Keeping virtual teams on track

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If virtual teams really are the future, as many predict, managers are going to have their work cut out, as new research has suggested 13 out of 14 of the most common workplace relationship problems happen more frequently in teams that are scattered across the globe.

A study of more than 500 people by corporate training body VitalSmarts has argued that problems with remote colleagues are significantly more difficult to solve and last longer than those with on-site colleagues.

What's worse and even more challenging for managers is that the most common means of coping with the effects of distance tend not only to be destructive to working relationships but can also be destructive to overall productivity, it argued.

When people faced challenges with a colleague who worked in a different location, they either tended to resort to silence or other passive coping strategies or they became "verbally violent" or attacking toward their colleague, the research concluded.

The silent approach included screening phone calls from remote colleagues, not returning calls and e-mails, leaving them out of the loop on important decisions or avoiding working with them all together.

When it came to "verbal violence" this included dissuading others from working with remote colleagues, criticising them, gossiping or complaining to others and vengefully challenging the colleagues' decisions.

VitalSmarts Joseph Grenny, author of the book Crucial Conversations and co-author of the study, argued that, while CEOs had done a good job calculating the savings and efficiencies of virtual teaming, they had failed to account for the unintended costs.

"The solution isn't co-location – it's communication," said Grenny. "Unless leaders of virtual teams invest in the skills required to make these teams work, they'll continue to significantly undercut their potential.

"The most crucial skill is the ability to raise emotionally and politically risky issues with virtual teammates in a candid but respectful way. Most every problem we identified in our study flowed directly from failure to hold these types of crucial conversations," he added.

The study recommended five key tips for holding crucial conversations with remote colleagues:

  • Talk before problems start. It was important to invest significant time up front talking about how you'll work together and establishing ground rules for airing future concerns.
  • Praise early wins. Managers needed to take time early on to acknowledge small successes and go the extra mile to praise people publicly in a conference call or write a personal e-mail and "cc" their boss, Grenny suggested.
  • Never raise individual concerns publicly. One of the major problems with long-distance crucial conversations was that managers were either visually impaired and so could not read body language or that the other person was hearing impaired, and so could easily hear "villainy" in complaints made. So, when bringing up concerns with a colleague, it is always important to do so one-to-one, Grenny recommended.
  • Start by clarifying what you DON'T want to say. In other words, it was important for managers always to begin crucial long-distance conversation by pointing out any possible misinterpretations of what you wanted to discuss. For example, suggested Grenny: "I'd like to talk about our mutual schedule commitments, but I'm worried you'll hear me as suggesting that the problem lies entirely in Japan. I know it doesn't. I know Grand Rapids is also contributing to the problem and I'd like to figure out how to solve problems on both our ends."
  • Gain allies before raising problems with a group. At times, managers might need to raise a crucial issue on a conference call. If so, it was a good idea always to vet any concerns with remote teammates one-to-one beforehand. It also made sense to ask for their help when raising an issue, so to ensure a manager was not taking a "side".

Managers also need to become more clear about the distinctive challenges between managing remote or virtual teams, argued Management-Issues columnist Wayne Turmel back in March.

The difference between the two, he suggested, was that virtual teams were more likely to come together for only a short time, draw resources from across an organisation and then disband when a task or project.

They may also be more likely to answer in the long run to different bosses, meaning that not only do they have to appease you for the duration of the project, they need to keep in mind their responsibility to the person who conducts their performance review.

Managers of virtual teams therefore needed to understand what are the forces working on their team members, who is their "real boss", what is their and your relationship with that boss or department, what else are they doing with their day when not working on your project and are they excited and motivated by it or do they simply see it as extra work?

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