Virtual Teams and Leadership Behaviour
Prepared by: Majed Abdeen
It's a trend nowadays to use virtual teams in modern organisations, and many new entrepreneurs, especially in the software industry, resort to hiring people from different countries, thanks to the internet and the availability of technology for facilitating using subject matter experts in this way. However, many of these organisations, whether entrepreneurs or PMs, fail to use their virtual teams appropriately, because simply having the technical knowledge to use the tools is not enough. The challenges they encounter, the conflict resolution techniques, the leadership competencies they need, the competencies the team must have, are all very different than those involved when working with traditional teams. According to (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 8) there are two reasons why virtual teams are more complex: They cross boundaries related to time, distance (geography), and organizations, and they use electronic/technological methods of communication. Some possible actions for consideration when working with virtual teams are (PMI, 2014, pp. 41,42):
Confirm that everyone understands/supports the goals/objectives of the project.
Develop, implement, and verify effective management methodologies, processes, tools, and systems for the virtual team (and make sure this is included in the scope)
Identify point-of-contact people in each location, and make sure attention is paid to team interactions, such as reduced engagement or productivity
Establish and gain general agreement to a process for group decision making and conflict resolution
Set up a virtual site for the team to communicate and share ideas.
Assess existing cultural differences and provide cultural awareness training, and ensure sensitivity to working hours and holidays. Schedule meetings that are convenient for the team as a whole.
Consider how to maximize value from “overlap” time between team members in different time zones.
Make sure that everyone has a voice and continually encourage information sharing.
Choose results-driven team members who can work independently.
With increasing globalisation, virtual teams (VTs) are now more common (Iorio & Taylor, 2015, p. 395), since organisations must obtain competitive advantage and be adaptable to survive (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 3). Using VTs enables organisations to access expert knowledge regardless of location (Iorio & Taylor, 2015, p. 395), thus increasing business viability (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 3). Consequently, leadership skills must now incorporate leading VTs to ensure organisational and project success (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 4).
VTs are often composed of experts distributed globally, often incorporating employees working from home; it also enables companies to accommodate employees with disabilities (PMI, 2017, p. 311). A VT is a group working towards a shared goal (PMI, 2017, p. 725), without geographical, organisational, and time barriers (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 5). We can identify specific VT types in the literature, and their characteristics, as follows:
A key characteristic is use of technology; the majority of communications and interactions take place through electronic and collaborative means, which may replicate in-person discussions, or may be remote interactions (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 8).
Interactions can take various forms based on time/space factors; analysis of the research and methods used indicates the following communication characteristics for VTs:
VT members have specific characteristics: ability to work in unstructured/dynamic environments, and specific competencies including project management, networking, communication technologies, boundary-setting, time-management, cultural sensitivity, and interpersonal awareness (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 23).
Leadership is critical for successful VTs and projects (Tyssen et al., 2013, p. 53). Research demonstrates that both charismatic and team-oriented leadership behaviour deliver success when working with VTs as they transcend cultural issues (Gundersen et al., 2012, p. 47). It is critical that VT leaders create trust (Weimann et al., 2013, p. 348) and define clear goals and expectations (Gundersen et al., 2012, p. 52; Duarte & Snyder, 2006, pp. 20,21); personality and communication abilities enable better performance of VTs (Gilson et al., 2015, p. 1319). Use of critical success factors (CSFs) helps leaders identify required leadership practices; developing team-members' careers (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 11) and developing a flexible, technologically literate organisational culture with no strong hierarchy and shared power provides for success (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, pp. 19,20) to ensure team-members benefit from the VT (Weimann et al., 2013, p. 348) delivers success. This suggests leaders should employ transformational leadership. Research demonstrates transformational leadership benefits VTs through motivational and influential behaviours, individualised support/consideration, and intellectual stimulation to enable teams to perform well through aligned goals and team spirit (Gundersen et al., 2012, p. 47). Leaders must be technologically adept and must ensure they obtain training and have experience in VTs prior to becoming leaders; facilitation skills and willingness to use the technology are important as is willingness to be flexible and adaptable and leading by example is key, with leaders modelling the behaviour they want to see (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, pp. 16-22).
Some scholars note that research is not unanimous in defining successful leadership behaviour/practices for VTs (Gundersen et al., 2012, p. 47), thus flexibility to adapt their leadership to any situation is more important (Tyssen et al., 2013, p. 57); in addition, in dynamic environments factors beyond the leader's control may impact the success of VTs. Familiarity with technology is critical, as traditional leadership training/selection does not consider challenges associated with VT management (Iorio & Taylor, 2015, p. 404) thus the complexity of differing time and geographical boundaries, and the ways this complexity impedes communication (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 8) are not considered. Having experience of managing VTs, I believe communication is critical; subtle nuances are lost, thus a responsibility as Leader is to ensure cultural differences and the communication technologies, we use support and improve the VT, as opposed to being detrimental. Therefore, I argue that leadership of VTs is more demanding in terms of complexity than leadership of co-located teams. This is supported by Duarte who notes leaders feel they are responsible for keeping the team together and functioning (Duarte & Snyder, 2006, p. 22).
While VTs are a growing trend, and significant research has been conducted into their functioning, current managerial practice may not have caught up with academic knowledge, which negatively affects VT success. Leaders must have technological and practical experience as well as strong soft/interpersonal and leadership skills to successfully lead VTs. As PMs of VTs, we must ensure we take into account traditional risks as well as risks associated with VTs, including increased complexity/uncertainty (Weimann et al., 2013, p. 332); remaining flexible and adapting our leadership behaviour and practice to build trust among VTs will contribute to success. When doing so, we must be careful to ensure communication stays on-point; over-communication can be problematic (Lee-Kelley & Sankey, 2008, p. 59).
Duarte, D. L. & Snyder, N. T., 2006. Mastering virtual teams: strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Gilson, L. L. et al., 2015. Virtual teams research 10 years, 10 themes, and 10 opportunities. Journal of Management, 41(5), p. 1313–1337.
Gundersen, G., Hellesøy, B. T. & Raeder, S., 2012. Leading international project teams the effectiveness of transformational leadership in dynamic work environments. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(1), p. 46–57.
Iorio, J. & Taylor, J. E., 2015. Precursors to engaged leaders in virtual project teams. International Journal of Project Management, 33(2), p. 395–405.
Lee-Kelley, L. & Sankey, T., 2008. Global virtual teams for value creation and project success: A case study. International Journal of Project Management, 26(1), p. 51–62.
PMI, 2014. Navigating Complexity: A PRACTICE GUIDE. Newtown Square(Pennsylvania): Project Management Institute, Inc.
PMI, 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. 6th ed. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.
Tyssen, A. K., Wald, A. & Spieth, P., 2013. Leadership in Temporary Organizations: A Review of Leadership Theories and a Research Agenda. Project Management Journal, 44(6), p. 52–67.
Weimann, P., Pollock, M., Scott, E. & Brown, I., 2013. Enhancing Team Performance Through Tool Use: How Critical Technology-Related Issues Influence the Performance of Virtual Project Teams. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 56(4), pp. 332-353.