So What Exactly Is a Virtual Team?
A virtual team, like every team, is a group of people who interact through interdependent tasks guided by common purpose. Unlike conventional teams, a virtual team works across space, time and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technologies. The image of face-to-face interactions among people from the same organization typifies our older models of teamwork. What sets virtual teams apart is that they routinely cross boundaries. What makes virtual teams historically new is the awesome array of interactive technologies at their disposal. Virtual teams now use myriad electronic technologies to cope with the opportunities and challenges of cross-boundary work.

Regular meetings, encounters in the hallway, getting together for lunch, dropping into one another’s offices – these are our standard methods for getting things done. But these methods lag behind what has become everyday reality. People rarely see one another when they are in different places, spread out around the world, or even housed in different parts of the same city. Motorola, for example, has some 20 locations just in the Northwest Chicago area, each of which has multiple buildings. In the most extreme cases, some teams never meet face to face but work together online. Such is the case with the 1200 employees of Buckman Laboratories in Memphis, Tennessee, who form and disband numerous situation-specific virtual teams on a daily basis – even though they are spread all around the globe.

Many of today’s teams are ineffective because they overlook the implications of the obvious. People do not make accommodation for how different it really is when they and their colleagues no longer work face to face. Teams fail when they do not adjust to this new reality.

Close Is Really Close
What first comes to mind when you think of a team? A group of people working side by side, in close proximity to one another – a basketball or a rugby team, perhaps.

How close do you have to be to get the advantage of being in the same place? That is, what is the "radius of collaborative collocation?" The startling data that MIT Professor Tom Allen has been compiling for the past several decades show that the radius is very small. He says that based on proximity, people are not likely to collaborate very often when they are more than 50 feet apart.

The probability of people communicating or collaborating more than once a week drops off dramatically if they are more than the width of a basketball court apart. To get the benefit of working in the same place, people need to be quite close together.

To put this in perspective, think of the people you regularly work with. Are they all within 50 feet of you? Or are some of your coworkers a bit more spread out, down the hall, on another floor, in another building, or perhaps in another city or country? Increasingly, the people we work with routinely are no longer within shouting distance. Any team of more than about 10 to 15 people is by sheer physical mass probably more than 50 feet apart.

From a team perspective, the important distances are the personal ones. How close people like to be for interpersonal interactions varies by culture. How far away do people have to be before they need to worry about compensating for distance?

The farther apart people are physically, the more time zones they have to cross to communicate. Thus, time becomes a problem when people who are not in the same place need some of their activities to be in sync. The window for routine synchronous work shrinks as more time zones are crossed, closing to effectively zero when people are on opposite sides of the globe. People who work together in the same place also can have time problems. Salespeople or consultants, for example, rarely occupy their offices at the same time. Even apparently collocated teams often cross time boundaries and need to think virtually.

Proxemics – North American Culture
Most core business processes require that people regularly work across organizational boundaries. Supply chain management, marketing, product development, sales, quality improvement and change management are just a handful of activities that require virtual teams to work over walls and across borders.

Large-scale systems change invariably requires teamwork across organizational borders. To reinvent its administration and information management system, the US Department of Commerce has involved hundreds of people in teams from five major bureaus and dozens of smaller organizations. Usually numbering eight to ten people each, these virtual teams also involve scores of contractors who provide everything from consultation on change management to software programming.

When Acacia Mutual Insurance Company in Washington, DC, decided to have a third-party administrator do the processing of its new variable universal life insurance product, it immediately created a virtual team with its supplier, Financial Administration Systems, located in Connecticut. Alliances, joint ventures and partnerships all require companies to establish cross-boundary teams of small groups from member organizations.

Acacia’s ability to easily team with a third party draws on its decade-long change effort that began when a new CEO arrived in 1988. "I wanted people to embrace customer service and have a team orientation," says Charles T. ("Tuck") Nason, also Acacia’s chairman. "It was a very bureaucratic, function-oriented culture." By working in cross-organizational teams, the company has reduced new product development time from 14 to 18 months to 9. "Every insurance company should be doing this," Nason says, who also cautions that it requires patience. "It’s a long and arduous process. The magnitude of the change we’re talking about is so huge that there’s often much resistance throughout the organization."

Not surprisingly, virtual teams also are springing up in the very industries driving the momentous changes that are carrying us from one age of civilization to the next.

Excerpted from Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time and Organizations with Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), by Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps.

About Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps

Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, PhD are co-CEOs of NetAge Inc. Together, they have spent the past 20 years developing the theory and practice of networked organizations in major organizations around the world.Lipnack and Stamps are acknowledged as the world's leading experts on networked organizations. They have co-authored five books and numerous articles for major publications, given 150 speeches in the past three years in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, have appeared on many radio shows and are often quoted in the press.
They have also conducted scores of inhouse workshops that have launched networks of all kinds within companies, nonprofit organizations, major religious organizations and educational institutions.

For more information, visit NetAge Inc.

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