Four Dimensions of Virtual Teams
There are four key dimensions that constitute the various types of virtual teams. The first dimension is ‘purpose’ which can range from broad to specific. The second dimension is ‘duration’ which can range from fixed or limited to ongoing. The third dimension is ‘location’ which has two distinct aspects. The first aspect is whether the virtual team is totally dispersed by which I mean each individual team member is in their own location. If some team members are co-located and some team members work as isolated individuals then the team can be described as hybrid. Hybrid teams have unique challenges mostly involving issues of disengagement for the non-collocated members. The second aspect of location is whether team members work in different time zones. Working in different time zones presents its own set of unique challenges, which among other things will require a greater emphasis on asynchronous (non-realtime) communication tools and perhaps more flexibility in scheduling group meetings in order to equally spread the inconvenience. The final dimension is ‘culture’. Virtual teams can have everything ranging from a shared common culture to wide variations in work background, experience, education, and language. Each of these cultural variations must be acknowledged and addressed for the team to be successful.
Four Types of Virtual Teams
In addition to the four dimensions, there are also roughly 4 common types of teams. The first type of team is a ‘departmental’ team where members of the particular organizational department meet on a regular basis to work together. Often there are distinct teams at each level of the organizational hierarchy: executive, managerial, and staff. The departmental team usually exhibits a duration that is ongoing and encompasses a relatively broad set of goals and purposes.
The second type of team is a ‘project’ team that has a limited duration and a specific purpose or set of goals.
Many organizations also set up a third type of team that is ‘cross-functional’. Cross-functional teams usually have an ongoing duration but a very specific purpose. Cross-functional teams are often set up to address the acute, often siloed, nature of large organizations and to increase the cross-departmental information flow. They also do not generally meet with great frequency and they represent a subset of each team members’ workload. The greatest challenge for cross-functional teams is to maintain a sufficiently high level of engagement because by definition the goals for a cross-functional team are not usually primary for each team member.
‘Virtual service’ teams are created for organizations that manage customer service or support and require that each team member understand the guidelines, metrics, and processes necessary to provide good customer service. This type of team often involves multiple locations in multiple cultures. Sensitivity to the location and cultural variations is then the key to making virtual service teams effective.
Identifying the type of virtual team in which you are working and identifying their unique strengths and weaknesses is the first step to optimizing team performance.