Teams. The very word can strike fear into the heart of non-sporting New Zealanders everywhere. Where were you when it came to picking the sports team at school? Were you one of the last people left, kicking the dirt, pretending you weren’t standing there with the fat guy, the girl with the gammy leg and the kid with the funny glasses? The negative association with the term "teams" continued when you reached the workplace, when you had to sit around in stuffy meeting rooms as part of project teams, getting nowhere fast, drinking coffee to stay awake as you watched Nigel (the fat guy with the gammy leg and funny glasses) go through his Power Point presentation. Well, no more! Now you can be a member of a virtual team. You could be in Wellington, Sydney or New York. Victoria University senior lecturer in IS (in the School of Communications and Information Management) Dr Pak Yoong describes Virtual Teams as a group of people, usually a project team, whose members are geographically distributed, possible in different time-zones. The teams coordinate and collaborate with the use of communication and information technology. Yoong says virtual teams are a relatively new business phenomenon in New Zealand and because of this organisations don’t always know how to handle them. Organisations span four levels in New Zealand when it comes to the use of virtual teams. On the first level, the organisation doesn’t even know a concept such as virtual teams exist. On the second level, the organisation knows that such initiatives exist and is interested in finding out more. On the third level, the organisation already has staff members operating in virtual teams, but it’s on an ad hoc basis. The fourth level is one which has virtual teams operating, but the organisation also has formal policies in place regarding their work. Yoong says in New Zealand the third group is probably bigger than the fourth. He compares the lack of standards to the days when the desktop computer first began to appear. "Firstly, you had different platforms — Macintoshes and IBM compatibles. Secondly, you had a lack of standards and issues concerning training and support." Yoong says similar problems can arise if companies don’t think about virtual teams. "You could have teams being formed and before you know it everybody wants to have a go at it and in many respects, organisational knowledge and memory and best practice have not been captured, from which policies concerning support and training can be formulated. That’s the main danger." However, he says there is a fine balance. Just as many desktop computer users didn’t care about standards, as long as their platform worked for them, virtual team members might be happy to work as they are. "There’s always a balance between having control and having end-users’ self-sufficiency. You don’t want to stop people experimenting, but at the same time you don’t want it to be escalated to the extent that resources — especially, for example, the use of bandwidth resources — just escalate." So what do you do if you suddenly find yourself a member of a virtual team at a company which has no protocols or policies? Yoong says you should let a senior manager know what’s going on and ask for some time to explain what you’re trying to achieve from working with a virtual team. "Often companies have members who are asked to be members of an accidental virtual team — it hasn’t been planned. They say: ‘Hey look, we have now merged with another organisation. The head office is in Australia or the US. This is the project; you have a lot of knowledge in this application or on this business operation. Include two more members, one based in the States and one based in Australia and get on with it.’" While some companies have planned virtual teams from scratch with proper planning for how people relate to one another, there are benefits from having some experience before putting rules into place. "You can learn from each other. Stop and spend some time after doing the project for about two or three months and ask the question: ‘What have we learned from what we have done so far? How can we improve some of the processes that we have put in place so that we can behave more effectively?’ I call that action learning; do something and reflect on what you’ve done before you continue on the next round." Yoong and PhD student David Pauleen are holding an interactive workshop on implementing, managing and working on virtual teams next month in Wellington. An extended action training option will be offered to participants after the workshop. Call Dr Pak Yoong on 0-4-463 5878 for more information. Mills is Computerworld’s careers editor and can be contacted at email@example.com or ph: 03-467-2869 or fax: 0-3-467 2875.