M253 Resource Sheet
Working at a distance
The purpose of this Resource Sheet is to bring to your attention some of the issues that you might encounter when working as a member of a geographically-distributed team. We will discuss the ways in which working at a distance can change the way in which teams communicate and collaborate with each other, and highlight some of the factors that have been identified as critical to the success of teams working in distributed environments.
The classical view of a team is that it is a group of people who have shared goals and a common purpose. Implicit in this definition is that members of the team live and work in the same place. In other words, team members are co-located so that they can meet face-to-face when they need to do so. This view of team working is gradually being supplanted by a more open view in which teams may be composed of members who live far apart from each other, work for different organisations, meet rarely, and collaborate electronically (Lipnack and Stamps, 2000). In other words, the team is a virtual team. In this Resource Sheet, we will explore some of the issues that can arise when working as a member of a virtual team. Some of these issues you may already have come across through your study of other Open University courses: the lack of face-to-face contact with your tutor or fellow students on the course; use of the internet to communicate and send documents; the need to travel to meetings (tutorials and day schools), and so on. These issues become even more significant when you are a member of a virtual team where you have to cooperate and collaborate with other team members.
Successful virtual teams
Virtual teams can be remarkably successful, even outperforming co-located teams. A recent article by Majchrzak et al. (2004) (co-authored with the authors of one of the leading books on virtual teams – Lipnack and Stamps (2000)) identified three practices which they found were important to the success of the virtual teams they surveyed. In brief, the three important practices were as follows.
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1 Exploit diversity within the team. In successful teams, team members with different perspectives and backgrounds worked together to devise innovative and creative solutions to problems by capitalising upon their differences as a team, rather than seeing their differences as a barrier that had to be overcome. Differences of opinion, which almost inevitably arose because of the team’s diversity, were channelled so that it generated solutions to problems rather than acrimony between team members – light, not heat. 2 Use technology to simulate reality and bring people together in the virtual realm. Having said that, in the teams surveyed team members tended to use simple rather than advanced technologies to communicate. This may seem surprising, but many teams found email and video-conferencing to be poor ways to communicate and collaborate. Instead, most teams used conference calls and shared websites (such as wikis). Conference calls tended to be used to discuss disagreements whereas shared websites were used to remind team members of their decisions and commitments – in other words, they were used as virtual team rooms. 3 Work on holding the team together through frequent communication. This is required to prevent some of the hazards of teamwork from arising – mistrust between team members, clique formation, or the distraction of other activities unrelated to the team’s activities. The team leader has an important role to play in keeping in touch with each team member and in holding the team together. Strategies such as asking team members to work in ad hoc pairs for short periods provide an effective way of allowing team members to get to know each other better,...