So, you’re getting work done with a group of people. If you’re communicating using a private Facebook group or sharing numbers on a Google Docs spreadsheet, you may have just wandered into virtual territory.
When does a conventional team become a distributed virtual team?
Twitter has become the new watercooler. Four decades of research by MIT professor Tom Allen indicate that geographic separation begins to significantly influence member-to-member interactions with distances as small as 50 feet. The idea of conventional, colocated team members who sit within shouting distance of one another for 8 hours each day is rapidly going the way of the hard-wired telephone and the CD-ROM. Also, many core business processes demand involvement from people working in different parts of the organization. Rarely do all these people report to the same boss, yet these virtual teams are expected to deliver real work. In a global work environment, it is not uncommon for an employee to participate on two or more distributed teams or workgroups simultaneously. Teammates based in different countries often know more current personal information about each other via social networking sites than they do about their co-workers in a department one floor above them.
Cultural differences also play a significant role in the complexity of distributed teams. These differences are frequently overlooked, as discussions tend to focus on the technology rather than on value differences and cross-cultural barriers. These pressures exert extra weight in Christian missions because of our assumptions that we share the same core values and because we expect everyone to “be nice.” Due to space limitations we cannot explore all the cultural implications here, but will simply reflect some counsel from James Plueddemann:
For God’s people to work together effectively, implicit assumptions about leadership need to be made explicit. They must be evaluated in light of sound social science research and biblical principles. The church in the North and South, the East and West acts out of unconscious and often confusing assumptions about leadership. We must appreciate the differences and challenge some of the misconceptions in order to work together as the worldwide body of Christ.
Virtual teams seeking long-term effectiveness will learn how to manage cultural diversity by explicitly talking about differences such as high and low power-distance cultures, high and low context cultures, individualistic and collectivist cultures, linear and holistic cultures, and whether we prefer sushi or Subway for lunch.
Differences Between Conventional, Virtual and Global Teams
|Type of Team||Spatial Distance||Communications||Member Cultures||Leader Challenge|
|Virtual||Scattered||Mediated||Similar or Different||Higher|
|Global||Widely scattered||Mediated||Very Different||Very High (!)|
Virtual teams can amplify the normal problems most colocated teams face. For instance, 600 professionals who manage or work on virtual teams reported that common problems such as not following through on commitments, questioning team decisions, backbiting and avoidance of conflict occur far more frequently on virtual teams.
Distributed virtual teaming supports the trend in institutions and organizations seeking to become more responsive to today’s social media environment. In a June 2011 blog post, John Kotter highlights the creative tension necessary for today’s organization to maintain a good balance between hierarchy (whose strengths are standardization, stability, maintenance and optimization) and network (whose strengths are seizing opportunity, rapid knowledge and expertise acquisition, and adaptability).
If you’re serving on a virtual or global team, how are you making it easier for your team leader to lead well?
 Lipnack, Jessica, and Jeffrey Stamps. Virtual Teams: People Working across Boundaries with Technology. 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley, 2000) 19-21.
 Jim Plueddemann, Leading across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.
 Table adapted from Daft, Richard L., and Patricia Lane. The Leadership Experience. Vol. 4th. Mason, Ohio: Thomson/South-Western, 2008, 309.
 Joseph Grenny, “Virtual Teams Keep People Connected,” Leadership Excellence, May 2010.