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Managing the virtual world

By Golnaz Sadri and John Condia

Executive Summary
The skyrocketing availability of communication tools has given enterprises the ability to establish project teams that not only include office compatriots, but colleagues from other countries and continents. Some say management is management, but those who pick team leaders and members face additional challenges when managing their far-flung charges.

Jon Katzenback and Douglas Smith in Harvard Business Review define a work team as a group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common mission, set of performance goals and task approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Virtual teams possess these same qualities with the added ability to employ geographically dispersed people who use technology and communication to accomplish their work across time and space, according to Michelle LaBrosse in Employment Relations Today.

The use of virtual teams is growing. A 2010 survey of employees at 600 multinational corporations conducted by RW3 CultureWizard found that 80 percent of respondents belonged to a virtual team. Those who manage virtual teams have challenges that sometimes differ from those who handle face-to-face teams. The following recommendations can help those involved in virtual team member selection, leadership and process, thereby maximizing their effectiveness.

Though different in some ways, virtual teams have many characteristics in common with successful co-located teams. Blaise Bergiel, Erich Bergiel and Phillip Balsmeier in Management Research News describe the keys to success for both face-to-face and virtual teams as: high levels of trust, open and clear communication, strong leadership, clear goals and purpose and the use of appropriate levels of technology.

Differences include the fact that virtual teams are able to span across spatial distance and multiple time zones. Team members can be as close as one floor away or as far apart as the other side of the world. They also lack the face-to face time that conventional teams are able to generate, relying instead on technological media such as videoconferencing, groupware, email and chat to support their interaction, communications and data sharing.

Opportunities and challenges

There are many advantages to the virtual form of teaming. Bergiel, Bergiel and Balsmeier suggest that the use of global virtual teams enables companies to reduce travel time and expenses. While replacing travel with lower cost communication technology, companies also save employees time. The three note that in 2007, IBM estimated that it saved more than $50 million in travel-related expenses by using virtual teams. The ability to span borders and oceans gives organizations the opportunity to recruit the most talented person in the field for a task or job. If potential employees are not willing to relocate, virtual teams offer a solution. Also, where it is impractical to move a brick-and-mortar office, virtual teams provide an effective alternative. The company and employee save on relocation costs, and each person’s talents can be used on multiple virtual teams.

Because virtual teams can use a diverse group of employees, often they are a powerful means for fueling creativity and originality. Virtual teams help create equal employment opportunities because geographically dispersed and physically disadvantaged employees gain access to a virtual workplace rather than a physical office. As a result, global virtual teams promote inclusive employment practices, discourage discrimination and create equal opportunities in the marketplace for a broad group of diverse employees.

However, virtual teams also carry some challenges. Bergiel, Bergiel and Balsmeier identify four. First, a lack of technological knowledge in senior managers related to virtual teaming can slow the adoption of the technical resources needed to facilitate dispersed teams. It also may inhibit the cultural change needed at the organizational level to support virtualized work properly. Second, there may be insufficient knowledge among employees regarding the nature of communications and interaction needed to support remote work. Third, the organization’s environment may be a poor fit for virtual teaming. For example, a manufacturing company may find it more effective and efficient to have all products and departments in a single geographical spot. Fourth, some employees may not be suited for working remotely. Psychologically, they may need the interactions that an office provides or require extensive training to feel comfortable working from a remote location.

Where organizations think that virtual teams offer a good outlet for productivity and creativity, they must consider a number of points when selecting virtual team members and leaders. In addition, attention needs to be paid to the overall team process.

Selecting virtual team members

LaBrosse, in Employment Relations Today, identifies a number of important virtual team member characteristics. Team members must be self-starters, skilled at project management, able to provide deliverables, enthusiastic about the work they do and technologically savvy. In addition, according to Richard Lepsinger and Darleen DeRosa in the book Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance, individuals recruited for virtual teams should have good interpersonal communication skills and the ability to take on leadership roles when necessary.

The scope of the problem to be solved is an important driver for virtual team member selection. Once the task is defined clearly, team members need to be combined to create the right blend of technical and interpersonal skills to complete the task successfully. Careful selection of team members will enhance team effectiveness over time. And limiting team size can help make the team more effective. Smaller teams encourage participation, so choose as few members as possible to complete the group’s goals. Finally, stability in team membership helps increase cohesiveness and increases effectiveness.

Identifying virtual team leaders

Virtual team leaders should be assigned to teams with care. Lepsinger and DeRosa suggest the following characteristics for an effective team leader:

  • An ability to manage change effectively by keeping the team involved in the process, providing a vision and support for change, as well as implementing changes as needed
  • An ability to foster an atmosphere of collaboration through building trust with informal communication channels, as well as encouraging open communication among team members and managing conflict effectively
  • An ability to communicate team goals and direction so that all team members are focused on the same targets
  • Strong interpersonal communication skills to provide formal and informal communications channels so that team members receive information for the job and feel connected and engaged
  • An ability to delegate and empower team members while providing appropriate follow-up to ensure team success

Passionate, technologically savvy team members and a competent, communicative leader who can manage the task while effectively motivating people form the basis of a high-performing virtual team.

Virtual team process

Choosing team members and leaders is only part of the task. Managers must establish ground rules and other important aspects of the process the team will follow on its way to a solution.

Establish ground rules. Bruce Tuckman in Psychological Bulletin suggested that groups go through five stages of development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. The first stage, forming, is characterized by unclear purpose and low levels of agreement among team members. Leaders therefore need to step in and provide guidance and direction. At the first meeting of a new virtual team, ground rules should be established. Phillip Hunsacker and Johanna Hunsacker in Team Performance Management suggested that these rules are more effective when they include type and frequency of communication, such as where the group’s calendar is, who will keep it updated, when team virtual meetings will be, the medium to be used to conduct the meeting, and how reporting will be done. In addition, it is helpful to discuss procedures for dealing with conflicts. To promote trust and participation, the virtual team needs to agree to goals and realistic timelines. By establishing the communications network that will be used, working with the team to establish the ground rules to govern communications, and having team commitment to goals and timelines, the leader is demonstrating effective management.

Build trust. Trust is an important component of many interpersonal relationships and interactions, including face-to-face and virtual teams. Members of high-performing teams have high levels of trust in one another. Developing trust in virtual teams consisting of diverse members with little or no history of working together – and sometimes few prospects of working together again – is a challenge. In Organization Science, Sirkka Jarvenpaa and Dorothy Leidner looked at the development of trust in temporary virtual teams. They found that with short deadlines and no face-to-face time to establish trust, the team members relied on expectations of trust from other settings that were similar. Trust-affirming actions such as meeting deadlines and communicating effectively helped to reinforce initial feelings of trust. However, they found that virtual teams with low levels of initial trust and no actions that affirmed the trust were left to operate in a low-trust environment, a handicap for the team.

Since task-based trust, or the belief that team members will do their jobs, is key to the success of virtual teams, it is important that team leaders work to build trust in their teams in a number of ways. A face-to-face meeting early on (within the first month or two) enables the team members to establish a base of familiarity, comfort and trust. Another way to build trust is to create predictable and reliable work norms about crucial group functions such as communications within the team. Team members who are responsive to communications, follow through, and take responsibility for results help build task-based trust, which helps enhance the team’s performance.

Develop self-management. Hunsacker and Hunsacker see the two main functions of virtual team leaders as one, managing performance, and two, developing the team. To provide these elements to the team in a virtual environment requires that leadership develop a self-managing environment for team members where the team regulates itself. Functions like mentoring, coaching and monitoring should be delegated to the team. Virtual team leaders can accomplish this by providing clear team direction, as well as goals related to mentoring, coaching and monitoring that are specific to each team member. Establishing clear direction and goals in these team development areas allows the team to become self-regulating, and team members can evaluate their performance through self-generated feedback and monitoring of their own performance. Virtual team leaders can instill these skills in their teams by establishing routines such as standard operating procedures, training members on procedures and providing compliance incentives.

Model appropriate communications. As with all forms of communication, technologically mediated communication carries a tone. Since individuals tend to be less inhibited when communicating technologically, virtual team communication has the potential to become harsh and provoke conflict. Hunsacker and Hunsacker recommend that virtual team leaders model positive and helpful communications to help team members develop appropriate response patterns. This helps minimize nonproductive team conflicts. Team leaders can recognize and reward supportive interpersonal communications to promote civility and effectiveness in the virtual environment.

Empower the team and address conflicts effectively. One of the goals for virtual team leadership is to facilitate the success of the team in completing its tasks and assignments. To accomplish this, virtual team leaders need to empower their charges by establishing clear goals to which members are committed and resolve any conflicts that arise. Clear individual goals, directions and personal accountability help minimize conflicts. The ability of team leadership to resolve conflicts in a prompt and fair manner improves the effectiveness of the team. The skills to know whether to handle conflict directly, in the group, or in another culturally aware fashion are attributes of the successful virtual team leader.

Research shows that culture affects the way individuals respond to conflict. For example, in some cultures, saving face is paramount, and this might limit a team member’s willingness to communicate openly and share information. Therefore, it is important that virtual team leaders operating with a diverse group be aware of how a team member might respond to conflict situations and how he or she might attempt to resolve disputes.

In summary, the ability of a virtual team leader to establish ground rules, build trust, develop self-management skills among team members, model appropriate communication, empower the team and address conflicts effectively will determine the success or failure of the team.

Managing virtual teams

Three areas need to be addressed to maximize productivity for virtual teams. First, is the task right for a virtual team? Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst report in MIT Sloan Management Review that virtual teams are well-suited for research and development tasks that use worldwide knowledge pools to complete the task. In addition, virtual teams have been shown to be efficient for software development by allowing software projects to “follow the sun,” as well as for engineering and other knowledge-ware projects. Virtual teams are least suited for single-site manufacturing applications.

Second, is the organization prepared to support a virtual team? According to Lepsinger and DeRosa, organizations need to plan proactively how to best structure their virtual teams and set them up for success. Organizations must be willing to establish security policies, invest in the needed technologies, provide procedures, be willing to embrace cultural diversity and set attainable goals to enable virtual teams to succeed. Companies that are not willing to acquire the needed technologies and allocate resources limit the success of virtual teams. Lepsinger and DeRosa provide the following checklist of organizational systems, processes and people needed for virtual team success:

Systems and processes

  • Our technology supports virtual teamwork.
  • We have adequate resources to support virtual teams.
  • Our performance management system is set up to measure team and individual team member performance.
  • We have reward/recognition systems that can be used for virtual teams.
  • We have systems and metrics to assess virtual team/leader performance.

People

  • Team leaders and team members have the skills necessary to work from a distance.
  • We have practices in place that help us select virtual team leaders and members based on the situation.
  • We have skills-based training for virtual teams.
  • We have technology-based training for virtual teams.
  • Senior leaders support virtual teamwork.

Third, how can high-performing virtual teams maximize productivity? Lepsinger and DeRosa provide a structured approach to enhancing virtual team efficiency and effectiveness called relationships, accountability, motivation, process and purpose (RAMP). The RAMP model includes relationships. Again, with the lack of face-to-face time, trust must be built through predictable communications using both informal and formal channels by accomplishing tasks on schedule, responding to communications promptly and resolving conflicts effectively.

Team members and leaders alike must promote accountability. First, ensure each team member understands his or her role as well as the leader’s role in team decisions and activities. Second, clarify expectations, who is accountable for which deliverables and the due date for a task or assignment. Third, team members need to be encouraged to inquire when expectations are unclear. Fourth, the team needs to develop an action plan outlining key activities, deliverables and due dates so that it can manage and monitor its progress. Fifth, regular calls or check-in meetings to review progress on team goals or deliverables are important so that course corrections can be made where necessary. Sixth, all team members need to keep their promises and commitments and to let others know whenever they are unable to keep a commitment. Seventh, team members need to be willing to ask for and receive help. Eighth, virtual teams need to establish processes to monitor their performance and determine whether the team is functioning efficiently or effectively. Ninth, should a deadline be missed, team members can encourage people to be accountable by asking leading questions and facilitating team process enquiry.

While the team leader has primary responsibility for motivating the team, motivation also should come from the team’s members. Some team motivation strategies include branding the team, recognizing individual accomplishments, rewarding individual and team achievements, and involving team members in decisions that affect them.

The final piece of the RAMP model includes process and purpose. As mentioned earlier, effective virtual teams have clear goals, roles and processes from the earliest stages of project development. They establish interpersonal processes that facilitate communications among team members and task-related team processes that help improve team performance. In addition, virtual teams perform better when they have clarity about how their work integrates with and contributes to overall organizational goals. The RAMP model provides a structured approach to assess and manage virtual teams and can assist organizations in maximizing the return they receive for their investment in technology and the right people.

Virtual and real success

Virtual teams enable organizations to bring together a group of diverse and geographically dispersed people with complementary skills who use technology and communication to work toward a common set of goals across time and space. Virtual teams offer both unique opportunities and challenges, and it is important that organizations pay attention to team member selection, leadership and the process the virtual team adopts to accomplish its task. The successful use of virtual teams is based on the willingness of an organization to provide the resources, including sufficient technology and the right people, for the team to accomplish its goals and tasks.

To achieve the most impact, virtual team leaders need to be skilled at working with highly skilled people from many cultures. This kind of diversity within virtual teams can bring creativity and add great value to the organization. In addition, leaders who can provide clear goals and tasks, resolve conflicts in a culturally sensitive manner, delegate responsibilities properly to empower and motivate team members, and communicate effectively through computer-mediated channels will provide their organizations with valuable, high-performing virtual teams.

Golnaz Sadri is a professor of organizational behavior in the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University, Fullerton. She holds a B.S. in management sciences and a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from the Victoria University of Manchester, U.K. Her research has been published in prominent journals, including Applied Psychology: An International Review, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Journal of Managerial Psychology and Leadership Quarterly. She also participates in various national and international conferences, including the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the Western Academy of Management and the National Academy of Management.

John Condia is technical sales specialist for computing infrastructure at Nth Genera-tion Computing. He has an associate of science degree in computer technology from Grossmont College in San Diego, a bachelor’s degree in finance from California State University, Fullerton, and is completing an MBA at California State University, Fullerton. He has been involved in the specification and implementation of computing infrastructure for small and medium businesses for more than 30 years.

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