Wednesday, 05 December 2012 08:39

The Virtual Project Team – Is it right for me?

Written by Gary Hamilton, Jeff Hodgkinson, Gareth Byatt

Gareth FeatureArticle Dec5In today’s workplace, the use of virtual project teams and, for that matter, virtual workers in general, is increasingly common. There are many reasons for this: younger workers entering the workforce who bring new attitudes about virtual working patterns; a larger number of employees wanting to balance work and life; and companies seeking ways to save money, just to name a few. The emergence of the ‘virtual project team’ actually began more than 20 years ago; roughly 15 years ago, it started to gain ground as collaboration technology became more advanced. It could even be argued that industries such as construction have been using quasi-virtual teams for decades. Much has been written on this topic, including two articles that we authored in 2010 (Managing a Virtual Team and Communication Risk Within and Around a Virtual Team) discussing the communication risks associated with virtual teams and offering some advice on managing virtual teams. For this article, we choose not to further debate the advantages or risks of the virtual project team, but to ask the question, “Is a virtual project team right for me?”

To answer this question, let’s start with the definition of a virtual team. For the context of this article, we define the virtual project team as one that does at least 75% of their work without co-locating in the same physical location. A good example of a virtual team is our own article writing. The three of us have been a virtual team for three years, writing collaboratively without meeting face-to-face in order to produce our articles to an agreed ‘project plan’. With this definition in mind, let’s first approach the question from the individual viewpoint.

Employee attitudes have the appearance of becoming markedly shifted from the days of the 60’s and 70’s, when people’s goals were to work hard, be promoted, and aspire to one day ‘have the corner office’, a better parking bay and the other perks associated with lifelong employment at a single company. Or have they? Many employees maintain these same outwardly attitudes, and there is nothing wrong with rising through one or two organizations in your career. However, a growing number of employees, especially the younger generation, are entering the workplace without ever knowing of a world where data was not ‘real time’, who assume that online ways of working are the ‘norm’ and that ‘we are accessible from anywhere’. Upon further inspection, the perks these new age virtual employees seek are not that far removed from those of previous generations. They want to be recognized and valued for their contributions, but also have expectations of a better work balance, a continuous challenge and, often times, a well-defined career path. The “better corner office” of yesterday, is the “better online presence” today. The recognition of their value, regardless of the physical attributes, is the underlying common element that has been the common motivator of employees for centuries. Many of these new age youthful knowledge workers, as well as more mature workers (who may have reasons for seeking a change in work style) are likely to encounter situations in which virtual work is required. Will it suit them? We believe that one must consider five key questions:

  • How comfortable are you with modern technology? In order to be a successful virtual worker, one must be at ease with the collaborative technologies that enable it. Another question is - does your company have such technology?
  • How best do you work? Are you task oriented and able to work well with little supervision?
  • How do you balance priorities? Competing priorities arise very easily in a virtual setting.
  • What is the corporate culture and attitude toward virtual employees? Is it a novel concept, or is it an established and ingrained core?
  • Do you, or can you, honestly see yourself as a full member of an organization if you work remotely for a long period of time (e.g., for the entire duration of a project, or maybe longer)?

If you do not match the traits needed, particularly those mentioned in the first three questions, then seeking virtual working opportunities at this time is probably not right for you. 
Regardless of the size of the organization, virtual workers exist in today’s marketplace and all trending information available indicates they will remain for many years to come. Virtual working options have provided both the small and large organization alike access to a wealth of talent that otherwise may not have been available to them. With the value associated with tapping into a virtual workforce, one must ask when it is best to utilize this option for carrying out a piece of work such as a project. If you are considering searching for ‘virtual talent’ or looking at ‘virtual presence’ technology to enable virtual working, we suggest it will be worthwhile to consider the following:

  1. What is your general attitude towards “work”? Is work an activity undertaken, or is it an output produced, or both? Obviously, some work cannot be performed virtually. Bridges need building, and physicians need to treat patients in person. Knowledge workers, such as those who produce written material, build websites, or support customers, may have the option of virtual working.
  2. What is the dominant management style of your organization? Make no mistake about it – a virtual workforce (all or partial) is not right for every organization. If the dominant attitude of the organization is that performance requires employees to be closely managed in person, virtual working options are probably not appropriate.
  3. Do you have the technical infrastructure to support the virtual working option? Are you equipped to provide the necessary technical infrastructure and workforce support that is required to enable the virtual presence of workers? This will be a key success factor in establishing the virtual worker.
  4. Have you set up the right structure to work virtually without impacting others in your team or community of practice who are back at the office whilst you are working in a virtual environment?

We hope that we have provided some ‘food for thought’ on the virtual workplace. Whether you are an employee or an employer, the key is to determine whether the virtual presence is right for you and your environment. Don’t be too quickly drawn to the option and assume ‘of course it will work out’ if your work style or culture does not support it. This will only be a recipe for problems that could more than outweigh any of the benefits associated with virtual workplace.

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