Friday, February 6, 2009

The disappearing team – Virtual Workplace Survey

What are the most significant challenges leading a virtual work team?

Suppose you were invited to be a featured speaker at a
very prestigious university’s executive management program. You were selected based on your years of experience leading virtual work teams and your role was to talk from the practitioners’ standpoint. It is a priority that you do not embarrass yourself or waste time and money of this high powered group. This is where I find myself and I thought there is no forum as open to gathering ideas as the internet.

QUESTION: What are the five (5) most significant challenges in leading a virtual work team as compared to one located in one geographical area? (Short answers are fine)

I would like to chart as many answers as possible, compare response commonality and present it to the conference and back to you on “Leadership is a Verb.” Short brainstorm type answers are perfect. You can provide more fidelity and/or ways to overcome the issues if you have time (do not feel compelled).

Thank you in advance for your help and I look forward to sharing the results with you.


Anonymous said...

1 - Trust
2 - Communication
3 - Project management
4 - Understanding the challenge
5 - Diversity

Unknown said...

What are the five (5) most significant biggest challenges to leading a virtual work team as compared to one located in one geographical area?
1 - Open to the process of virtual teaming
2 - commitment to the team / project
3 - Clear communication as opposed to assumption.
4 - inclusion in the growth process. Virtual teaming is about continual process change
5 - allowing for flexibility and newness.

Anonymous said...

1 Loyalty to your project or team
2 Communication (and the crutch and excuse it can provide)
3 Inability to see Body Language and reaction to direction (and things)
4 Support of different sports teams
5 The difference in Velocity of people at each site (and their inability to understand why the other people go at that speed)

Jarrett said...

From an international perspective:
1) Culture: The U.S. is very low context communication style where countries in Asia and Latin America are very high context (See studies from Geert Hofstede)
2) Time zones, holidays, etc.
3) Difficulty in building relationships with teammates
4) Progress is usually slower than non-virtual teams
5) Teammates are influenced by different motivators (i.e. team recognition vs. self recognition)

Unknown said...

1. Must have well defined roles and responsibilities.
2. Senior management commitment (to work through conflicts)
3. Regular (quarterly?) face to face workshops. As good as video conferencing/email/ teleconferences are, nothing replaces face to face.
4. Common toolsets and design rules (look at program delays at Airbus on A380 wiring design, space programs that used different units of measure, etc).
5. Difficulty incentivizing the team and celebrating victories

Anonymous said...

I'll try get back with explanations soon but for now just the short list:
1. time zone
2. language barrier
3. management style differences
4. in the technical arena, development style differences
5. lack of credible incentives

Anonymous said...

1. Effective Communication-was the objective met? e.g. to inform, listen, seek feedback, recognize
2. Trust-this is even more important in a virtual environment because you have to interpret your team's message without body language to help
3. Inclusion-making sure that all team members feel they are part of the team. Is everyone getting a share of the bosses 'good' attention?
4. Celebrating-how do you make this 'fair' for the entire team?
5. Time Zone Sensitivity-Your work day time may be limited

Anonymous said...

1) Camaraderie (team building, personal connection & trust)
2) Timely communication (difference in timezones, ability to make quick adjustments, etc)
3) Visual communication (reading body language & interaction, etc).
4) Exposure to non-work related distractions (reduces work focus)
5) Virtual environment requires self-discipline (not for everyone)

David Engle said...

You just get one quick and major one from me.
Lack of personal relationships between the team members. Teams function much better if there is also a social connection between the team members.

And then there's the old saying "Anybody sitting more than 100 yards away from me is less intelligent than I am". Virtual teams by default are far apart and this will eventually lead to lack of understanding between the members if this isn't actively worked against.

Good luck and I look forward to seeing your ultimate list!

Anonymous said...

In a global virtual team, I would say it is understanding and managing cultural/language differences. In some cultures, there is a hesitance to say, "No." In others, a team member may not be empowered to act and must get approvals which can sometimes lengthen a process. There are many other examples, none of which are insurmountable if recognized and managed.

Anonymous said...

1. Communication - easy to forget people when we don't see them!
2. Direction - More space for people to take their own.
3. IT challenges - different set up's and working practices can cause issues. File sharing and updating can be "lumpy"
4. Culture. Hard to develop when team only "virtually" knows each other.
5. Synchronising working hours and holidays.

It makes sense for more work to be done in this way so it would be good to get some guidelines.

Anonymous said...

1 Communication
2 Collaboration processes
3 Engagement
4 Trust
5 Exposure/Career

J Wong said...

Challenge 1) Communication
Non verbal communication and cues are extremely important to pick up on, you miss these when you’re on the computer or phone.
Combat with: Stronger listening skills, pay attention to the pregnant pauses, the tone, pitch and rate of speech, ask questions for clarification if you feel you may have misinterpreted something. Be conscious of your communication style and how others may interpret the message on the other end. Verify your team members understand what has been communicated and what the expectations are.
Challenge 2) Ensuring all members are included and that their contributions matter.
It is very easy to allow members to attend virtual meetings who do not contribute or add value. This is a dangerous habit to get into and should be avoided. Everyone should be engaged and provide their inputs, it takes a skilled leader to ensure that is taking place.
Combat with: Ensuring everyone on the phone is involved in the meeting at least one time, rotate the responsibilities of leading the meeting around to the team members, hold everyone accountable for their deliveries and promises. Try to avoid multitasking.
Challenge 3) Developing good strong relationships with your team members.
Sometimes you develop relationships or bond over non work topics and this usually takes place with side conversations or hallway conversions and not in the presence of a meeting which is why it is (I feel) more difficult to develop good strong relationships with your virtual team members.
Combat with: try starting off the meeting with a “hallway type” conversation to get the informal and candid inputs of the team members. Try calling people and just tagging up with them just because, as oppose to only tagging up with them when you need something. Face to Face meetings are vital and should be done once in a while.
Challenge 4) Technology comfort levels
People have varying comfort levels when it comes to technology and the tools used to operate virtually. If your team is a team of technically competent people then virtual teaming may work well for them. If they are not as tech savvy then there could be some difficulties when trying to operate efficiently as a virtual team.
Combat with: Training, use the stronger technically competent people to mentor those who are less knowledgeable. Get people to become comfortable using the technology by putting them in charge of leading a meeting or project? Be patient with those who are learning, as it is frustrating when you’re learning something new and it is in front of an audience you can not see.
Challenge 5) Cultural change
There has been a generation in charge that only believed you were working if they could see the whites of your eyes, saw you punch in and out with your time card or could see the hot cup of coffee in the late hours on your desk. This cultural change that many managers have to deal with is not always something they are willing to accept, even if corporate says they should.
Combat with: understand when you are working with management or employees that feel the need to “see” you or “have proof” you are working. Tools like IM are useful because they can see if you are at your desk or not and keep your outlook calendar up to date. Over time team members will begin to trust one another, especially if people are delivering on the promises they have made to their team members. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call. Not all things need to be dealt with via email or IM.

The bottom line is Virtual Teaming is here to stay and those who are able to adapt and use it as a strength will have successful teams, teams who execute efficiently and effectively on their projects.

Anonymous said...

This is a great question, one that I am currently wrestling with as we speak. Based on recent research virtual teams are the fastest growing in all organizations. I could give you a few pages of what I think are some of the issues, but I will just list my top five with a bit of detail. If you want/need you can follow up with me for any other information. Of course I agree with Robert as well. We need to be sensitive to culturally differences and mores. In addition to those my top five would be.

1. Managers are not trained to lead virtual teams. There is a common misconception that virtual teams can be led the very same way that a “Co-located” team can. Although partially true, there are enough differences that it warrants a new way of approaching teams, issues and people. Managing virtual teams is not for everyone. Managers that lead virtual teams should already be great managers, it is not for newbies.
2. Managers have to create an environment that is conducive to high performance
a. Match the people to the work (skill set)
b. Match the work to time zone
c. Set up some standards for the group
3. Virtual teams must be masters of communication. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but it is a skill that too many folks take for granted virtually. Virtual communication takes effort and time. It is often difficult for some people because they can get distracted easily. People try to do too much at one time, use the wrong forums, etc. Additionally, managers must know the preferences of their team members. Great communication is even more vital to a virtual team because there is no interaction outside of the virtual communication. You need to set up e-mail protocols, etc.
4. Ensure inclusion on a virtual team, create a sense of we. It is too easy to hold your virtual team at “arms length”. This is a recipe for disaster. Managers need to actively push their teams through the team development lifecycle so that there is camaraderie and a sense that they are all in it together.
5. Manage by results and meeting objectives. Even more so than a “co-located team” virtual team members must be held to account for meeting targets, not when they got into the office. Virtual teams are for grown-ups that are self motivated and driven to succeed.

I could go on, but will honor your request to limit it to five. Thank you for the great question. I look forward to hearing/seeing what happens at the conference.

Anonymous said...

1) Ad Hoc communication - How to replace the ability to stop by someones desk / office and have a open discussion
2) Time zones, both domestic and international
3) The perception that all most people do on tel cons is multi task (engagement)
4) Have a detailed technical discussion over the phone, pictures (white boards etc..) help many people communicate ideas
5) The ability to effectively get everyone together face to face when needed, hard to coordinate schedules.


Anonymous said...

Having worked in a virtual environment for the last 10 years, my first comment would be about your title, specifically "The disappearing team". Quite the opposite from disappearing, the concept of working together as a team is paramount and much more intense. In my experience, properly run virtual teams can be more productive than non virtual ones. I personally have never worked harder or put in more hours. Here are a few points:
1. Leadership is critical, and the best leaders are working leaders.
2. Team members must be self starters, self learners, problem solvers, accountable, and disciplined.
3. Just showing up doesn't count anymore, its all about productivity.
4. Team members must be jugglers, may have to work on multiple teams at the same time.
5. Be prepared to come together as at team quickly, and dissolve just a quickly.

Anonymous said...

Virtual work assignments have always interested me. As companies continue to get more global the challenges grow as well!

Once I was in Australia on a tel con with one of my employees in Wichita Kansas and another in Naples Italy. That was fun to schedule!

Thanks as well for the link!


Anonymous said...

Establishing trust - the one and most important challenge, in my opinion. It would be very important to establish trust with a virtual team, so that all the other challenges get easier to manage.

Anonymous said...

Hi John, this is an interesting topic. Having led multiple teams dispersed in several geographical locations, I hope I'll be able to help you with your survey. Here are the challenges I've experienced:

1) Timezone
With people residing in different timezones, it is very difficult to find a time when everybody is available to meet. Just think about working with people in the Eastern time zone and in China. 12 hours of time diffence makes it very tough for team members to collaborate. There is usually a 24 hour delay to fixing any types of issues. It is also tough on the leader who will usually have to meet with the various teams at various hours of his day (and night :-). This can be tough on the leader's personal life.

The positive side of the time zone issue is that it is possible to create a round-the-clock operation that will maximize the use of the different timezones while minimizing the interactions between the various teams. It is possible to create operations like this, IMO.

2) Culture
Differences in culture is also a problem that the leader of a virtual team will have to face. A Chinese person does not work or think the same way as an Indian person or as an American. It can be quite challenging for the leader of a virtual team to create a common culture for the virtual team. It can even be challenging to just learn how to delegate tasks successfully to people with different culture.

3) Language
It is challenging to lead a team when not everyone is perfectly fluent in a common language. English is often used as the common language, but when some members are not perfectly fluent in English, things can get tough. It is tougher in a virtual setting since communicating over the phone, emails, or IM is tougher to start with. Any problem with a language will be amplified by the distance.

4) Team spirit
Virtual teams have different dynamics than normal sit-together teams. One of the things that the leader of a virtual team needs to be very careful with is to not allow the creation of sub-teams that will start to compete with each other. This can happen easily if some members of the team are co-located. I personally believe that it is easier to manage a totally virtual team where all members are separated geographically, than having only a few remote members on the team.

As a leader of a virtual team, you will also find that your work is more driving tasks and leading projects than creating a team spirit and a social setting for your team. It is tougher for the leader of a virtual team to create a mass mouvement and ensure that everyone is marching in the same direction.

5) Communication
Some tools help with communicating with remote employees (phone, email, conference calls, IRC, instant messaging). However, at the moment, no tools are able to replace good, rich face-to-face time with your employees. It is tough to get to know someone through emails and phone conversations. Also, those tools do not translate the body language. After many years of meeting people on the phone, I ended up detecting the "voice language" - emotions that transpire from the voice intonations on the phone. However, nothing beats a good face-to-face meeting! The leader of remote employees will more than likely have to travel to visit his direct reports on a regular basis to get to know them better and understand better their current situation.

Also, some tasks are very tough to perform with the tools available today. Brainstorming is one of the toughest! Brainstorming over NetMeeting and the phone is just not the same as doing it face-to-face with a whiteboard. This is one thing that I never cracked in my multiple years managing remote/virtual teams.

I hope this helps you, John. Let me know what you think!

Allen L said...

As a virtual team member (on and off for 10 years) my biggest complaint is team leaders that don't hold virtual meetings to keep all team members on track. With a virtual team, creating a colabrative environment is even more important then when the members see each other face-to-face. Another big issue is clearly communicating changes to the team as soon as the decisions are made. Just an email with the highlights and a meeting schedule to explain the details in full.

John Bishop said...

Thank you to everyone who posted their challenges to this survey. I'm summarizing the results and will post them for you next week.


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