Winning with virtual teams

2006

As workplace change becomes an irresistible force – be it increasing pressure to reduce infrastructure costs, changing employee aspirations or competitive pressures – forward-looking organisations are using these challenges to launch coordinated efforts towards fitter, more agile and more responsive working environments.

These initiatives involve rethinking the very nature of work and frequently lead to an increasingly distributed work force. Consequently, a thorough understanding of team dynamics and virtual teaming is crucial for maintaining organisational effectiveness.

Teaming is as much of a challenge for individuals as it is for those trying to get more out of their work force. By understanding the advantages and disadvantages of virtual teams and identifying the desired outcomes, companies can begin to strengthen selected capabilities and build virtual teams that are more cohesive and productive.

The goal of optimising virtual teams is to continually discover and adopt methods and tools that support the predictable outcomes needed from the team.

Tackling Teams
We need to start by clarifying what a team is? team is a group of people with common interests and at least one common goal. Usually, there's a substantial amount of social capital, defined as mutual commitments based on social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other. A team requires real collaboration, along with sharing work and responsibilities.

Yet, other groups of people without these characteristics may also be described as teams. For example, task forces, work groups, and formal departments are all often called teams. Sometimes they really are, but frequently, these groups are more like a gearbox in which someone has put together a set of skills and expects it to produce more than the sum of its parts.

Luckily, people do have a natural tendency to work socially and team up, and so they can overcome some of the limits of that expectation.

The Virtues of Virtual
Virtual teams exhibit all the confusion and organisational predicaments of face-to-face teams, plus they bring their own set of concerns. One might ask, why even bother with virtual teams? Partly, it is because we can; we now have the tools that make it possible to work at a distance. Partly, it is because we must.

Virtual teams exhibit all the confusion and organisational predicaments of face-to-face teams, plus they bring their own set of concerns.

Real talent – an irresistible competitive advantage – is rare and companies have to get it where they can. Nowadays, people who can do the job may choose to live where the lifestyle is better, congestion is less, there is a magnificent view, or their family commitments balance. Virtual teams let managers utilise people who they might not be able to recruit otherwise.

Virtual teams offer other benefits for businesses. Cost avoidance frequently tops the list because of flexibility in recruiting. In addition, work can continue around the clock if people are staged in different geographies, handing off work so that a subset of the team is busy while other employees are resting. Another compelling reason to establish virtual teams – particularly in a multi-location organisation – is the difficulty to carry out change across the enterprise. A virtual team is likely to have a diverse membership, so managers can plant the seeds for greater swiftness and fluency of change.

The Downsides
Now, we all know about the disadvantages of virtual teams. For instance, in a live conference call, the lack of social cues can be detrimental; it's not possible to tell who's bored, eating lunch, confused, mumbling to each other – or how many are hanging on every word.

We always hope it is mostly the latter, but you simply never know. In a virtual setting, it can be harder to gain consensus and locate expertise. It can be tough to retain a team focus and for the team to be recognised as a powerful entity. How to gain a reputation of power is an old conundrum; typically, a lack of face time with executives translates to enjoying less power in the organisation.

The most commonly cited challenge is establishing trust. We are all used to building trust in a face-to-face manner. Trust is clearly important to team effectiveness, yet it is hard to establish over the phone. Nevertheless, people have even fallen in love and married based on correspondence, so it's not impossible; but trust may prove more problematic in a virtual environment. Just bear in mind that an untrustworthy employee is untrustworthy; it doesn't matter whether you can see them or not!

The question is: Having looked at potential advantages and disadvantages, what can an organisation do about it? How can tangible improvements be achieved?

How Virtual is Your Team?
First, take a close look at the team. Consider numerous factors beyond the location of team members. For instance, different cultures amplify "virtuality" and present a greater obstacle. It is especially tough if the team is not able to meet face-to-face; in this case, consider every opportunity for kick-off and in-person meetings.

Another consideration is whether social capital is already built up; has the group ever bonded at a basic level, or are they strangers to each other? The greater the past interaction, the better the team can leverage that background. If many have never met, the challenge of 'teaming' will be far greater.

Finally, there's no getting away from the fact that size matters. Certainly, with more than 20 people, building group coherence becomes infinitely more complicated.

Outcomes Are What Matter
When you have grasped a sense of the kind of team you have, you have a better feel for potential hurdles. Here is a surprising fact: Companies don't really care about teams. They care a great deal about what teams produce, but if an individual can produce the same outputs as a team, then the organisation is just fine with that.

As it turns out, a team can produce certain results that an individual cannot. Different kinds of teams often produce different outputs in better ways. When creating or enabling a virtual team, it's not possible to do everything, so first consider your desired team outcomes.

For best results, people should choose no more than two of these outcomes as the main reasons why their team exists. This is always tough to do; nobody wants to make the choice. Everybody wants to achieve them all, since they are all good objectives. However, if you are going to focus and target your actions to create a more effective team, you must be selective.

Finally, take action. It is vital to invest in the people, processes, and technology to close those gaps. Because if you just diagnose without prescribing and taking the medicine, you will never be better off.

Winning Teams
Though it is easy to get discouraged about virtual teams, in fact, they can be great for both the company and for individuals.

All sorts of people have met through virtual teams and established great relationships; challenges such a geography, trust and culture are clearly not insurmountable barriers. It is definitely possible and even though you may need to work toward improvement in certain areas, virtual teaming is really worth the effort.

A longer version of this article is available on John's website, www.jbassociates.uk.com.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.

Older Comments

Many teams simply lack the simple skill set needed to collaborate effectively. This goes for virtual as well as face-to-face teams. If you can't resolve a conflict in person, it's unlikely you'll be able to resolve it by phone or email.

This free white paper (no registration necessary) gives twenty methods for improving virtual team meetings:

www.interactionassociates.com/pdf/IA_20_Simple_Ways_To_Improve_Virtual_Meetings.pdf

Patricia United States