Virtual Teams vs Traditional Teams

In the current hypercompetitive and fast-paced times, many innovations become obsolete before they could leave R&D labs and see the sun. Therefore organizations are vying for faster turnaround time to widen their markets and customer base. This calls for constant improvements in their working methodologies.

With the growing sophistication in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), many organizations are exploring the virtual platform to bring together the diverse talents and expertise, available across the globe to build world-class teams.

Quite simply, a team is a group of individuals working together to achieve a common pre-defined goal. While the traditional teams, also known as conventional or co-located or collocated teams, consist of individuals working in physical proximity, the virtual teams refers to a group of individuals who are separated by physical distance but are united by a shared goal.

Generally, the virtual teams consist of talent across geographies, cultures and time zones. The interactions among the members of a virtual team are mediated by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools.

Though both traditional and virtual teams go through the five stages of Bruce Tuckman’s model of team development but the dynamics experienced by the members of virtual teams are more complex. This is largely due to the fact that members of virtual team rely solely on electronic communication and collaboration technology to facilitate interactions among them. Also the cultural boundaries and time zones differences add to its complex nature.

For a virtual team the challenges experienced by a traditional team increases manifold. Some of the key differences between traditional and virtual teams are as following;

  • Selection of Team Members - In case of traditional teams, members are largely selected based on their functional skills. But performing in a virtual team environment is not easy for everyone.

    Lack of face-to-face interactions and social focus in a virtual setting might lead to isolation and loneliness. It calls for managing ambiguity, proactive networking, exceptional time management and work discipline, ability to learn new technologies, and the ability to collaborate across functional and cultural boundaries. So, in the selection of a virtual team member, there is a need to look into these core competencies in addition to the basic functional skills.

  • Organization Structure - Compared to the traditional teams, virtual teams support flatter organization structure with dim lines of authorities and hierarchies. This is required to survive in hypercompetitive market, deliver results faster and encourage creativity - which are actually the primary objectives for forming a virtual team.

  • Leadership Style - In virtual team setting, managers cannot physically control the day-to-day activities and monitor each team members’ activities, therefore they need to delegate little more as compared to traditional teams. The command and control leadership style of yester years is giving way to the more democratic and coaching style of today.

  • Knowledge Exchange & Decision-taking - Many a times in traditional teams, information is being exchanged during informal discussions. But in case of virtual teams, members have a very limited or no informal access to the information. Hence there is a need for more frequent updates on project status and building a shared database to provide all the important information to the team.

    Considering the time zone differences in global virtual teams, it becomes difficult to schedule meetings. Thus in case of virtual teams many a times delay occurs in fixing a problem or reaching a consensus, whereas in traditional teams a meeting can be called at any time of the day when all the members are present together in the office, resulting quick decisions and problem solving.

  • Relationship Building - When traditional team members meet in the workplace every day they tend to develop close social ties with each other. They strike rapport with each other when they interact face-to-face.

    In the virtual team the interactions are tend to be more task-focused. Further, lack of verbal cues and gestures in virtual setting does not allow any scope for personal touch in the communication.

  • Psychological Contract - The foundation of psychological contract is more fragile in the virtual environment. Smaller instances of misunderstanding or gaps in communication result in violation of the psychological contract which has negative effects on the team’s effectiveness.

    Virtual teams also experience difficulties in building trust, cohesion and commitment among its members.

Considering the challenges posed by the virtual teams, it is necessary to pay special attention to the communication, collaboration and cultural issues.

Organizations should follow a distinct management approach which focuses on building trust and cohesion amongst the virtual team members to harness the advantages of a successful virtual team.

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