Managing Virtual Teams Calls for Extra Clarity

Susan Hall

Can you ask one of your virtual team members to write a LinkedIn recommendation for you? I was having that discussion with my colleague Ann All, when she said of the person I mentioned, "Well, I've never met him ..." Neither have I, but strangely, that never occurred to me. He knows my work. We've worked together for years now. Isn't that what counts? That's how thoroughly ensconced remote work has become in our lives.

 

Yet the study, "Virtual Work Environments in a Post-Recession Era," conducted on behalf of Brandman University by Forrester Consulting, of senior leaders in Fortune 500 and other large companies, suggests those companies could be failing to embrace a virtual work force for competitive advantage.

 

In the study, 40 percent of respondents reported that 40 percent or more of their company's employees work in virtual teams, while 56 percent predicted that percentage will rise in the next one to three years.

 

However, the most common reasons for hiring virtual teams were to reduce travel and real estate expenses (61 percent) and the ability to hire top talent no matter where they live (59 percent). Only 30 percent pointed to virtual teams as an important strategy to enable growth in new markets, 35 percent cited employee flexibility and job satisfaction and 15 percent mentioned promoting an environmentally friendly business. Says Charles Bullock, vice chancellor of academic affairs at Brandman University:

The research suggests that senior leaders and hiring managers accept that a global economy demands virtual teaming, but we believe they may be shortsighted on its benefits. ... innovative companies can leverage virtual teaming as a competitive advantage when the organizational culture promotes trust and communication, and incorporates an array of interactive technologies to foster better collaboration.

In this Forbes post on global virtual teams, Erin Meyer, a specialist in cross-cultural management at INSEAD, the international business school with campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, makes four points:

 

  • You must lead differently.
  • You must arrive at decisions differently.
  • You must build trust differently.
  • You must communicate differently.

 

The main takeaway I got from that article is to spell out everything. One of the commenters made the point that not all conversations have to be about work and noted a work rule among his/her virtual team: Explain with as much detail as you can. The commenter writes:

While you can be cryptic while being face to face, you have to be more verbose when you can't "see" the person you are talking to.

And while the Brandman University study noted that executives still rely on personal contact with workers to build trust, in a virtual world, trust translates to reliability, Meyer says, so it's important to create a highly defined process for delivering results.

 

This post at GigaOM's WebWorkerDaily site also follows the mantra of being extra explicit. I especially liked the advice, "Bring out your inner Dirt Devil." It quotes Yosh Beier, the co-founder of Collaborative Coaching, saying:

If teams are dispersed it's so much easier to avoid the kind of constructive conflict that should happen. It's really the job of a team leader to be super finely attuned to the possibility that there is conflict that's swept under the rug and then really make sure that it is being unearthed.

But Beier also says of better collaboration:

Make clear what the purpose is. It is really important for people to understand we're not just there to say kumbaya at the end of the day. We're there to get our job done in a way that is more effective and possibly also more creative.


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