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Making Virtual Teams Work

January 7, 2015

With globalisation and the emergence of ever-improving mobile technology, an increasing number of teams are made up of team members that don’t sit in the same office, town or even continent.

These could be project teams, virtual shared service centres or a field sales force.  There’s no doubt that like conventional teams the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.  For these remote or virtual teams to be effective there are some critical points that they must address.

Technology

The ability to see, talk and share information across the team is the primary reason for the recent growth in virtual team working.  It is therefore essential that all members of the team are equally able to make best use of that technology.  A Skype conference will only succeed if every participant can use Skype and has a computer with a connection capable of hosting the service.  Technical cognisance varies widely in most teams and most organisations simply accept this fact, offering training but rarely insisting on minimum levels of competence.

vitual-team-1In a virtual team every member must have above average awareness and confidence in the tools they will be using to communicate and keep in touch.  Not just in terms of technical proficiency but also in the appropriate behaviours when using the tools.  So email shouldn’t be used when an instant message would be more appropriate; and when team members have agreed to be on a conference call they must be ‘on’ the call on time, not distracted, doing other things with the speaker phone turned up to the max.

Define the purpose

It sounds obvious that a team should know why it exists.  It’s likely that if asked each team member could answer the question “Why does this team do what it does?”.  The issue is whether the answers would match.  Ultimately the leader must be the one to come up with a definitive purpose, a reason for being.  It is then one of the leader’s primary responsibilities to share this with every member of the group in a way that they not only understand but which is also consistent with the behaviours expected of them.  The more compelling the better and don’t be afraid to sprinkle some imagination amongst the practicalities, drawing pictures and using visual language – this should result in a statement of Vision and Purpose: why we exist and where we are going.

Membership
A team member may have many masters.  It’s common in virtual teams for members to serve multiple leaders, some functional some by location.  In these instances it is essential that lines of authority are clear.  Ambiguity leads to confusion and increases the likelihood of energy and effort being wasted on the wrong projects at the wrong time.  A little time spent agreeing the parameters in which team members will work can save a project from going off the rails further down the line.  Be sure to make time for this in the early life of the team; and going forward revisit these guidelines regularly, adjusting as necessary.

Strong leadership

Some might argue that virtual team working makes it easy for staff to hide and shirk their responsibilities, and if leadership is weak that may be true.  The leader, however, is more exposed in a virtual team that in a conventional work group.  He or she can’t hide behind a busy diary or lock themselves in their office.  Leaders of virtual teams must do just that, lead their team members.  Daily contact is essential preferably with the conversation not being entirely about task, small talk means a lot to team members that might fear being out of sight, out of mind.

Less frequent weekly face to face or at the least phone conversations about the individual’s work load, progress and development can become part of the routine.  Giving virtual teams something that few office based teams actually achieve.

He say “I know you, you know me”
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
Come together right now over me
John Lennon

Accountability and Feedback

vitual-team-2In an environment where team members work side by side, frustrations and differences of opinion can be worked out on the spot, whereas an ill thought through comment made remotely can easily fester and lead to resentment.  For any team to function effectively there should be a spirit of openness and accountability within the team.  Where a culture of feedback exists anyone can coach, encourage or critique another team member’s behaviour or work, but few groups seem to achieve this.  In teams where leaders encourage openness and provide training in the techniques required to give and receive feedback safely their teams excel.

Social interaction
Something that office-based teams often take for granted is the social interaction that comes from working alongside a colleague.  The value of being able to share the troubles or successes of the day with a nearby colleague is hard to quantify but there’s no doubt that many a long day has been shortened by the opportunity to vent about a difficult customer or laugh about the boss’s dress sense.

vitual-team-2Importantly, it’s from this social interaction that relationships can develop, ultimately leading to a greater sense of trust which in turn leads to better decisions being taken more quickly, reduced bureaucracy and greater productivity.

Someone once suggested that “You never really get to know a person until you waste time with them.” How often have you discovered qualities and surprising aspects of a colleague’s personality during a long car journey or when stuck waiting for a delayed flight?

It’s therefore more important for virtual teams physically to spend time together away from work than those teams where colleagues’ paths will cross as part of their working day.  At least three times a year the virtual team should take a day or two to get to know each other, learn together, review and celebrate recent events and adapt and agree working practices going forward.

Decisions and conflict resolution
If a team is going to make a difference they will need to make some choices together.  As with any team the danger of the opinions of the few dominating the debate is amplified when people feel unable to express their views.  Teams need to agree what decisions can be taken by the leader alone, what can be decided by a few and what issues should have input from everyone.  Having agreed the ‘what’ , just as important is the ‘how’. If the team have scheduled face to face meetings, these provide a great opportunity to deal with the top priority issues in an open forum, with more routine decisions either being taken by appointed individuals or democratically using email or online voting technology.

Benefits
When Starbucks founder, Howard Schultz talked about his coffee shops being a ‘third place’ between home and work I doubt even he predicted the impact he would have on where we work.  In the next ten years we will see offices shrink considerably as people travel less to work, as they have can access to their work and each other from wherever they happen to be.

The challenge this presents organisations is to develop leaders that can manage beyond arm’s length.