Jr., Dennis, & Hung, 2009). In other words, members may not have close-developed relationships with other members because of their short history of knowing each other. Thus, a short history of knowing one another will lead to a decrease in the amount of trust one has for one another. Second, the geographical culture among virtual team members may include organizational and culture diversities like discussed above. Thus, these organizational and culture diversities may have some members not want to have trust in other members because they have different norms or behaviors.

“Swift” Trust found Initially in Virtual Teams

Although there are many difficulties in developing trust in virtual team settings, a high level of trust among virtual team members is found in the initial stages of virtual team settings. The high initial trust exhibited in virtual teams is known as “swift” trust or a form of trust that is conferred “ex ante” (Robert Jr., Dennis, & Hung, 2009, p. 244). Specifically, swift trust makes managers manage problems of risk, vulnerability, doubt, and other situations where trust does not exist (Robert Jr., Dennis, & Hung, 2009). Swift trust relates to when members who do not have any experience working together immediately form trusting relationships with one another. More specifically, “swift trust assumes clear role divisions among members who have well-defined specialties” (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999, p. 794). However, swift trust is very fragile and temporal, as most members usually found out major diversity differences or other differences about their team members. Thus, these differences and problems discussed earlier in this review, makes swift trust disappear with members not continuing to have trust with one another by the end of the project. In other words, members start to realize after the initial meeting of other virtual team members that they do not trust other team members based on them not being able to see members face-to-face.

Panteli and Tucker’s Trust and Power Shifts in Virtual Teams

Panteli and Tucker’s (2009) journal article entitled, “Power and Trust in Global Virtual Teams,” explore how power differentials still exist in high trust teams where power can transfer to one member to another based on the project stage and its requirements. In other words, the most powerful member of the group at any stage of the project is the member with the most information. Specifically, Panteli and Tucker use a quote from a United Kingdom Development Manager about power: “We need to start thinking about power more in terms of knowledge power than positional power. The real strength in the relationship is acknowledging who has the most relative knowledge at the time key decisions need to be made” (U.K. Development Manager Unknown as cited in Panteli & Tucker, 2009, p. 114). The quote depicts that if a member conducted more research on a particular project than the other members, the member with the most relevant information will have more say in the project as a whole.

Panteli and tucker’s facilitating power distribution.

According to Panteli and Tucker (2009), “facilitators were found to have an enabling role in minimizing destructive power differentials” (p. 114). Specifically, a facilitator or team leader’s role is to encourage team building techniques in the early stages of the virtual team projects and encourage a shared understanding among team members (Panteli & Tucker, 2009). Facilitators of virtual teams must differentiate the overall sense of teamwork from the task of establishing an effective intact team that is created to accomplish a specific objective. Thus, facilitators of virtual teams should create team building techniques such as team building seminars, meetings, retreats, and other activities to allow members to get to know each other. It is beneficial for members to go on a initial retreat with one another since they are geographically dispersed because it will allow members to have a shared understanding of project goals and member’s behaviors. In turn, team building exercises and techniques will enhance trust between members, as they gain more understanding of each other. Overall, Panteli and Tucker (2009) argue that the “way facilitators performed their role mattered more than mere availability of facilitators” in virtual teams (p. 115). Thus, the competence and skill level of facilitators of virtual teams can help bring members together and promote the use of collaborative technology.

Conclusion

In conclusion, although virtual teams have many benefits including that are more cost effective than meeting individuals face-to-fac

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