Managing Virtual Teams

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2006

A colleague of mine from Australia, Geoff Taylor, recently wrote a great piece on managing virtual teams. I’ve included most of it below because I think it dovetails nicely with my recent briefing, "Prospering in a Flat World." My additional comments are at the end.

Geoff Taylor:

In these days of high speed communications, globalization and the relentless drive for productivity, most companies have implemented virtual teams in one form or another. A “virtual team” – also known as a Geographically Dispersed Team (GDT) – is a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology. They generally have complementary skills and are committed to a common purpose, have independent performance goals, and share an approach to work for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Why Virtual Teams?

Some of the reasons that companies establish virtual teams include:

1. Workers like personal flexibility
2. Best employees may be located anywhere in the world - diversity can be leveraged to the maximum
3. Shift from production to service / knowledge work environments
4. Increasing globalization of trade and corporate activity
5. Changes in workers’ expectations of organizational performance

In some cases there are corporate reasons for setting up virtual teams – such as to leverage off the organization’s skills around the world. In" other cases, it is the demands of talented key employees who drive the need for a corporation to set up virtual teams. The days of management thinking “if I can’t see my staff I can’t manage them effectively” are long gone. In many cases staff are more productive working totally or partially from home. For tasks that require a lot of concentration and no interruptions, the home office environment may be perfect.

Research on Virtual Teams

Recent research has generated the following recommendations in terms of how to virtual teams should be managed:

Include face-to-face time:

It is important to have an initial face-to-face team meeting for the team members to get to know each other and socialize. Given that a key element of team performance is based on trust, it is important for people to get to know each other professionally and socially.

Keep the project / activity visible:

Team members need to know where a project / activity is along the project timeline and what they are expected to contribute and when. This includes the overall schedule, progress towards goals and how each team members fits in. A project web portal can be a good way to provide team members with access to all the information they need to know about a project. However, the portal needs to be kept up to date and team members need to be directed to the information that is relevant to them.

Establish Group Norms:

Ground rules are essential for a virtual team to establish. They are useful in determining how team members interact, when they interact and what kind of behavior is acceptable. The Ground Rules could be incorporated into the Project Charter or other key project management document.

Avoid or Reduce Communication Delays:

Team leaders should recognize that the combination of multiple time zones, busy team members, and electronic communications will likely result in communication delays. One way to address this problem is to establish ground rules at the outset of the project. For example, the team may decide to set a rule of acknowledging communications within 24 or 48 hours. Regular conference calls can also improve the timeliness of communications.

Keep team members visible:

Use the Internet or work-group calendaring software to store team members' calendars. While this could be difficult to keep up to date on a daily basis, it should be possible to include all regular meetings and absences such as holidays or business travel.

Recognize People:

Team members who are making a significant contribution need to be recognized. Recognition can be anything from a simple "thank you" through to a more formal reward such as bonus or organization award. Research shows that public recognition builds commitment because it makes people's actions visible to their peers and therefore difficult to deny or revoke. In a virtual environment, where the team cannot physically meet, recognition could be given in a voice or video conference setting or perhaps even more informally using email with all team members copied in a distribution list.

Carl Robinson:

Managing a geographically dispersed team (GDT) requires forethought and discipline on the part of the leader. You don’t have the luxury of benefiting from those spontaneous, in-the-hall meetings that happen more frequently than you imagine when you all work in one physical location. Out of sight is frequently out of mind. You have to make those meetings happen and that takes discipline.

One of my clients, the Research and Design Division of one of the largest medical device companies in the world, with 500 R&D employees dispersed over multiple locations, has wrestled with this problem. In their case, we schedule a weekly video conference with all the R&D department heads to discuss tactical issues and assign and track action items and projects, etc. In addition, we have quarterly in person two-day long meetings (rotating locations) where the department heads come together to discuss more strategic issues, brainstorm and hang out together informally to foster the all important interpersonal trust that improves by rubbing shoulders with someone. After our most recent quarterly meeting, we decided that we need more brainstorming time together and will now be scheduling brainstorming time via video conferencing. During those meetings we will vet issues/problems and put our collective heads together to try and solve them.

The bottom line is that GDTs are here to stay if you are going to compete in a global economy. If you want to foster creativity and a high level of efficiency within GDTs, you have to be thoughtful and disciplined about your approach to leading and managing them. More heads thinking about something tends to produce more creative solutions but… you have to have those heads talking to each other enough to foster synergy. With GDTs you shouldn’t leave synergy creation to chance.