21st Jul 2008

Managing virtual teams

By Karen McHenry

In today’s global business environment, companies need to move quickly and operate in the most cost-effective ways possible. As a result, virtual teams have become commonplace for large and small organizations alike. Virtual teams are groups working across time, geography, and organizational boundaries by employing the Web and other communications technology. In large companies, workgroups are often comprised of employees in distant countries. Small companies, operating on lean budgets, may decide to outsource different functions overseas for economic reasons.

When organizations elect to create virtual teams, they focus on the potential advantages, such as the diversity of the team, or the potential for “round the clock” productivity with employees working in multiple time zones. However, companies must also be aware of the challenges that accompany virtual teams. For these groups to be successful, managers cannot use the old rules of leadership. New ways of working require different skills.

Creating a Social Context

The social aspect of work is a key contributor to well-functioning groups, whether they are co-located or virtual. Hallway conversations that traditional teams take for granted, however, are significantly more difficult for virtual teams. While technology is a great enabler for exchanging information and facilitating work, it doesn’t necessarily cultivate personal connections.

Cultural and language differences can also make it challenging for virtual teams to develop a social context. Managers must make a concerted effort to understand the cultural norms of the team and to manage across those.

Olga Voronina, a senior interaction designer and usability specialist at a technical computing software company, recounted a recent experience working with a virtual team.”I was working with a virtual team which included engineers from France, Germany, and the United States, with the management team located in the U.S. We felt that we needed to use a single language for work-related communications, both spoken and written. English was chosen because most team members were fluent in it. The biggest challenge in the beginning was the differing levels of proficiency in English that the team members exhibited. It quickly became apparent that making your best effort in trying to speak English was not enough. The company resolved the issue by offering free local English classes to team members, several times a week after work. In about three months, team communications improved dramatically.”

This example shows how it pays to check a virtual team’s proficiency in a chosen language and then to invest in formal training for those team members who need help. This approach not only breaks language barriers, but it also helps the team to become productive sooner.

Developing Process

With virtual teams, process is crucial. Developing processes around project and task management, problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict management can be useful. When co-located teams work together, managers may not realize how many small questions and uncertainties are resolved through impromptu discussions. In contrast, if uncertainties arise with a virtual workgroup, the team members may simply move forward based on their own assumptions rather than seeking clarification. If clear processes are in place, then assumptions are less likely to be made.

Greg Lueck, a senior software engineer at Intel, works closely with a team in Israel. He noted that, “In general, software development teams use a lot of processes such as code check-in procedures and code reviews. We have tailored our processes to work more effectively with our global team. For example, if developers need a code review right away, they will request it from a colleague in their own time zone.”

Although process is important, managers should bear in mind that it may take longer to establish process and procedures with a virtual team.

Managing Virtual Teams

Without a doubt, managers will need to develop and apply new skills in order to cultivate a virtual team. For example:

  • Clearly articulating team goals and individual roles. While this may seem like Management 101, many managers underestimate the importance of goals and roles for virtual teams. Setting clear objectives helps a workgroup to maintain team identity and connection to other members. Clearly defining roles helps individuals to understand what work they need to accomplish within the overall goals and processes of the project.
  • Coaching remote employees. Effective managers coach and mentor their staff. With virtual teams, however, this can be more difficult. Managers must make a concerted effort to reach out to remote employees and identify ways to promote individual development.
  • Creating the technological infrastructure needed to facilitate communication. Virtual team leaders must be proficient with the different technologies which support communication between group members. Senior management needs to understand how important it is to have an infrastructure where communication can occur anytime and anyplace.

Selecting Enabling Technologies

There are a variety of technologies which can enable the work of virtual teams. Useful tools include: audio or videoconferencing, email, instant messaging, and collaboration software where project information can be shared.

Video has proven to be an excellent tool for Olga Voronina. She said, “To establish a more personal connection, we often include video in our virtual meetings. It is amazing how much difference it makes when you can see faces and reactions of your colleagues across the ocean. Seeing each other on a regular basis is an important element of improving the quality of team communications, even if the video is not super clear or if there is some delay in receiving the video transmission.”

Greg Lueck commented, “We’ve found Wikis to be a good way to distribute knowledge between our teams in the U.S. and Israel. Of course, we also use things like email and LiveMeeting heavily. There is a lot of benefit to having teams distributed around the world. You can hand off a project at the end of the day, with the expectation that work will continue overnight and the project will be farther along when you come into the office in the morning.”

Without a doubt, the advent of virtual teams has helped to make the world a little bit smaller. These workgroups hold a great deal of potential for companies in terms of productivity and cost savings. At the same time, virtual teams have also created opportunities for managers to learn new skills and grow as leaders. Organizations that acknowledge the unique characteristics and needs of virtual teams are much more likely to reap their benefits.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

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