The challenges of virtual teams in project management

The challenges of virtual teams in project management

Project teams are increasingly becoming virtual in one form or another. This can include working across different geographies, time zones, firm-wide boundaries and with third parties.

Dr Guy BrownProjects can cover a number of different countries with virtual teams and as Project Managers become more specialist in their fields their skills are in greater demand. But with project management becoming more of a profession, practitioners want greater self-governance, independence and the ability to feed into teams from their location of choice. Equally, organizations can gain access to scarce resources without moving people across national or international geographies.

Research indicates there are many benefits to virtual project teams, including extended hours of business, reduced overheads such as office space, access to new markets, access to new skill sets, productivity gains and improved work-life balance.

However, as with any management approach, there are potential pitfalls when working virtually including social isolation and reliance on technologies to aid communication, lack of certain factors including cohesion and team spirit, control of team members, visual clues in communication plus reduced knowledge sharing and cultural difference, resulting in potential mistrust.

One of the biggest challenges researchers have found to creating successful virtual teams is creating trust between co-workers and between employees and managers. Trust is seen as a critical factor necessary for effective communication in any team, virtual or otherwise. But the usual methods for building trust – looking someone in the eye, shaking hands and having conversations face-to-face – are harder to apply with virtual teams; there is a strong chance you will never meet in person, so creating an immediate barrier to trust. In an ideal world getting people in the same location is the starting point, but putting names to faces can be done via video conferencing or online meetings.

In any team, trust must be considered in three dimensions: interpersonal trust between colleagues, intergroup trust between team members and institution-based trust between individuals and the management of the organization.

There is some consensus that trust in project teams arises in two ways and is formed by the trustor’s perception of the trustee’s ability, integrity and benevolence. The first trust forming process is known as cognitive trust and is based on the trustor’s rational or calculative assessments (the thought process we go through to develop belief in another person) of the trustee’s ability and integrity. The second process is known as affective trust and arises from the social bonds formed between individuals. Researchers have noted that affective trust is therefore concerned with the trustee’s benevolence, for example doing what you believe is correct based on your understanding of where the person you are working with is coming from. This understanding comes from speaking with them, understanding their context and having a relationship with them.

The challenges of virtual teams in project management

Traditionally, it was thought that trust develops over time. However, the need to accelerate and create what is commonly known as Swift Trust within virtual team environments is now recognized.

Swift Trust is typically accelerated through the development of clear team spirit, communication, team goals and removing virtual team members’ stereotypical impressions of each other. Researchers note that Swift Trust is established in virtual teams through early communication and a positive tone and it has a positive effect on establishing an organizational relationship and group collaboration.

Apparently, Swift Trust exists in virtual teams only until the team gathers enough experience of each other and has a basis for the more traditional forms of trust. Research shows that Swift Trust influences performance by improving members’ confidence and subsequent trust.

So what simple activities can a project leader take to develop such Swift Trust?

  • Have a clear vision for your virtual team: virtual team leaders need to define a vision for the team, generate passion for the cause and establish common ground
  • Face-to-face communication is beneficial: team leaders or project managers should foster rapport building during the launch stage of a virtual team or when a new member joins. This assists in trust development and establishes a shared sense of purpose.
  • Establishing positive team processes: project team leaders need to develop ongoing team member relations, create team-based reward systems and opportunities for ongoing communication
  • Recognizing team members’ accomplishments: as a virtual team comes to an end it is not uncommon for motivation to wane and this can lead to a negative impact on trust and performance. Therefore, it is very important for leaders to celebrate the virtual team’s success and to make appropriate plans for team members’ ongoing success.

As virtual teams grow in popularity, there is a need for ongoing leadership and team development activities which forms an integral part of project management skills development and is a key element of any investment in learning and development.

See our PRINCE2® section for more information about project management.

Read other blog posts in this series from Dr Guy Brown

Engaging project teams

Creating leadership in Project and Programme Managers

The universal value of project and programme management skills

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