Challenges Facing Virtual Teams
The rise of marketplace globalization (Lurey & Raisinghani, 2001), the advances in computer technology, the multicultural nature of the workforce, and the ever-changing environment have led to the emergence of virtual teams (Shachaf, 2008). A virtual team is a geographically distributed group with a temporary lifespan and membership (Purvanova & Bono, 2009) performing interdependent tasks and relying on communication media to achieve its goals (Bosch-Sijtsema, 2007). Virtual team members may be dispersed within the organization’s facilities, in a single country, or across several countries and time zones (Wakefield & Leidner, 2008). A recent survey by the Gartner group showed that more than 60% of employees work in virtual teams (Martins, Gilson, and Maynard, 2004). These teams provide potential benefits to the organization including 24-hour service, travel cost-cutting, and best expertise employment (Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei, 2006). Yet those teams face challenges in cultural diversity, distortion in communication mechanisms, and time zone disparities (Shachaf, 2008). This essay will demonstrate solutions against these challenges to explain the rising opportunities of virtual teams. These solutions will include the appropriate team member selection, the effective use of communication media, the importance of four virtual leadership roles (facilitator, mentor, monitor, and coordinator), the establishment of positive team processes, the e-ethical management, the balance management between individual and organization expectations, the transformational leadership under uncertainty conditions, the awareness from virtual team subgrouping, the significance of establishing and promoting relationships among members, and finally the design of a proper HRM system.
Appropriate selection of team members and the promotion of a satisfactory organizational culture mitigate virtual team diversity conflicts. Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei (2006) categorized virtual team diversity as functional (differences in experience and education) and social category (differences in culture, gender, and age). Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei (2006) explained this diversity by two theories; similarity attraction theory and social identity theory. The former states that people prefer to interact with others of the same thinking while the latter states that people get affected by others of the same social category (Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei, 2006). A study done by Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei (2006) on three virtual teams from 11 countries spanning all continents demonstrated weak functional diversity and strong cultural diversity, especially between collectivistic cultures (Singapore and India) and individualistic cultures (United Stated and Canada). Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei (2006) suggested several approaches to tackle intercultural heterogeneity by adopting an integrative resolution approach (trying to satisfy all team members), by carefully choosing team members, and finally by creating a proper adaptive cultural environment. Also, Shachaf (2008) and Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei (2006) inferred that functional diversity might promote discussion, improve decision making, and lead to constructive conflicts especially when team members work on high-complex and interdependent tasks.
Effective selection and use of communication channels and the creation of new capabilities for communication can reduce team conflicts and intercultural communication. Shachaf (2008) argued that virtual teams encounter bigger communication challenges than face-to-face teams; the cultural diversity discussed above, the lack of nonverbal and vocal cues, and the time zone difference may distort communication among members. Supported by media richness theory, social presence theory, and social influence theory, Shachaf (2008) concluded in his study that virtual teams select the appropriate communication channel based on several factors like the social context, situational constraints, sender/receiver preferences, etc. As such Shachaf (2008) realized that technology can mitigate the effects of cultural diversity by alleviating space and time differences, improving message encoding/decoding, and getting around verbal and nonverbal cues. For instance, email reduced miscommunications attributed to nonverbal cues and differences in style and language. Also, Teleconferencing, like E-Meetings, allowed teams to use synchronous written documents to reduce barriers caused by unfamiliar accents. In addition, Team Room’s asynchronous repository of documents and archiving capabilities provided great help to overcome diversity difficulties (Shachaf, 2008). Not to mention Videoconferencing which, according to a study by Hambley, O’Neill, & Kline (2007) provided rich nonverbal communication to virtual teams.