The rise of global virtual teamwork: Implications for human resource management.

The rise of global virtual teamwork.Traditional forms of team work are evolving and creating whole new environments for collaborative work in response to the increasing demands and opportunities created by complex and rapidly changing demographics, markets and information technologies. Organisations are not resisting these changes, but rather embracing them in order to remain competitive and gain advantages in the global marketplace. A good example of this rapid evolution of teamwork is the ever increasing use of global virtual teams (GVT) which now permeate all levels of large organisations; globally dispersed members working together virtually on both core and supplementary organisational operations (Cordery et al. 2009). Such teams bring with them a number of significant challenges for leaders, such as issues arising from geographic dispersion of members, reliance on electronic communications and diversity. This relatively new and evolving concept of team work can be particularly troublesome for an organisation's Human Resource Management (HRM) department, who may feel pressured to bring their workforce into the "modern world" of virtual collaboration, yet with little to no precedents to follow in regards its implementation may find themselves bewildered and a decrease in organisational performance. The main implication for human resource managers is that traditional HRM techniques, theories and ideas, which some may have been putting into practice for decades, may not apply in a virtual context, at least not in their original forms. This notion can be demonstrated by showing how Tuckman's 5 Stage Model (T5SM), a relatively old theory of team development, still applies to virtual teams, but must be adjusted with modern principles applicable to such context to remain useful. However, global virtual teams can only be effective where they are practical and welcomed, thus HRM must thoroughly assess if, how and where they will fit within their organisation in order to avoid costly, and embarrassing, mistakes. HRM will also encounter differences in perceptions of time, and resistance to organisational change; both of which need to be dealt with appropriately if virtual teams are to work in sync, collaborate efficiently and have all required resources readily available to them.

Global virtual teams are not appropriate for all jobs, but the potential for huge benefits if implemented appropriately means they should not be ignored. It is up to Human Resource Management to weigh up the several advantages and disadvantages of establishing virtual teams to determine its feasibility within their own organisation, rather than simply implementing them in an attempt to keep up with competitors. Advantages of global virtual teams can include reduced travel and real estate expenses, environmental benefits, the ability for firms to expand their potential labour market (experts and professionals can be hired regardless of physical location, or even their ability to commute to work due to disabilities), increased productivity (teams of globally dispersed employees can be working 24hours a day due to time differences) and access to global markets. Wayne Cascio, a professor of management at the University of Colorado, consulted with over 150 firms to identify these positives of establishing virtual teams within an organisation, but found negatives that can easily outweigh them if not controlled. For example, he notes that while companies such as IBM can increase productivity by 15-40%, and Hewlett-Packard doubling revenue in one instance, by establishing virtual teams, such gains could have been offset by factors as lack of trust and setup and maintenance costs. Other disadvantages include the loss of benefits of physical interaction (such as synergies and non-verbal cues), cultural issues, feelings of isolation and loss of cost efficiencies (eg. having same equipment installed multiple times, in multiple locations instead of just once in one location)(Cascio 2000). HRM should continuously monitor, control and balance these advantages and disadvantages if, after careful analysis, they decide to implement global virtual teams. Global virtual teams are dynamic and HRM needs to be supervisory accordingly (Cascio 2000); costs may seem viable in the early stages of virtual team development, but could spiral out of control later on if unmonitored.

The way in which global virtual teams are formed and developed largely influences the balance of the above advantages and disadvantages. For some time human resource managers have been armed with a large array of proven theories, ideas and techniques to try and ensure efficiency and high performance of teams; that is, to try and balance the advantages and disadvantages of traditional forms of teams within their organisations. However, human resource managers who try and apply such traditional practices to the modern global virtual team style are destined for failure, or in the very least poor performance, according to a recent study of 51 virtual teams (half of which were controlled with traditional techniques, the other half with modern counterparts)(Piccoli & Ives 2003). The results of such study clearly highlights what some might see as obvious: global virtual teams are not the same as traditional teams, and thus human resource managers should view, and control them from a new, perhaps modern, perspective. But even with the call for a new, modern perspective, another recent study can serve to appease worried human resource managers; their jobs are safe, if they are willing to augment their current expertise. Professors at various US universities studied six global virtual teams at a large food distribution company and found that the traditional team development theory, known as Tuckman's 5 Stage Model, also applied to virtual teams. The five stages, known as forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning are engaged by the members in a similar manner as co-located teams, however the challenges that arise are emphasized and require different types of intervention by managers to maintain high performance and efficiency (Blackburn et al. 2004). This implicates HRM to be wary and prepare for these deceivingly similar, yet emphasized conditions of virtual team development. That is, HRM needs to enhance this, and other traditional theories to satisfy the demands of the modern, virtual context. Such notion can be demonstrated through an analysis of Tuckman's 5 Stage model in the context of a global virtual team.

The first stage of team development, according to T5SM, is forming: members are chosen, become acquainted with one another and test interpersonal behaviours (Davidson et al. 2009); the latter 2 segments of which are seemingly easily forgettable in a virtual team context where members can be dispersed around the world. But firstly, the right people need to be chosen to form such teams; ideally: people who have a good balance between technical and interpersonal skills should be identified (Gibson et al. 2002) – an expert is relatively useless in a virtual team if they have no technical ability. To identify potential members with adequate technical ability, HRM are implicated to employ more modern selection/recruitment criteria, such as those that makes use of Media Naturalness Theory (MNT), which replaces the more traditional media richness and social theories that may be employed in more traditional team contexts. MNT comprises of three main ideas: the media naturalness principle which focuses on the degree of naturalness of a communication tool compared to face-to-face communication, the innate schema similarity principle (individuals from different backgrounds should approach electronic communication in the same manner) and the learned schema diversity principle (the more an individual uses a communication tool, the more natural it becomes). HRM should use such, or similar, theory to identify individuals who will be comfortable and effective in their organisation's virtual team set-ups, and who will become natural with such set-up quickly to achieve upmost efficiency quickly too (DeRosa et al. 2004). To fulfil the second half of this spectrum, identifying people with the desired abilities and tacit knowledge, HRM are implicated to search with an agency-dynamic capabilities theoretical perspective, and are advised to tackle the issue of global diversity by judging and dealing with members based on factors that surpass diversity such as IQ, learning styles and thinking styles (Garrison et al. 2004). In short, HRM should look past their traditional, local recruitment criteria/methods and put all global potentials on an equal plain in order to hire the best quality team members possible. Once chosen, members need to become acquainted and test one another's interpersonal behaviours for a team, and team relationships to transpire. Without such phase, which can be forgotten in a virtual context, the group will remain just that; a group of individuals working on the same project. With that said, "meeting" and developing high-quality team relationships solely through electronic communication is difficult, and increases the potential for faulty first impressions and erroneous, negative stereotypes which will falter the establishment of a collective, team identity (Blackburn et al. 2004). It is so difficult, according to Line Dubé & Daniel Robey who studied 42 leaders and members of virtual teams, that it is a requirement that virtual teams establish physical presence; so much so that one member stated that it should be considered "if I want my project to move forward and be successful…some things can't be done through video conference" (Dube & Robey 2008, p.8). With that said, in order for virtual teams to move forward and be successful, HRM are implicated to ensure the establishment of this physical presence, with "face-to-face kick of meetings" judged as the most preferred and important method of doing so (Blackburn et al. 2004).


The second stage of team development, according to T5SM, is storming: where members develop a group structure and patterns, or even rules, for interaction; often involving a number of members exerting themselves in an attempt to control the team's agenda (Davidson et al. 2009). Disagreement and conflict characterise this stage, with the potential for both much higher in virtual teams due to the diversity of work contexts and the lack of social cues (verbal/non-verbal) associated with face-to-face communication found in traditional teams. Without them, misunderstandings occur more easily, and use of communications technology prolongs them and increases tension (Blackburn et al. 2004). To deal with such emphasised conditions, HRM are implicated to train members in forming and developing strong relationships through ICT, such as by encouraging regular communication to maintain social ties and using communication media differently to convey such relationship; "If you use it for only task-related conversation, it won't go anywhere. With me, it's: 'hi, folks' and not 'dear sir'. I even put in a joke sometimes. It takes more time to make a joke by email than by phone" (Dube & Robey 2008, p.9). Members should also be trained on conflict resolution to reduce the risk of exacerbated conflicts hindering team development and cohesiveness; members should be taught how to identify, minimize, control and resolve conflict quickly and coherently in the virtual context (Blackburn et al. 2004). In doing so, HRM are providing the best opportunity for virtual teams to go on and establish synergy and unity in their operations.

The third stage of team development, according to T5SM, is norming: where members share an acceptance of roles and have a sense of unity, particularly in how they feel the team is going to operate (Davidson et al. 2009). Being together physically in traditional a team means instant communication and quickly coming to terms with how things are going to work, however the opposite is true for global virtual teams where the slower and diverse nature of electronic communication can easily hinder such understanding. HRM are implicated to facilitate a united understanding in this respect as quickly as possible, with implementing a set of standards and agreeing on terminology to be used in communications a tried and proven method to lower the possibility of confusion (Briggs et al. 2009). Implementing policies to ensure regular communication (to avoid member isolation and encourage synergy), such as "respond online within 24 hours", can help in this regard, which would likely be an unspoken commitment in a traditional team (Gibson et al. 2002). Such notions also aid in establishing trust within the team, which is key to establishing the norming aspect of unity. In the previously mentioned study of 51 virtual teams by professors at various US universities, self-directed work teams saw fewer incidents of trust issues than those governed by behaviour control mechanisms traditionally used in co-located teams. The latter teams had strict deadlines and reporting schedules in contrast to the former who worked much more freely and organised themselves, encouraging members to be more wary and critical of other's progress and failures, contributing directly to a decline in trust (Piccoli & Ives 2003). With that said, traditional methods of ensuring team efficiency in this stage appear to be counterproductive and unsuitable within diverse virtual teams, thus implicating HRM to reduce their traditional, stricter control mechanisms in favour of promoting freedom for members to settle into trust, and unity, at their own accord.

The fourth stage of team development, according to T5SM, is performing: where members enact the roles they have accepted and direct a united effort towards goal attainment and performance (Davidson et al. 2009). But while traditional teams are monitored and encouraged to perform from those close by, members of virtual teams are done so from afar, which gives rise to a number of distance related challenges that HRM are implicated to circumvent if a high-performance global virtual team is to be realised (Briggs et al. 2009). Firstly, traditional reward structures need to be realigned to suit each virtual team, depending on the type of work such team has been formed to complete. Nonetheless, an appropriate mix of rewards for individual contributions and overall team performance should be established; enough rewards for individuals to work actively by themselves on the task, and also enough of an overall incentive for individuals to make the effort to actively communicate and work with others electronically (Gibson et al. 2002). Secondly, performance needs to be assessed at different times in order to ensure members are on task and progressing. Because the assessor only has an external view of a global virtual team's performance, a shift from the traditional focus on time to one on results needs to occur to remain fair, according to the previously mentioned professor of management at Colorado University. When assessing a virtual team's progress, strict deadlines are unworkable due to not knowing the factors surrounding if/when each member reports progress milestones (Cascio 2000). Even so, HRM should still reserve the right to regularly monitor team communication/progress archives to ensure progress is actually being made (Gibson et al. 2002).

Lastly, the final stage of team development, according to T5SM, is adjournment: where members anticipate and experience the disbandment of the team (Davidson et al 2009). In a traditional team context where members are co-located, team disbandment is usually characterised by a pattern of grief depending on the circumstances, and plans for farewell rituals are usually planned (Davidson et al. 2009). With such physical intimacy missing amongst global virtual team relationships, HRM are implicated to ensure members feel a similar value of their team in the end as their co-located team counterparts; if they don't, they may be unwilling to join such teams again in the future, and speak negatively of them to their physical co-workers, casting doubt about their viability and place within the organisation as a whole. HRM can try and encourage feelings of worth at adjournment by planning physical reunions of virtual group members as a measure of thanks, and/or by providing equal bonuses as a reward for their efforts (DeMarie et al. 1998).

When a company decides to implement global virtual teams, it is essentially implementing a major form of organisational change, which is likely to encounter resistance from employees whose positions are to be affected by the significant organisational restructuring that needs to take place for virtual teams to become workplace compatible (DeMarie et al. 1998). HRM is implicated to prepare for and put an end to this resistance; otherwise the potential for global virtual team success is severely threatened. HRM has to ensure that all departments within the organisation accept and support the idea of virtual teams in order to guarantee collaboration and that such teams will have all required resources readily available to them (Cascio 2000). Resistance is most likely to come from managers who would be giving up much of their authority to the virtual teams, and HRM can alleviate this by providing training to allow managers to move away from being a supervisor to being more of a coach or facilitator in order to provide a usable, constructive, flexible and collaborative working environment for virtual team members, therefore keeping their job prospects open (Davidson et al. 2009). Another significant issue for HRM is how the perception of time amongst members of virtual teams can impact their team's dynamics and performance. It is advised by professors in Hong Kong and Florida that HRM and other managers are implicated to manage these different, culture/location-sensitive perceptions, and if managed well can allow teams to be very efficient. For example, virtual teams with members from different time zones can be working 24/7 by working asynchronously. In order to avoid conflict in regards to deadlines, rhythms and performance measures in virtual teams, HRM are advised to create awareness of different time perceptions among team members, facilitate development of norms regarding time, form an intersubjective time vision, match ICT to time perceptions, avoid time language traps (eg. "wait a minute"), and ensure that implementation of performance measures are sensitive to differing time perceptions (Saunders et al. 2004).

Having said all that, it becomes clear that human resource managers cannot rely on their traditional array of HRM techniques, theories and ideas alone if they plan to implement modern styles of teamwork within their organisation, particularly global virtual teams. Nonetheless, traditional expertise can still apply if managers are willing to be open minded, take on a new, modern perspective and augment what they know to satisfy the unique demands of these almost always virtual environments of work and collaboration. This notion has been demonstrated by showing how Tuckman's 5 Stage Model, a relatively old theory of team development, still largely applies to global virtual teams, but must be viewed from a new perspective if the emphasized, yet deceivingly similar conditions of the virtual context are to be identified by managers and dealt with appropriately to maintain high team performance and efficiency. HRM also encounter different perceptions of time amongst team members, and resistance to such team's implementation due to the huge organisational change and restructuring that takes place to support them; both issues of which need to be dealt with appropriately if virtual teams are to work in sync, collaborate efficiently and have all required resources readily available to them. What remains to be seen in the field of global virtual teams, however, is how far collaborative technology can be pushed to support the increasing demands being placed upon them, and what, if any, are the long term negative impacts for organisations currently absorbing as many employees into a virtual work life as possible – it is commonly thought that computer use and video games encourage kids to lead isolated lives and even become obese, could the same be said about individuals leading increasingly solitary lives in global virtual work teams?


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