posted 8 May 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 8
Is the future virtual?
The evolution of collaborative working
A great deal of attention currently surrounds the role virtual team-working will play in the organisation of the future. Mark Meerbeek investigates the possibilities and discusses the issues surrounding the transition to a virtual corporate world.
Until recently few theorists devoted attention to the future of virtual teams in their books or articles. But these theorists mention that one thing is certain; changes in technology and competitive environments will represent new opportunities and imperatives for virtual teamwork. They also mention that the economic imperative for virtual teams combined with changing societal experiences of virtual ways of working may well transform the virtual team from an innovative source of competitive advantage into a dominant organisational form. Virtual teams and networks effective value-based swiftly reconfiguring high performance cost sensitive and decentralised will profoundly reshape our world. As members of many virtual groups we will all contribute to these ephemeral webs of relationships that weave our future.
In short this was all the information about the future that I could find in the books and articles that I studied for my thesis ‘Virtual teams: characteristics future possibilities and how they contribute to strengthening organisational learning and the collective memory within organisations’. For me this was not enough. At my internship at the Heineken University I wanted to investigate where and how to implement virtual teams and if they really do represent a method of working in teams that will dominate future ways of working. So rather than relying purely on my own imagination and creativity I asked fifteen virtual team specialists from the United States and Europe to participate in a Delphi research project exploring the future of virtual teams. After a first round of open-ended questions I selected some statements that were made and sent them back to all the respondents asking them to give their comments. They obliged and the results were interesting.
A future prospect
While the future is unpredictable one thing is certain: the use of virtual teams will increase and we will learn more about how they function. Greater flexibility and technological developments will make it easier to work in virtual teams. There will be more multi-national and cross-cultural virtual teams in the future and people will be part of different teams at the same time. A risk of this multiple membership could be that the challenges of loyalty towards one team versus another will add to the complexity of decision and communication challenges. Even though future technology is difficult to predict it is clear that the future of virtual teams will be strongly defined by technical possibilities. For example video-teleconferencing computer-conferencing and image phones will allow team members to see and hear each other clearly solve problems and make decisions and provide access to common files. The result of these future developments could be ASPs richer functionality wider choice improved awareness and automated links. Virtual teams will then develop into fast changing network-based communities of self-employed specialists.
In the future technology may make this easier than it is right now but it will still be extremely difficult and certainly more difficult than working in a collocated team. With these steps forward we will also take one step back: understanding that virtual teams are not the answer to everything. We will stop using the modifier ‘virtual’ because teams are simply teams. Most teams will be partly virtual and partly physical. As we become more familiar with the practices as the technology improves as society comes to accept virtuality as younger folk who are immersed in the technology enter and advance to decision making positions we will see virtual work take off and become a part of most jobs. Furthermore virtual teams will eventually become an essential element of a balanced leadership approach that will make the difference in global competition.
Possible problems confronting virtual teams in the future will primarily pertain to communication and technology. Cross-cultural communication for example will continue to be an issue as will the speed of interactive communication and the lack of interpersonal contact between the members of a virtual team. Other problems that could present themselves may be in the areas of establishing trust creating synergy motivation of team members and overcoming their resistance to change multiple virtual team membership learning to master the right discipline in situations that are characterised by rapid accessibility and different time zones. These are all derived to a greater or lesser degree from the problem of communication. Problems with technology might stem from slow adoption of the technologies within an organisation people being distracted by the technologies of ‘presentation ware’ and forgetting about the need for discussion about the meaning of content and the fact that virtual teams will never be able to simulate human warmth. A broader technological problem will be that the differentiation between the haves and have-nots of technology will amplify differences in society and industry. Other team-related difficulties will be much the same as those confronting static teams (social loafing free-riding and so on) although these things will perhaps be more difficult to identify.
Virtual teams and the internet
What possibilities will be presented by the internet for virtual teams? In the short term (3-5 years) early adopters will learn along with the developers of the technology what works and what does not. In that timescale there will be no fundamentally new improvements in the way we work other than those we can already see with current virtual teams (for example high e-mail/GroupWare use). In the longer term (5-10 years) the possibilities surrounding the internet for virtual teams will centre on enhanced communication effectiveness. For example ideas will be expressed in a wider variety of formats; there will be reality environments where people can meet and talk as if they were really present; and the ability to collaborate in heterogeneous teams will become normal. High quality multi-modal communication enhanced by computational applications will remove some of the current distance communication drawbacks while adding powerful new capabilities. Another possibility will be that some of the benefits in communicating through body and facial language will be recreated. We have to remember that this may never simulate direct human contact but it will make visible almost every human interaction.
Competitive advantages will become increasingly important in the 24-hour economy. Possibilities that the internet will offer for virtual teams and therefore also for organisations will include faster business processes virtual laboratories moving teams beyond the boundaries of the organisation virtual team members who are able to work in a highly-flexible manner providing their specialised input at precisely the right moment and with minimal effort (thus increasing the quality and speed of output) and continued learning even while delivering. Getting there will be difficult complex and confusing for most organisations but when companies realise these possibilities in the future it will result in serious competitive advantages.
A virtual company culture?
Company culture will still exist in a virtual space in the future because virtual is not void of culture and because culture forms the underlying basis for values and standards of work. This does not mean however that company culture will not change in the future. Company cultures could for example take on a more international form in the future. A second possibility is that company culture will evolve in the future and become even more valid. Company management will have to find new ways of influencing their workers. Managers will need a deeper understanding of what inspires their workers and find virtual ways to hook into that inspiration. The conventions for working together may even evolve into certain standards and the next generation of ‘virtually comfortable’ workers could dominate the company of the future. Culture will then shift to less dependence on interpersonal direct face-to-face communication. This could lead to greater sharing open communications and more learning or else every community on a team level a department level or a company level might even create their own culture. Different cultures within companies could be inevitable for several reasons:
- Most companies of any size are competing internationally in some way and different countries produce different cultures even within the same enterprise;
- Many more companies are diversifying by acquiring merging and forming close alliances with enterprises whose cultures are different from their own;
- Even within a single company single country situation different cultures develop in different parts of the enterprise.
Different cultures within organisations will probably appear in the (near) future. There will be a continually changing culture and most importantly the local culture of a team will take on a unique form perhaps even more so than is currently the case. Even nowadays it is hard to find a growing successful company that does not have to deal with multiple cultures. Alternatively company culture might be transposed to virtual culture and the shared habits of the members of virtual teams. Firms that can adapt to a virtual culture based on high trust reciprocity networking fast reactions and flexibility will prosper going forward.
Virtual teams and ‘teleworking’
It is not the arrival of ‘virtual teams’ that enables or encourages people to work more at home or at flexible workspaces. It is the advent of specific technologies that permits this kind of work. Advances in technology are creating more options and organisations are finding ways to work in more convenient places. It is the ‘shrinking world’ that brings multiple time zones and locations into play. Eventually there will be greater flexibility and less regimented hours. Virtual teaming is simply one small part of these more fundamental forces. In the long run virtual teaming will probably be more efficient than local teaming. A scenario of what this might be like follows.
In completely flexible working conditions people will have to (re)discover a balance between working times and private times especially when they telework from home. But ‘telehomeworking’ is just one of the possible social forms of teleworking. Because people can do their work almost anywhere they could also choose the option of working in a well-equipped ‘telecentre’ in the vicinity of their home. But teleworking is closely tied to personal identity: can you operate on your own or do you need to be in constant communication with colleagues? For many people telehomeworking is not the best condition for striking the right balance. It depends on the individual their abilities and preferences. Eventually people will work more from home and so far we have learned that all of this technology creates more not less stress. People will have to learn virtual coping strategies and learn how to shut off in order to have a personal life. During a typical day the time spent on work and the time spent on private interests will be mixed to the benefit of both the virtual team and the member. The worker will feel driven to do whatever work is needed to obtain the desired results (results being the only criterion of success) but will attempt to give more time and/or priority to private activities (for instance childcare physical exercise travel spiritual development and so on). People will work in different places including at home. However a counter-trend could be the will to maintain a clearly defined boundary between work and home activities. Future workspaces will probably be portable and allow flexible set-up and organisation. It will be a very long time (if at all) before we adopt virtual avatars to any large degree or interact in immersive VR environments. But there is no escaping virtual work: it will surely blur the boundary between personal and private life. We will be connected 24/7 and must learn how to adjust.
This is a future prospect for virtual teams. But for now we have to remember that for some virtual teams cooperation will be better and for some it will be worse. The challenge for researchers and developers in the field of virtual teaming is to minimise the potentially negative consequences of virtuality and to identify and exploit the potentially positive opportunities. There is nothing inherent in virtual teaming that presupposes better or worse working practices. The only factor is its newness which may give proffer some disadvantage. I would like to end with the following premise. In many ways a virtual team is just like any other team: a virtual team is still a team. In time we will stop using the modifier ‘virtual’ because teams are simply teams. Collocated teams virtual teams dispersed teams co-located teams etc.: it does not matter. All of these teams have the same fundamental elements; only the tools they use differ. In time being virtual will become more of a side issue than an end in itself.
Mark E. Meerbeek recently graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a specialisation in virtual teamwork and worked for six months as a virtual team consultant for the Heineken University. He can be contacted at: email@example.com