When HR Teams Work Virtually

Managers must work even harder to create personal relationships.

By Eric Krell Sep 1, 2012
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September CoverAsk some human resource managers what type of work they conduct virtually, and they might look at you with disdain before providing answers that clearly show they find the assumption behind the question outdated.

"Almost everyone has a virtual component to their job," explains John Cassida, an HR project manager for Sprint Nextel. With roughly 40,000 workers, Sprint employs about 625 HR professionals, about 40 percent of whom have offices at headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.

E.J. Blanchfield voices a similar sentiment. The chief people and talent officer and chief operating officer of consulting firm Point B says, "All of our team members work remotely and are not required to work from an office." The Seattle-based consulting firm's 24-person HR team performs recruiting, professional development, compensation and benefits, and other HR work for 445 employees.

Blanchfield and Cassida emphasize that managing performance, addressing personal employee issues and setting strategy are HR activities that benefit from face time and in-person interaction. However, they indicate that even these activities can be conducted virtually.

"Sometimes, you don't have a choice," notes Sprint's Knowledge Management Program Manager Chris Duran, a Kansas City-based "work-anywhere employee" without a designated cubicle. She sets up shop at desks designated for telecommuters in Sprint offices. She has a direct report who works out of town. "When the timing works and we're in the same location, we'll schedule in-person performance reviews. Otherwise, we do it by phone."

Blanchfield says some "HR projects that may not appear to fit the traditional virtual project profile" can be "immensely successful" when conducted virtually. She points to the recent implementation of a new applicant tracking system. The project manager works in Los Angeles, while most of the recruiting team resides in Seattle and works from home. She says the project manager did an incredible job of physically assembling the team for necessary meetings and identifying suitable remote chores such as testing, data loading and related processes.

The keys, according to Blanchfield, are:

  • Having the right leader, one capable of managing a remote team.
  • Making optimal use of time during conference calls.
  • Maintaining a dashboard that constantly and publicly shares progress and issues.
  • Keeping everyone on point and on target for delivery.

Blanchfield insists on diligent information technology security and data privacy management. All laptops and workstations have the highest level of encryption and security features. Documents that travel electronically require password protection. Point B does not use Social Security numbers for systems identification or access. Instead, internal identification numbers reference sensitive data such as Social Security numbers, personal employee information and other HR data. Subject headings in e-mails do not relate to the contents. The firm requires employees to change lengthy and complex systems passwords regularly.

As Blanchfield points out, knowing when the work requires in-person interaction is essential for virtual teams' productivity.

When that in-person contact cannot occur, it should be replicated virtually, explains Claire Sookman, principal of Virtual Team Builders, based in Toronto. Leaders must help participants build relationships and establish shared context, she asserts.

For example, after Sprint Senior Vice President of Human Resources Sandy Price holds quarterly all-hands meetings at headquarters, she invites attendees to lunch where they can chat informally. HR employees who attend the all-hands meetings virtually obviously cannot attend the lunches, so Price set up virtual "meet-and-mingle" events to encourage the same type of informal conversations. Price joins virtual team members in online chat rooms with themes—such as "the first concert you attended in your youth"—that inspire lighthearted exchanges.

The people who attended the last online chat "raved about it and said that it helped build trust," Cassida reports. "We're always trying to create more rituals like this that enable our people to engage beyond the context of business."

Duran appreciates these activities because they help her accomplish her work. Work, she emphasizes, is "something you do, not somewhere you go."

Virtual Tools and Tips

Conducting virtual HR work requires a mix of technical tools and processes that stimulate emotional connections among team members, according to HR managers who work on virtual teams. 

Sprint Nextel's HR professionals, for example, rely heavily on collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint, Microsoft Lync and videoconferencing. These tools enable employees to see each other's desktops and sometimes each other, to jointly edit documents, to keep current on workflow tasks, and more. 

Virtual team members also use Sprint's telecommunications technology, which enables connectivity anytime, anywhere. During an interview for this article, for example, Sprint Knowledge Management Program Manager Chris Duran received an instant message that automatically appeared as a message in her inbox when she did not respond to it within a few minutes.

Processes are equally important to a virtual team's formal communication. E.J. Blanchfield, chief people and talent officer and chief operating officer for Point B, a consulting firm, says her HR professionals adhere to the following processes during virtual meetings:

  • When possible, use videoconferencing.
  • Clearly state and communicate the meeting's purpose.
  • Create an agenda that identifies the owner of each topic and its estimated time duration.
  • An "Around the Horn" item appears on most agendas. This activity requires participants to share:
    • One to three critical activities they are working on at the moment.
    • Items that might affect employees beyond the team or group.
    • Action items on deck for the next 90 days.

The author is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource, finance and social marketing issues.

Web Extras

SHRM syllabus: Managing Virtual Work Teams(Education)
SHRM video: Effective Virtual Teams
For virtual teams to run effectively, leaders must help participants build relationships and establish a shared context, says Claire Sookman, principal of Virtual Team Builders.
SHRM article: Managing Virtual Teams (HR Magazine)
SHRM article: Absence Makes the Team Uneasy; Survey Undermines Traditional Thinking About Teleworking (Technology Discipline) 
SHRM article: Teams Series Part III: Global Teams (Research)
Study: Teams Are Changing: Are Research and Practice Evolving Fast Enough? (Industrial and Organizational Psychology)

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