When we (at Global Integration) developed the world’s first virtual teams training program in 1994 we called it ‘Remote and virtual teams training’ and distinguished between teams that were physically distributed (remote) and one where managers had no formal control over the team members (virtual).
As virtual teams became more mainstream this distinction started to blur and “virtual team” became a catchall term for both.
Today, many training organizations offer virtual team advice and training, but teams have become significantly more complex and the needs of different types of virtual teams have become more distinct. A one-size-fits-all approach is no longer appropriate.
Virtual team members need to work together across five key barriers: distance, cultures, time zones, communicating through technology and organizational complexity. But different types of virtual teams experience very different challenges.
- Remote virtual teams are physically distributed; people need to work across distance, with limited face to face contact and where most of the communication is through technology. Remote teams experience challenges in communication, building trust, managing conflict and the difficulty in replicating the spontaneous, relationship oriented way of working that is much easier and more natural when people met face to face and can resolve issues over coffee or lunch. We find that this limited face to face time is me of the most challenging aspects of virtual team working.
- International and global virtual teams are an extreme example of a remote team. In global teams, team members may be separated by thousands of miles and the costs of travel and coordination mean that face to face meetings are infrequent. Global teams also experience the impact of time zones and cultural differences.
- Matrix virtual teams introduce the additional barrier of organizational complexity. Matrix team members may each have multiple bosses and individuals may often work on multiple teams. Matrix team members may not have formal control over their team members or may share that control with other managers (formally or informally).
- Cross-functional virtual teams are a common form of matrix team, individuals from different business functions are brought together to deal with multi-disciplinary challenges. Some of our work has shown that functional cultural differences can bring even more challenges than working with different national cultures. Different functional mindsets, measures and rewards can make these kind of virtual teams challenging to coordinate.
- Extended virtual teams add another dimension to the organizational complexity barrier when teams are made up of members from more than one organization. Companies increasingly work closely with suppliers, partners and customers around the world. They share information through common systems and, as they become more closely integrated, they need to develop virtual teams that cross the old organizational boundaries with common ways of working. Commercial considerations and corporate cultural differences introduce additional complexity.
These different types or ‘flavours’ of virtual teams are of course simplifications and not mutually exclusive. Many matrix teams, for example, are also often remote and cross-functional. But the additional focus of being more specific about the challenges faced by the team can be very valuable in diagnosing virtual team training needs. Depending on the precise configuration of your virtual team you may need to work across one or more of the five barriers of distance, cultures, time zones, communicating through technology and organizational complexity.
The needs of a cross functional virtual team in one or two locations in the same country will be very different from the needs of an extended global team operating around the world and across multiple organizations.
So if you are looking for training for your virtual team, don’t be satisfied with an ‘off the shelf’, one size fits all solution. Depending on the precise balance of your teams challenges some elements may be more or less relevant.
What are the key factors that drive complexity in your virtual team?
- Find out more: Global Integration has developed more than 20 specific and unique skill modules to help build the skills to be successful in virtual, remote, matrix, extended and global teams:
- Request our white paper on virtual teams
- Find out about how to benchmark your virtual team