Virtual projects, virtual teams and the associated trade-offs

Do the challenges of virtual teams outweigh the benefits?

March 18, 2014

By Yolandi Nortje, executive of Intuate Group

Today, an increasing number of projects involve team members from multiple locations; across cities, provinces, the country or even the world. Many organisations are using virtual teams in place of face-to-face teams not for logistics reasons, but rather for financial ones. Companies are being seduced by a plethora of online meeting and collaboration tools, lulling them into the belief that there are only cost savings to be had without any other trade-offs, effectively discounting the value of face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder efforts.

In this climate, many project managers (PMs) may now be managing projects where they rarely, if ever, interact face-to face-with their team. While the telephone, email and collaboration tools are critical means of communication in these instances, they are only tools. The PM will still need to proactively manage the distant team members.

With virtual projects come virtual teams and the associated trade-offs. The question that this raises is simply: Do the challenges of virtual teams outweigh the benefits?

A 2010 virtual teams survey report carried out by RW3 Culture Wizards, entitled “The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams”, revealed that 46 percent of the 600 respondents never met other virtual team members face to face, and only 30 percent met only once a year.

Respondents found virtual teams more challenging than face‐to‐face teams in managing conflict (73 percent), making decisions (69 percent), and expressing opinions (64 percent). They also stated that delivering quality output (48 percent) and generating innovative ideas (47 percent) were more challenging in a virtual environment. The greatest personal challenges respondents faced were inability to read non‐verbal cues (94 percent), absence of collegiality (85 percent), difficulty establishing rapport and trust (81 percent), difficulty seeing the whole picture (77 percent), reliance on email and telephone (68 percent), and a sense of isolation (66 percent). Whilst there has not been such an extensive or comprehensive survey on this topic undertaken in South Africa, it is a safe assumption that much of the challenges cited in this report are reflected in this country.

That being said, while there are advantages to virtual teams that go beyond merely saving money on travel, there are also trade-offs, and they each carry their own advantages and disadvantages, which need to be weighed against each other:

Time – Whilst travel time is reduced, virtual projects often experience an increased time to solution, due to the lack of the chemistry that fuels innovation and breakthroughs that occurs more often when people work face-to-face.

Productivity –Reduced productivity can occur in virtual teams due to the disconnections that develop between teammates, the lack of chemistry and a dearth of trust building encounters; however team members don’t lose time to travel and can use that time for more productive endeavours.

Space – Whilst an organisation may experience cost savings due to lack of the requisite formal office space and infrastructure to conduct work sessions, poor work habits and focus may develop due to its absence.

Flexibility – Working in a virtual team means that different time zones and other conflicting schedules can be accommodated, albeit with coordination lag times.

Physical locations and people – When team members are spread across the country or across the globe, productivity and time to completion may be reduced because of the detachment that accompanies distant work relationships; however it does allow for the inclusion of people in projects that might not have been able to participate when required to work face to face – getting the right person for the job involved, regardless of their location. In the RW3 Culture Wizards survey, when respondents ranked the most important characteristics of a good virtual teammate, they graded willingness to share information as first, being proactively engaged second, and the ability to be collaborative as third.

Motivation – Self-motivated, self-directed team members can do well in virtual projects, whereas the non-self-motivated, those needing more direction and structure, tend to be ineffective.

Work processes and supervision – Working in a virtual team allows for more creativity on how to structure work processes, however the risks of having inconsistent work processes that reduce overall project success also increase. To mitigate this, careful supervision is required from the project manager to ensure that clear work processes and goals are defined.

Culture – Whilst virtual teams allow people from a wide array of cultures and societies to work together across wide distances, it is important that the proper frameworks that are inherent in fostering trust, understanding and empathy amongst diverse groups are provided.

The growing importance of global collaboration, is translating into the growth of the virtual project and the virtual team. Overall it is easy to see that virtual teams represent unique challenges to the productivity of organisations and individuals that need to be given careful consideration before adopting the approach for any given project. There is no one right approach that fits all situations. However it is clear that virtual teamwork is different and requires specific training, tactics, and support. Furthermore, today’s project manager needs to develop specific competencies to structure and manage virtual teams, which are increasingly comprising of people from different cultures, with different work styles, and who come online at different times of the 24‐hour work cycle.

Success in using virtual teams requires discipline and appreciation for the dynamics and trade-offs that are in play. So, what steps can be taken to ensure a virtual team’s success?

According to Michael R. Wood, creator of the business process-improvement methodology, HELIX, and founder of The Natural Intelligence Group, it is important to conduct a face-to-face kick-off, even if the project is going to be conducted with 100 percent virtual teams. This allows the team members to meet, establish rapport and hopefully some trust.

Since virtual teams collaborate in the cloud, it is important to provide them with the tools needed to facilitate productive work sessions and meetings. The good news is there is a wealth of great tools out there, ranging from video conferencing, shared workspaces and repository portals. It is imperative that these tools be provided to the entire team with the proper technologies and infrastructures in place to use them. Modern project portfolio management tools are tremendously powerful, but they are only as good as the people using them and the data that they contain. If people don’t understand how to use the tools effectively, then they quickly become additional barriers to communication.

Since the team will be geographically dispersed, it is important that each team member be as self-reliant, self-motivated and self-directed as possible and do well working alone or in a small local group. The project manager needs to be deft at sensing when motivation, momentum and productivity are waning, and equally deft at reigniting people’s passion for the project. When teams are geographically dispersed, it becomes easier to play the blame game because people are not always able to defend themselves and personal relationships aren’t always as strong. This never helps the project to deliver and must be avoided at all costs.

With a multicultural team, albeit ethnically or organisationally, there needs to be a concerted effort to educate the team members about specific differences and nuances of the cultures involved. This will help the team to build rapport, trust and respect. However, where possible, teams need to speak the same language as much as possible if communications are to be effective. Requiring a team to be proficient in multiple languages or requiring the use of interpreters can hamper a project on many levels. While it may not be possible to perform a global project in one language, it can really help.

From the outset, it is vital that all team members feel that they are a part of a team of equals, all of whom are needed for the project to succeed. By keeping people focused on working together to produce a tangible work product, you increase the level of engagement and reinforce the notion that working together produces results.

Finally it is important to keep the number of simultaneous project assignments to a minimum. This is true for all projects, but especially true for virtual ones. As the number of projects a person is assigned to increases, their ability to do justice to any one project decreases.

The list of recommendations and advice is endless on this topic, but the theme is clear: whilst virtual teams are not as attractive and effective as teams that get to work face to face, they are an increasing reality and in some cases a necessity. They can be successful, but care must be taken, and the right project manager put in place.