Monday, November 05, 2001

Virtual Project Teams

At first glance, virtual project teams might seem to strike at the very heart of the modern, Internet driven way of doing things. The very idea that work will continue around the clock 24 hours a day and seven days a week as project team members log in at time driven by their local time zone to contribute their part seems a model of efficiency.

In such a scenario, one can quickly visualize increases in speed toward a project’s goal, lower personnel and office space overhead charges, increased adaptability and flexibility in dealing with required changes along the way, and even improved quality of life for all participants.

The idea of virtual project teams holds the promise of leveraging the very best of resources, wherever they are located, to drive toward the project’s goal. Such leverage however, comes with its own price tag and this price must be understood and accounted for ahead of time.

Some drawbacks of virtual project teams.

One of the very first frustrations likely to be noticed in a virtual project team is the lack of immediate body language and facial expression feedback in team meetings. In spite of the humorous promise that “on the Net, no one knows you’re a dog” the challenge of being deprived of so many of the visual clues one might be used to can be disorienting at first.

One of the keys to making any team work to its potential, whether virtual or not, is the level of trust amongst the various members. Developing trust levels in a virtual environment can be tougher than in a real world scenario as the exchanges can be much more limiting. And while technology continues to afford us tools at which to chip away at the veil of virtual-ness, seeing someone face to face and seeing them over an electronic medium require adjustments of the doubting Thomases amongst us. What’s more, the time/place distance inherent in virtual teams also means that the offline opportunities to develop that trust are not so readily available.

While finding ways to develop the level of trust amongst virtual team members can chip away at many of the above noted drawbacks, the reality of differing time zones and the need to smoothly hand-off informational updates and such means that some members of the virtual team will undoubtedly being working late or early to accommodate the time zone differences involved. At times, working across the coast within the USA’s difference of just three hours can be difficult. However, doing the same halfway around the globe can be a true challenge, especially if the virtual team involves multiple time zone locations as in members in Europe, Asia, and the USA.

My personal experience with virtual project teams.

By the definition of my current role, I’m involved in virtual teams on an almost daily basis. The business development team in our division consists of six members with five member located on the East coast (including the team leader) and myself in San Diego. Though there is good reason for the split, I find I’m constantly working against being the odd-man out or lone appendage of the group. Beyond my own departmental team, I also regularly work with technology teams on the East coast and related teams in Tokyo to advance our various new business efforts.

Beyond the work-a-day world, I must admit I’m enthralled with the concept of creating a virtual team company and I continue to strive toward the proper combination to hit success. My first attempt fizzled after about nine months but I believe it was due to the underlying business driver (too narrowly limited to a single potential scenario) and not because of issues with the team itself. The three person team that assembled (located in MI, IL, & NJ) worked well in that we were able to maintain a critical focus, we met on a regular basis, and because of various prior experiences together, we had a core level of trust to see us through.

In spite of that initial “failure” however, my theory continues to be that if one can stitch together an appropriate team, an enjoyable business should be available for the making to the benefit of all. Thus, I’ve made list after list of team possibilities and idea possibilities yet haven’t had the opportunity or simple fortitude to make one work yet. Perhaps a proper project plan is what has been missing? J


Kiser, K. (1999, March). Working on world time. [Online]. Available:

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