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Workplace Trends: Managing Virtual Teams

HR Magazine, June 2002Managing Virtual Teams

Keeping members on the same page without being in the same place poses challenges for managers.

s communication technologies improve, employees often exchange ideas and information with distant colleagues. Most workers can benefit from this ability to touch base with people beyond a particular set of walls. But what happens when a project or task depends on the ongoing cooperation of employees who are miles apart?

Virtual teams—usually formed when geographical separations can’t be bridged—may be the answer. By definition, they are composed of members who rarely, if ever, meet physically.

Not a Cure-All

Companies may form virtual teams to get employees out of the office and closer to customers, to unify a function across the organization, or to cut time and travel costs. Or a company in an undesirable location may desperately need to recruit employees who have the right skills but don’t want to move. Sometimes companies use virtual teamwork to integrate employees who were added through mergers and acquisitions.

That’s what happened at USFilter in Palm Desert, Calif. When the company began growing, it didn’t make sense to relocate numerous employees who became part of the company as a result, says Joy Gaetano, SPHR, senior vice president of corporate human resources. Instead, certain departments, such as the company’s legal division, simply became virtual teams.

“We are part of a global company with operations in 100 countries and over 500 locations,” says Gaetano. “We wanted to capitalize on talent within our organization, and we made a commitment to use technology and e-business practices to do so.”

An increasingly global economy has fueled the rise in virtual teams, says Tom Vines, SPHR, director of talent at IBM Corp. in Somers, N.Y. “IBM began using virtual teams in the 1970s as we began to deploy more of our products globally,” he says. About one-third of the company’s workers will participate in virtual teams at some point.

When IBM’s leaders need to staff projects, they give a list of skills they need to HR, which pulls together a pool of people for them. “The manager decides whether the team needs to be virtual or not,” says Vines. “It’s the skills and talent that are important, rather than face time.”

Virtual teams work well for managers whose employees often travel, says Cheryl Wyrick, SPHR, Ph.D., associate professor of management and human resources at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. “If people are in sales, for instance, do you really need them all in one place—particularly if they’re in charge of a region that involves more than one state?”

There are industries, such as manufacturing, in which virtual teams won’t work. “Any type of work that’s very sequential or integrated can pose problems for virtual teams,” Wyrick says. “This includes some types of project work, where everyone has to be together for back-and-forth conversation.”

Virtual teams aren’t miracle cures, stresses Roger Ballentine, co-director of the Center for the Study of Work Teams (CSWT) at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. “Virtual teams should exist only for the same reason that any team exists,” he says. Teams must have a common purpose, share responsibility for specific outcomes and work interdependently.

“If these reasons for a team exist, it makes sense to try a virtual team when geography demands it,” Ballentine continues. “But a virtual team without the ‘team’ built in regresses to telephone calls and faxes pretty quickly.”

Making It Work

Though many experts believe that co-located teams still work best, most feel that virtual teams can be successful if they are formed, trained and managed correctly. Team members must be able to communicate well and work independently. They also should possess a good work ethic, initiative and creativity. Employees who are stimulated by interaction with other people or who need external structure to stay on track may be unsuccessful in a virtual environment without training and acclimation.

Employees’ training needs can be hard to assess, because any struggles they have take place behind the scenes. For task-related skills training, managers must encourage team members to make their needs known.

The CSWT has found five areas of training that are especially useful for virtual team members:

  • Understanding the technology infrastructure.
  • Using technology tools.
  • Collaborating effectively in a work group.
  • Conducting virtual meetings.
  • Planning and managing tasks.

It helps when members know “how to focus the mikes, or know how to swing the camera to focus on who’s speaking” during a meeting, says Bob Francouer, SPHR, an associate with the CSWT.

Team managers must be comfortable with relinquishing traditional control over their employees, while remaining committed to mentoring and evaluating them. Additionally, virtual team managers must pay particular attention to the challenges posed by the physical separation between members.

Managers should apply to the virtual setting the techniques they use when building traditional teams. “Virtual teams need to stop and think about all the things we do in a co-located team and emulate those actions,” says Carl Worthy, an expert on remote workers and president of Worklogix, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company that provides corporations with productivity and workflow processing systems. “Break down these co-located team actions and formalize them. Create an agreement, with team buy-in.” The agreement can cover issues such as how quickly e-mail should be answered, when videophones should be used and who has authority to make decisions.

Ground rules and expectations also need emphasis, because managers don’t have opportunities to enhance their communications via casual hallway or lunchroom meetings.

Karen Davidson, president of KDA Software in Centralia, Ill., sends her team members a virtual kickoff document that explains procedures. “For instance, I tell team members that if the client communicates with you, send the answer to everyone so another member doesn’t ask the client the same question,” Davidson says. Her document also covers schedules for teleconferencing and status reports, gives suggestions for problem resolution and reminds members to get enough sleep and remain sensitive to their families.

Because employees operate independently on virtual teams, managers also need to work at keeping a team focused. “Rotate the hosting of conference calls,” says Worthy. “Usually the person hosting does the most talking, so it stimulates the attention of all members when they realize they may be the next host.” He suggests that any conference call begin with informal chitchat, just as regular meetings do. “Otherwise, you’ll miss the informality and the comfort it creates to help team members work together well.”

Managers can foster camaraderie between team members and keep them engaged by encouraging media-based “face-to-face” encounters, and through communication via e-mails, telephone calls and instant messages. Giving the team a name or logo can also promote a sense of belonging.

Davidson forms teams among contract workers whom she uses for various client projects. These teams seldom come together physically, but she strives to help them get to know one another.

“I send a welcome message with everyone’s phone number and e-mail address, along with a short biography for myself,” says Davidson. “I send this to the first team member and ask that person to attach his or her bio and send it on, until all members have seen the bios.”

Worthy suggests that workers also share photographs. “Create a map of where your virtual team members live, and put the photo on the map so everyone can put a name to a face and location,” he says.

Common courtesies can also help solidify a far-flung team. If an office celebrates birthdays, for example, managers should include virtual team members through videoconferencing and consider having cakes delivered to remote sites.

Team Challenges

Communication represents a tremendous problem for virtual teams. Davidson says that managers have to give more support and positive messages when they’re working virtually. “The written word can be so much more harsh than the spoken word; even a critique needs to be phrased positively,” she says.

Another challenge arises when team members cross time zones: The window of opportunity for contacting each other can diminish. These delays may frustrate team members who can’t proceed without an answer from a colleague.

Technology and cooperation can resolve many of these problems, but team members have to work hard to overcome the gaps left by their inability to communicate face-to-face. (See this month’s HR Technology column, for information about products that can boost virtual communications.)

“All of our experience comes from co-located teams, with communication and the way we act based on physicality,” says Worthy. “Much of our communication is nonverbal—unformulated words, sighs, facial expressions,” he continues. “We can be a little more undisciplined in our meetings, because we know we can always run into each other at lunch and cover things then.”

Getting a team together physically is perhaps the best step a manager can take to enhance communication and trust between its members and minimize the sense of isolation. Even if teams can’t meet on a regular basis, an initial meeting will help members understand who they’re working with and strengthen their connection.

Physical meetings aren’t always possible, particularly for short-term or on-the-spot projects. Even so, virtual teams can “meet” each other through teleconferences or videoconferences that allow individual voices and personalities to come through.

Managers Are Key

Worthy points out that when companies use virtual teams, they can take advantage of “just-in-time” talent. Companies can bring together people “from wherever they are to wherever they need to be, almost instantly,” he says.

The downside to this flexibility is that team members with vastly differing levels of trust, expectations, experiences, cultures and personalities can clash. Managers must hold the team together and keep members motivated, but they face significant challenges of their own.

Besides having to think through and formalize almost every aspect of communicating, socializing, team building and productivity, managers must often change their management style. Many initially feel discomfort when they can no longer keep tabs on an employee’s progress with cubicle visits or by asking questions during a coffee break.

“Managers are process-focused,” says Worthy. “They think ‘I know you’re doing a good job because I see you working.’” That’s impossible with virtual teams, says Worthy, so managers have to focus on results.

Managers also may find it difficult to coach and advise, assess training needs and give feedback to team members who aren’t in view. Reviews using 360-degree feedback can help managers understand how members are performing, and analyzing bulletin boards and intranets will give a feel for the team’s issues and problems.

Most managers agree that recognition programs for virtual teams aren’t much different than those for co-located teams, but Wyrick points out that members of virtual teams have difficulty getting promoted because they have fewer opportunities for face-to-face networking. Managers must act as advocates for employees who are out of sight.

Gaetano says managers at USFilter are encouraged to seek training for teams when necessary. “We have several courses that offer support and guidance for teams, such as classes on change management and working effectively,” she says.

Looking Ahead

With sound HR practices, including selection, training and management, virtual teams can reduce travel and relocation costs, and provide work/life balance and flexibility for employees.

“We have an obligation to meet the needs of business and be strategic partners,” Gaetano says. “As we attract, retain and develop the best talent, we have to assess employees on a continuing basis for flexibility and adaptability to work in a virtual environment—that is the 21st century workplace.”

Carla Joinson, a contributing editor to HR Magazine, is based in Virginia. She specializes in writing about business and management issues.

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