September 26, 2019

Perhaps the biggest change that has come to the workspace is the emergence of virtual teams. Forget adding another category of workspace setup because virtual work teams have made office workspaces disappear. A growing number of teams working in companies work from home. Research conducted two years ago by HULT International Business School shows that 66% of multi-national companies now rely on virtual team management to help them meet the challenges of geographical expansion, the drive for cost-saving and the growing demand for flexibility in the workplace. A virtual team had often been referred to as a geographically dispersed team, distributed team, or remote team and even the global team. According to Powell, Piccoli, and Ives, a virtual team is defined as “groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks”

In this digital era, the emergence of technological solutions has made virtual teams easier to form than ever. In fact, there are many companies out there that are almost completely virtual. Companies like Clevertech and Scopic have perfected the art of virtual teams, having remote employees all over the world. Scopic, a software company, has 230 employees in over 20 countries and other giants continue to grow and prosper.


Virtual teams offer many benefits that have allowed it to gain traction.   

Cost savings. The greatest advantage virtual teams offer is cost savings. Having a virtual team means organizations do not have to spend on office space, utility and other costs related to housing teams in office premises. 

Leveraging Global Talent. Virtual team culture allows organizations to hire experts and specialists from across the globe. This is very useful when setting up a team to work in remote areas or regions where finding the right talent is tricky at best. There is also great scope for knowledge sharing and skill development.  

Increased Productivity. In order to operate virtual teams, organizations usually require a flatter structure with lesser bureaucracy to slow it down. The members can thus operate with a greater degree of freedom leading to greater productivity.

Reduced Time to Market. In virtual team culture, members may live in different countries spanning different time zones. Effectively speaking, members can coordinate their work in such a way that there are multiple people working on the project at any given time. This can significantly reduce development time. Newer Opportunities. Nowadays, virtual teams have created huge newer opportunities for people who are hesitant and less mobile to relocate due to either physical challenge or family requirements. This has also led to the flexibility of the workforce. 


Whilst virtual work teams have risen in popularity and use, it still has ways to go in terms of becoming mainstream. The challenges posed by virtual work teams have often prevented them from gaining acceptance. They come in the form of trust, conflicts, ineffective collaboration, lack of oversight, and social isolation. For every effective virtual work team, these challenges must be overcome. 

In a virtual team, conflicts may arise due to cultural or ideological differences or misinterpretations. The absence of non-verbal communication, face-to-face interactions, and physical proximity may lead to ineffective communication, bad work ethic and growing distrust. There is also the chance of developing social isolation since members would be likely to spend their working hours at home by themselves and not being able to enjoy an office coworking experience. This isolation can cause a fall in productivity if not tended to. 


Companies that manage virtual teams need to groom members of the team to be ready to be a part of a virtual work team. A holistic process needs to be initiated starting from recruitment to team forming.

Human resources need to recruit diligent, responsible, and adaptive talent. They require training in collaboration, cultural empathy, and leadership. They also need to be habituated with using digital technology seamlessly and learn to trust technology and team members that they do not have physical access to. A laissez-faire managerial approach can be applied whilst ensuring that role clarity is present and feedback is adequate and effective. 

The role of technology is integral in making virtual teams a possibility. Whilst large corporations can utilize tailormade applications and suites for virtual teams, there is a great range of freemium and paid services that offer generic but resourceful software at a much more affordable range. There are applications for major functions within a virtual team: chat (Slack, Twist), project management (Trello, Asana), video conferencing (Google Meet), collaboration and prototyping (Adobe XD, Marvel), and workflow automation (Monday, Microsoft Flow).  


Dell, Harvest, Basecamp, Buffer, Zapier, ‘Automattic’ and many other companies have used virtual teams for carrying out certain aspects of the operation. Their investment in virtual teams is growing by the day. Giant companies like ‘Automattic’ give their virtual team members the latest technological hardware to carry out their work from home without any hitches. They also provide members with allowance to revamp their makeshift ‘office’ at their own homes. They arrange all-expense-paid occasional meetups including an annual “Grand Meet-Up”. 

Dell Inc. operates a similar program for its employees called ‘Connected Workplace’.  Dell commits to continued support to new employees via instant messaging, email, and calls during the early stages of employment. They have implemented virtual work teams since 2009. The company also inspires their remote workers to use social media and share their personal experiences. Dell’s virtual team members post about their day to day work life using the tag @LifeatDell.

“Managing a virtual team can be challenging, but addressing those challenges head-on is worth the effort,” said Julie Wilson, founder of the Institute for Future Learning and instructor at Harvard University. When a virtual team overcomes the challenges that ensure the right decisions are made and implemented. For the success of virtual teams, overcome the communication barriers, cultural variations, power struggles, conflict to build trust, collaboration and commitment among the employees. Although it sounds peculiar but can certainly be achieved through effective leadership. With the right strategies, tools in place, processes, and organizations can benefit greatly from this new-age trend of virtual teams.


By Abdullah Al Mahdi

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