With increasing incorporation of technology in today’s workplace, virtual teams are becoming more common.
In a literature review of studies on the virtual team, Powell, Piccoli and Ives defined virtual teams as “groups of geographically, organisationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organisational tasks.”
With increasing demand for flexible work arrangements, many employees find themselves forming virtual teams – teams not situated within the same location, but working primarily using information technology.
These teams may be temporary or permanent, but are merged together with a common task to complete. Using e-mail, instant messaging and video-calls, individuals can collaborate, share knowledge and work seamlessly.
Virtual teams may benefit or be detrimental to an organisation’s productivity. For the modern working woman, virtual teams may serve a larger purpose altogether.
Research by Agnetha Broos, has shown gender differences in learning and communication using technology, with women having a more negative attitude towards computers and the internet as compared to men.
Thus, the question arises – are virtual work arrangements a boon or bane for the 21st century career woman?
Balancing work and family
The virtual team has the potential to ease the working woman’s efforts to build professional careers while caring for their families as it enables them to do both simultaneously.
Without being tied to the office, women working from home have more flexible hours beyond the traditional nine-to-five working hours.
Virtual teams allow women to be more hands-on with raising their kids while working. Reducing commute time and distractions from the office means more time for women to engage in healthy practices and leisure activities – resulting in happier and healthier employees.
In fact, this could partially explain the findings of a study which found that women were more satisfied with working in virtual teams compared to men.
Opportunities for women
A widely espoused advantage of virtual teams is the ‘boundary-less’ working environment, whereby geography, space and organisational limitations are diminished.
This opens many doors for women to engage in opportunities that may not be present in their locale.
Although gender equality has come far in the last few decades, certain countries still have gender discrimination in the workplace. The glass ceiling is only too true for women living in these countries, limiting their opportunities.
However, through virtual teams, women can be released from the working environment of their home countries, which may be rife with discriminative policies.
Instead, they can contribute their talents and expertise to projects of organisations that may not operate in their locale.
Due to the unique functions of a virtual team, work performance is measured in metrics that go beyond the traditional hourly-based methods.
It is the work output in the form of deliverables that is the key index. The production of reports, products and execution of action plans become the KPIs (key performance indicators), leading to a highly meritocratic system.
There is little room for non-task related measurements, which allow for a more level playing field for women.
A person’s performance is then less likely to be judged by gender biases, such as viewing men as being more suitable for certain positions.
Virtual teams allow women to be part of a workforce that rewards talent and performance regardless of gender.
Although virtual teams seem to be the perfect fit for women, there remain some challenges that are unique to women as well.
Research by Karima Merchant indicate that women are more relationship-focused than men (who are more task-focused).
Given this, some women may find the lack of face-to-face communication a major challenge when working in virtual teams.
The absence of contextual and non-verbal communication may even cause misunderstanding and confusion when sharing information.
Surveys on women who are part of virtual teams show that they often feel that insufficient communication led to unresolved conflicts in teams.
Some women may find this a hindrance to their work performance. Nonetheless, with carefully managed processes, communication can be improved within virtual teams.
Less chance for relationship-building
Along with the limited communication of virtual teams, is the barrier towards relationship-building amongst team members.
When everyone is in the same location, it is much easier for rapport to be formed, and there are more opportunities for increasing team cohesiveness.
Instead, in a virtual team, the team is often only held together by the mutual goal of the task. For many women, the process of working towards a task can be just as important as completing the task itself.
Thus, the lack of relationships when working on a task over information technology may dampen the motivation and enthusiasm of women.
However, if a strong focus is placed on facilitating social interaction – particularly at the start – robust relationships can also be developed within a virtual team.
Managing a virtual work lifestyle
Despite the appeal of a virtual team – flexible work arrangements and the coveted work-life balance – some individuals may find it difficult to adjust to this alternative lifestyle.
Women who juggle caring for their families while maintaining a full-time career may find it difficult to manage their schedule.
The flexibility of virtual teams may mean working late into the night, or at odd hours to compensate for any time taken off during the routine work day.
Regardless whether virtual teams are more beneficial or detrimental to women, its presence in the working world cannot be ignored.
Virtual teams may be the best option for some, though less suitable for others. With training and proper management, its challenges can be overcome.
The question is, are leaders willing to make it work?
Millie Ong is willing to advocate for virtual work teams if it allows her to work from home in her pyjamas. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.