by Randi S. Brenowitz, MBA and Tracy C. Gibbons, Ph.D.

This article appeared in the conference binder of the Annual Conference of the Northern California Human Resources Association October 2000.


Teams have become a way of life in most corporations. They are one of the few work arrangements that enable the knowledge and experience of many to be brought to bear on increasingly complex and difficult problems. But teams give rise to their own unique problems of joint decision-making, shared ownership, role clarification, etc., and not all members are equally skilled or predisposed to work in a collaborative way. When the challenges of virtual and remote teaming are added to the inherent organizational struggles over interdependence and collaboration, new problems are created and, therefore, new and creative approaches for supporting the work and interaction of teams become necessary.

The complexities and demands of today's marketplace have also set the stage for teams that are not necessarily co-located. Many factors have created the increasing need to rely on teams that are not all in the same office building at the same time, sitting in the same conference room. These include increased globalization, mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, decentralization, the cost or shortage of labor, customer's requirements for fast time-to-market, the increasing complexity of today's products and product development cycles, and the proliferation of strategic alliances and partnerships.

This trend is further fueled by employees who are increasingly making lifestyle choices that affect their ability to work in traditional organizations. The increase in telecommuting, flexible work arrangements, and dual-career families significantly reduce the amount of overlap in team members' workday. The inability or reluctance of some employees to relocate to another city or country to "follow the work" has created the need to find ways for people to work together who may not be co-located. Other potential employees are choosing to become independent consultants and contractors. They join an organization in a "virtual" way, adding to the complexities of building a team.

A number of terms are frequently used when referring to teams that are not co-located or meeting face-to-face. They are Cyber Teams (CTs), Virtual Teams (VTs), and Geographically Dispersed Teams (GDTs). Some subtle but important distinctions should be made about these three types of teams. CTs are any teams that conduct a majority of their business using electronic media rather than face-to-face meetings. GDTs are those teams, which are not co-located and must work together to produce one project, product, or outcome. VTs are more temporary in nature. They are cross-functional, with members from different departments, divisions, or even companies (in the case of strategic alliances) and may or may not be geographically dispersed.

While corporations have had remote sites for many years, the difference now is that people at different locations are increasingly being asked to work interdependently and to share accountability for a single product, project, or outcome. The paradox here is that the needs of the marketplace have increased the need for interdependence and collaboration, while other market conditions and the personal needs and desires of the workforce are decreasing the possibilities of co-location and face-to-face communication. Properly supported and facilitated VTs and GDTs can be one effective response to this paradox.

Virtual & Geographically-Dispersed Teams

In their book TeamWork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong, Larson and LaFasto (Sage, 1989) identify eight characteristics of high-performing teams: (1) a clear, elevating goal; (2) a results-driven structure; (3) competent members; (4) unified commitment; (5) a collaborative climate; (6) standards of excellence; (7) external support and recognition; and (8) principled leadership. There is widespread agreement among researchers and practitioners that these are the attributes of successful teams. However, the research that produced these characteristics was done exclusively with face-to-face teams.

The preliminary research on VTs and GDTs done by Kossler and Prestridge (1996) at the Center for Creative Leadership and Lipnak and Stamps (1997) suggests that these factors also apply to GDTs, but it is more difficult for GDTs to develop these attributes than it is for co-located teams. Although co-located teams also face issues related to trust, leadership, consensus, decision-making, roles, conflict management, goals, and schedules, they are intensified in and are of particular concern when dealing with VTs and GDTs (Kossler & Prestridge 1996). These issues, in particular, are exacerbated by distance and the effects of significantly reduced face-to-face and other informal contact among members.

Supporting and Facilitating VTs and GDTs

In our work with teams of all types in corporations and as faculty of The Fielding Institute's master's program in Organization Design and Effectiveness we have developed a model for how to support and facilitate the start-up and development of effective VTs and GDTs. Such teams increasingly rely on various telecommunications media to enable their work together. Without the widespread availability of teleconferencing, video conferencing, e-mail, facsimile, voice mail, and groupware applications, it would be impossible for these teams to operate. Use of and reliance on these tools as the primary means of communication among team members gives rise to a new set of problems. Our approach, therefore, utilizes a combination of occasional, carefully planned and facilitated face-to-face meetings and thoughtful, strategic use of technology and telecommunications tools.

Start-Up Meeting

In face-to-face discussions, a message is conveyed 55% by body language, 38% by tone of voice, and only 7% by actual words. In telephone conversations, a message is conveyed 87% by tone of voice and 13% by actual words (Mehrabian & Ferris 1967). CTs, VTs and GDTs often rely on other media for access to and communication with each other, and CTs grapple with the limitation that all they have are the actual words. That is one reason why we believe that a facilitated face-to-face start-up meeting is an essential ingredient for the development of a high-performing CT. Such a start-up meeting should include:

The creation of a clear set of team agreements. The team first needs to agree on what they mean by the word "team." "Different cultures have different ideas as to what constitutes a good team as well as a good team meeting" (Tower & Sharp 1997). The team also needs to agree on a definition of time. If members of the team are in different time zones or even on different continents, what is the meaning of "Let's all have this done by Tuesday?" In addition, different cultures have different sensibilities about what "being on time" means. We recommend the creation of Team Standard Time. It doesn't matter whose time it is as long as everyone on the team agrees to the same definition. This also adds to the cohesion of the team. Even though members are located in different places, they all can relate to Team Standard Time. The team also needs to agree on what, when, and how information will be shared and on how team members will respond to it (Kossler & Prestridge 1996). If all team members are not from the same country, there will need to be an agreement on what language the team will use for its communications. Finally, the team needs to develop process agreements that address how they will work together and their rules of engagement.

The development of clearly articulated and agreed-upon goals. Clear goals are important for all teams, but they are critical for those who do not see each other frequently. When team members are clear about what is expected of them, they are more likely to know how and when to make tradeoffs and how to behave when they are back at their remote site and don't have other team members nearby for conversation and clarification. A clear sense of the work of the team and its outcomes also enables team members to represent the work of the team to others at team members' various locations. This helps to mitigate the out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon often experienced by VTs and GDTs.

The development of a clear set of roles and responsibilities. "The role is a basic social structure that mediates between an independent individual and expected behavior in a group.... In virtual teams with limited face-to-face interaction, roles rise in importance" (Lipnack & Stamps 1997). Roles and responsibilities in groups are the basis of and define the essential relationship among members. In work teams, they are also the basis of interdependencies and accountabilities. When members have frequent and casual interaction, points of confusion and misunderstanding can be dealt with in real-time. But without such contact, the potential for the structure to break down in the face of ambiguity and time-lags is great, bringing with it the likelihood of members working in vacuums doing uncoordinated and possibly competitive work.

The creation of a conflict-resolution process. Because it is so much harder for people to deal with even minor conflict when they can't simply "go next door" for clarification, an agreed-upon conflict-resolution process becomes even more necessary. If this is not done, "conflicts can get ignored because of the difficulty of communicating by phone, e-mail, or other technologies. Unresolved conflicts compound the team's communication and trust problems" (Kossler & Prestridge 1996). Especially in GDTs, such problems can (and usually do) snowball and eventually immobilize the team.

Training in the use of electronic tools and applications. It is helpful for team members to be trained on the use of any electronic tools and applications that they will be using before they go to their separate locations and lose the opportunity to ask questions "real-time." It is easy to assume that expensive tools are the answer to the problems created when people are linked by technology rather than proximity. Although electronic tools are a necessary aid to VTs and GDTs, they also frequently add to the frustration of team members. Training and help-desk assistance are essential if the team is to get maximum benefit from any tool they are using. The training should also address the social psychology of the use of such media. Team members often assume that communicating by technology is the same (or easier) than communicating face-to face. In fact, the potential for misunderstanding and the risk aversion that results is extraordinary.

In summary, the Center for Creative Leadership's research found that "an important outcome of [a face-to-face start-up] meeting is the personal rapport that develops between team members. Such rapport establishes the foundation necessary for working across distances" (Kossler & Prestridge 1996).

Structured Sub-Tasks

As with a co-located team, not all work can or will be done by the team in team meetings. Individuals or sub-teams are frequently assigned sub-tasks to complete. With VTs and GDTs, these tasks must be even more clearly defined than with co-located teams. There is a higher probability of miscommunication and/or confusion when people are not in the same room talking to each other. Once the misunderstanding is identified, there is a higher probability for those on VTs and GDTs to believe they have been "wronged" by others on the team. Therefore, it becomes necessary to clearly define the deliverables and the milestones for any sub-tasks that are delegated. In order for any project work to be successfully integrated, it is also important that the interfaces between the sub-teams be identified and defined.

Leadership Requirements

VTs and GDTs require stronger leadership than conventional teams (Lipnack & Stamps 1997). Teams that are co-located can sit in a conference room and circle around an issue until they come to some agreement and consensus. When the team is "meeting" in cyberspace, this process can become an endless circling that never converges into a consensus. With electronic communication, there is a tendency for a discussion to never close when keeping it open is as simple as pressing the "reply" button on the keyboard. The leader(s) must be willing to manage the process of bringing the team to closure and consensus. The leader(s) should ensure full participation of team members and help to keep the multiple dialogues straight and on task. The heightened ambiguity of working in dispersion suggests the need for increased structure, and the formal leader must take the initiative to create structure and define boundaries. This is not meant to control the members or constrain initiative or creativity; without a counterbalancing force to the ambiguity, teams quickly become immobilized. A laissez-faire approach to CTs clearly does not work.

Tasks that are typically completed by members of conventional teams, such as organizing or coordinating sub-tasks and integrating outputs of individual work may require the attention of the leader in a CT, VT, or GDT. This is not necessarily because members don't recognize the need for such structure or don't know how to manage them under more conventional circumstances. More likely, it is because of their lack of familiarity with how to raise issues such as these using a technically supported forum. If the leader creates the required structure, which includes identifying the need; recruiting/naming a person who will be responsible for managing the task or process; providing the necessary support and coaching; and holding both the task manager and the other team members accountable for engaging and reaching closure, team members are less likely to experience frustration and gridlock.

Commitment of Team Members

There must be strong commitment from team members both to the goals of the team and to the effort required to be on a VT or a GDT. The technology can be frustrating, the work of the team can be complex, and other demands on team members' time can be intense. If team members are not deeply committed to the work of the team, it will be easy to succumb to one of these frustrations and demands. This is, of course, true for all teams, and the benefit of committed members is well-proven. Work in dispersion, with its heightened ambiguity, the need to accommodate time lags and distortion, and the sense of isolation requires a better-than-average command of team skills and individual presence.

Periodic Face-to-Face Meetings

Plans should be made for periodic face-to-face team meetings. "These meetings will help maintain and refresh connections among members and minimize 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' attitudes" (Kossler & Prestridge 1996). These meetings can be used to resolve conflicts that may be festering between team members, as well as to create opportunities for team members to come together and celebrate their accomplishments.

Technological Support

VTs and GDTs could not exist without the technological tools that are available today. A number of the tools are synchronous, requiring that people be available at the same time even if they are in different places. Examples of this are telephone, teleconferencing, video conferencing, and chat rooms.

Other tools including voice-mail, e-mail, faxes, groupware, and computer-mediated conferencing (CMC) are asynchronous. CMC is a computer application that allows people who are not co-located to structure and carry on a dialogue on a particular topic. Frequently, there are tools within the application to aid teams with prioritizing and decision-making. We have found CMC to be an excellent tool for the completion of project work. The benefits of CMC are that it allows for multiple conversations to be carried on simultaneously, and it creates a record of interaction. This type of tool allows for input to be thought through more thoroughly than might be feasible in a face-to-face meeting. The limitations of this type of tool are a loss of non-verbal cues during communication, reduced spontaneity, and the time lag between postings and replies. Computer-mediated conferencing requires focused time and effort. Without that, it is easy to get hopelessly behind. Lisa Kimball (1995) refers to this as the "rolling present." "People generally consider material current if it has been entered since they last logged on. If you have several members who sign on four times a day, they may make it difficult for most group members to engage with the virtual group; it will all go by too fast." Although CMC is not a panacea for VTs and GDTs, we have found it to be a useful and promising tool for the completion of work that is interdependent and requires collaboration among members.


The current conditions in today's marketplace and the personal and lifestyle choices being made by today's workforce make CTs, VTs and GDTs a necessary component of most companies. If properly facilitated and appropriately supported technologically, they can be an effective competitive advantage rather than being the source of a new set of problems.


Hiltz, S.R., & Turoff, M. (1994). The network nation: Human communication via computer (Revised ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kimball, L. (1995). Ten ways to make online learning groups work. Educational Leadership, 53 (2), 54-56.

Kossler, M.E., & Prestridge, R. (1996). Geographically dispersed teams. Issues & Observations, 16 (2/3), 9-11.

Larson, C.E., & LaFasto, F.M. (1989). TeamWork: What must go right/What can go wrong. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Lipnack, J., & Stamps, J. (1997). Virtual teams. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mehrabian, A & Ferris, S.R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 248-52.

Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1991). Connections: New ways of working in the networked organization. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Tower, B., & Sharp, M. (1997). Meeting the challenges of global cross-functional project teams. Organization Development Network Annual Conference Proceedings, 161-163.


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