Teams - Remote and Virtual

by Claire Snowdon and Mark Bouch

What is a virtual or remote team?

A virtual or remote team (a small number of people with complementary skills, who are committed to a common purpose and performance goals) is comprised of team members who share responsibility for achieving defined objectives and who perform from a flexible mix of stationary, mobile and/or remote work environments.

The terms ‘virtual’ and ‘remote’ often appear to be used interchangeably. A useful way to distinguish remote and virtual teams is

  • A remote team works directly for their manager to deliver defined work, but members are not geographically co-located. Remote team members may have a specific functional specialisation or combine a range of different skills. Remote teams are characterised by ‘solid line’ reporting. An example would be a field-based sales team.
  • Virtual teams are brought together to perform specific tasks or resolve specific issues, and are made up of people with differing areas of expertise. A virtual team consists of people who work for different functional and line managers. Team members report functionally to their own management and are seconded to a virtual team. Some of them may be co-located, but the term usually refers to geographically dispersed teams (sometimes called a GDT), characterised by ‘dotted line’ reporting. Virtual teams formed for a specific purpose ‘disperse’ once their task is complete.

In many cases, virtual teams are either hybrids, combining both solid and dotted line reports, or a core team of direct reports, with ‘virtual’ members added to the project team for their functional, sector or product expertise.

These ‘teams’ can also have members referred to as telecommuters (people who work remotely, though not necessarily at home) and teleworkers (people who work from anywhere and can continuously be on the move). Such people are also sometimes referred to as nomad workers or web commuters.

Many of the techniques appropriate to developing team effectiveness are shared between remote and virtual teams, although virtual teams do have additional challenges, as the team leader does not have direct authority over the members, hence there is a need to manage priority, time and additional stakeholders.

A successful telework or telecommuting program requires a management style that is oriented to results as opposed to tasks. This is referred to as management by objectives, as opposed to management by observation.

Jack Nilles coined the terms telecommuting and telework in the early 1970s, while working at the University of Southern California on projects aimed at eliminating rush-hour drives by letting employees work closer to home – or at home – via telecommunications links.

Note

Colocation, collocation and co-location are different spellings used for the same term. When used in virtual or remote team descriptions, the term can be used to refer to the placement of several entities in a single location or to have two or more persons working together on one site.

Virtual/remote teams versus traditional teams

There are several important differences between traditional teams and virtual or remote ones:

  • Meetings are not always face to face
  • Workplaces of team members may be in different locations and time zones
  • Culture – team members’ cultures can be vastly different
  • Relationships tend to be more difficult to build as team members have different styles and behaviours and there is little or no time for personal interaction
  • Communication may be hampered because it is not always possible to see body language, facial expressions or gestures and non-verbal cues.

Types of virtual team

Types of virtual team include

  • Networked teams – dispersed teams from the same or different organisations
  • Parallel teams – task oriented and usually short time span, with highly-specialised members from inside/outside the organisation asked to deliver recommendations
  • Project development teams – dispersed decision-making teams, with members added/removed according to whether their particular expertise is required; they usually work on creating new products, information systems or processes for users/customers
  • Work, production or functional teams – these teams work on specific areas/tasks, such as finance, training or research
  • Service teams – these teams work on providing a service and hand over to similar teams in different time zones
  • Standing team – ongoing work group with regular meetings
  • Project team – teams created for a specific purpose and timeframe
  • Global team – members from different countries with a diversity of cultures, thoughts, needs and solutions.