Feature Story

Making the Virtual Team Real

by null

April 02, 2008

By Esther Shein

If you think collaborating on a project with a colleague in Singapore when you're in Los Angeles is a once-in-a-lifetime event, think again. Cross-border collaboration with a heterogeneous group of employees, partners, suppliers, consultants and even customers is becoming less the exception and more the rule in a global economy. Advances in communication technologies have not only created greater opportunities to reach new markets and suppliers, but also a workplace that is becoming virtual, with team members located around the world.

Virtual Collaboration Tips

While everyone knows that it's not easy to get teams to work cohesively when dealing with differences in time, space and culture, a pair of researchers have analyzed the challenges and identified the techniques to minimize the risks. Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski and Dr. Richard Reilly are the authors of a new book, Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise, to be published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. this spring.

Geographical distance is one of the bigger challenges to managing a virtual team, yet it is not the most important factor, say Sobel Lojeski and Reilly. The ability to build trust is critical when coworkers are working virtually -- it is the glue that holds teams and organizations together. Other challenges include innovating in virtual space and developing effective leadership skills.

Distance Matters

Based on their surveys, analysis of numerous case studies and other research, the authors identified a phenomenon they call "affinity distance," or the emotional disconnects caused by cultural differences among virtual team members. Affinity distance can occur within a team in the next building or in the next country. These emotional disconnects can get in the way of communication and relationship development.

Operational distance, which is the psychological distance that occurs when there are day to day problems within a distributed workplace, is another characteristic of virtual teams that must be recognized and addressed, the authors say. A team's size and its distribution also play a role in operational distance. The bigger the team, the harder it is for individuals to feel like a member, and therefore, each member feels less accountable.

If team members are going to be working on a long duration project (say, more than a few months), the authors say face to face communication is critical. "That's where you can build relationships and social interaction," which is harder when you never meet your colleagues, says Reilly.

People's behavior is influenced by geographic distance, the authors say. A team member is more likely to be cooperative and trust a colleague if they think they will encounter that person face to face than if they are thousands of miles away. Temporal distance, which refers to time zone differences and work schedule disparities, is another challenge because compromise is needed when scheduling a conference call, says Reilly. (See the Virtual Distance Index)

When issues such as conference call schedules or resource allocations are not addressed at the outset, there can be a lot of miscommunication on all sides, says Sobel Lojeski. People begin to complain about others not doing their work or devoting enough time to a project, she says, and then the managers have established negative behavior. "That ends up costing companies millions of dollars on projects and time to market,'' she says. (See sidebar, How Virtual Distance Can Wreak Havoc)

A Different Way of Thinking

Virtual work and virtual organizations demand a different approach to managing people. To bridge this distance gap, at the outset managers must be clear about the project vision, Reilly says.

If you have a video or audio conference call with a group of people, a simple technique is to follow up with everyone afterwards to review their understanding of the call, he says. "If they can't articulate the vision then there's a problem," Reilly says. "When we're working virtually we tend to have more people who are heterogeneous in terms of their style of communication … particularly if there's a language issue."

When language is a barrier, ask those team members what their preferred method of communication is-email, telephone or video conference. "It should be obvious but it isn't always to managers and you're losing some effectiveness," he explains. "On a superficial level, they understand people don't speak English as well, but on a deeper level they're missing the point that they're not getting the contribution they could be getting from these people."

If a company has staff worldwide, managers should appreciate the context in which non-indigenous employees are working. For example, scheduling a call to people in certain parts of India at night is not a good idea because some people don't have broadband access at home and making a trip to their office can be dangerous.

Sobel Lojeski and Reilly say a good way to be attuned to local conditions is for an overall project manager to empower certain individuals in different locations as "ambassadorial leaders."

"If I'm the manager I appoint someone who can handle things in South America, and give them authority to deal with things like [local] suppliers," Reilly says. Ambassadorial leaders must also be culturally sensitive, build relationships, bring people together and act as a go-between among people in different organizations and countries.

How to Avoid Common Mistakes

One of the biggest mistakes managers make when asking virtual teams to take on a project is not training virtual team members in how to work well together. At Cisco Europe, for example, which has nearly 10,000 employees across 21 countries, the European Human Resources division developed a set of team operating principles for how the geographically dispersed group works with one another. To develop the principles, around 90 team members posted comments and suggestions on a wiki. Those comments were condensed into a final set of guidelines, says Mark Hamberlin, senior director for HR European Markets at Cisco, in Paris, France.

Telephone conference calls are an example of how Cisco officials pay attention to details. "When people from my different countries come into a call, I try to greet everyone in their home language. This is a gentle reminder there are non-native English speakers on the line,'' says Hamberlin. He also makes a conscious effort to speak clearly and articulately, and makes sure others in his conference room speak slowly and closer to the microphone so the sound comes across clearer to the virtual team members. "It's not rocket science but about making sure that the message and the key points get across,'' he says.

He also encourages people to use instant messaging if they need something repeated but don't feel comfortable interrupting the discussion. Anyone with follow-up questions is encouraged to follow up with email, post them on their wiki after a meeting or to contact him or another team member directly.

When using new technologies, Hamberlin says it's critical to work out the kinks ahead of time. He adds that he has encouraged people to use desktop cameras that are tied to their phones "so even if we have a quick call the video pops up and you see the person."

When you have staff working from home, be sure to outfit them with the appropriate technology to make communication more efficient. But don't forget about the importance of occasional face-to-face meetings. (See sidebar, Collaboration Technology Dos and Don'ts)

Like Sobel Lojeski and Reilly, Hamberlin recommends setting expectations and discussing ways to communicate when different languages and cultures are involved. Ask people what style of communication works best for them. "Dialogue goes a long way toward building relationships,'' he says.

Tech Caution

Don't assume people will know how to communicate well virtually using tools. "People are not naturally born to talk in text, which is the predominant mode of communications," notes Reilly. They also don't naturally know when to pick up the telephone, organize a video conference or travel to see someone. Instead, they'll more often than not use email as a default. (See sidebar, The Role Technology Plays)

The more people are aware of the factors that create virtual distance, says Reilly, the better they can manage their own expectations and the ability to deal with them. "Once you create a common language … you can discuss problems that are easily identifiable. That alone eases some of the pain that comes with working virtually."

Esther Shein is a senior writer for Triangle Publishing Services Co., Inc. of Newton, MA