Are there any advantages of virtual project teams to the project or the team?
Other than benefiting the individual does the project or the team benefit from virtual operations or virtual team members?
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Most definitely. Virtual project teams allow you to pick the best people for your team regardless of geography. The benefits to the individual generally make for happier and more productive team members and you often get unique insights and perspectives that you wouldn’t get from a co-located team.
The challenges, of course, are the lack of personal contact. The camaraderie and team dynamic that comes from co-location and the non-verbal communication and nuance that comes from a face-to-face team. I’ve found that the best way to deal with that is to bring the entire team together on some neutral ground for a kick-off meeting. Use the opportunity to do some immersive team-building and force the awkward socialization with exercises and assigned seating at meals to mix the team up a bit. If you have an opportunity to do some brainstorming around your project or initiative, that’s also an excellent way for team members to get to know each other personally.
Once you have that “personal connection”, the virtual team tends to work much better together than a group of semi-anonymous voices on the phone or in a web-meeting.
One other “gotcha” to be aware of (and one that most organizations overlook) is that if you have a co-located group and a bunch of virtual team members, meetings will often have an underlying “us vs them” dynamic. People in the room will have side conversations that don’t carry through to the virtual team. Virtual team members will IM each other or exchange background emails and it’s easy to divide the team. I generally use an “all or nothing” approach. If the team is virtual, meetings should take place entirely on the phone or online (even if some of the team sits next to each other). Make extensive use of online whiteboards and other information sharing tools. It’s too easy to exclude virtual team members if you have a group of people physically meeting in a room.
Clarification added August 28, 2008:
I would also like to note that I find virtual teams to be better at communicating issues than face-to-face teams. (at least once they’re established). People today are much more aware of the need to communicate clearly and effectively when it’s in an email or IM. Verbal communication is much more fraught with nuance and interpretation. There are advantages to both approaches, but I find that once a virtual team gets over the initial hurdle, the communications are generally more efficient and precise than face-to-face teams. Your mileage may vary.