Remote teams and the new virtual reality

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The workplace is changing all the time and people are making up words to describe our new situations. While I'm all in favor of coining phrases (it helps you get the big consulting gigs) and models ( when in doubt, go with pyramids or curved arrows forming a circle), they can be confusing.

So let me address two words that are now part of our lexicon as managers but frequently get used interchangeably. We do this at our peril. The words are "Remote Teams" and "Virtual Teams" .

While Remote Teams might be virtual, and Virtual Teams are almost always remote, I submit there is an important distinction between them and a smart manager must distinguish between them, because the roots of success or failure lie in that distinction.

I want you to take a deep breath, poke your head over your cubicle like a meerkat, take a look around and ask yourself: how much time am I spending on projects and tasks that don't directly fit my reporting structure?

You know what I mean- you're on this task force, working on that cross-functional project, partnering with all kinds of people both inside and outside your organization that either don't report to you or you don't report in to them. Odds are you're spending more and more time on this sort of thing. Actually, according to research from MI contributor John Blackwell, by 2012 or so you'll only be spending 5% of your time on projects that involve your direct reports who are co-located with you in your workplace.

What you're dealing with in that case, is a Virtual team. It comes together for a short time, draws resources from all over the organization and then disbands when the task or project is complete. The more optimistic among us will tell you that there is very little difference between the two- that the skills to keep a Remote Team together and functioning at a high level are the same as keeping a Virtual Team on task: focus on a single purpose, good communication and trust. I don't disagree with that, but there is an important complicating factor with Virtual Teams.

What's different here is that each of those team members answers to a different boss. Think about that for a moment. Every team member has to focus and devote mind share to your project as well as appease the person with actual responsibility for their performance review, merit pay and day to day sanity. An optimist would say that it shouldn't matter, that the project is for the good of the entire organization and that petty silos should make way for the greater good.

My glass isn't that full. It's not that we shouldn't have that attitude, it's just that anyone who has ever sat in on a budget meeting and seen colleagues turn on each other like rabid wolverines over who gets charged for paperclips knows there are dark forces at work on even the most well-intentioned projects. If people are indeed our most precious resource, I direct you to the nearest history book to find out what happens when access to resources gets scarce and two parties both want them.

You can (and jolly well should) set up every possible method for communication among teammates. An explicit understanding of the project purpose and deliverables is a must, and they should all get to know each other as well as possible in order to build trust. That's Remote Management 101.

Here are some of the most important additional thing a manager of a Virtual Team needs to understand:

  • What are the forces working on the team members that aren't in your direct control?
  • Who is their "real" boss and how do they feel about your project? Will they actively support it, simply tolerate it or view it as an imposition on the person's "actual job"?
  • What's your relationship with their boss or department? What can you do to make it better in a hurry?
  • What else are they doing with their day when they're not working on your project? How will time spent on your project impact their performance review?
  • How do they feel about the project? Are they excited and motivated or is this "extra" work?

Oh, and multiply this by the number of people on your team.

I admire the spirit and positivity of those who treat both types of teams in the same way. I have been accused of being Machiavellian on more than one occasion, but let's remember that Machiavelli lived to a ripe old age in a time when most exit interviews were conducted with a stiletto or rope.

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