Virtual Teams are hard

by Derek Winter


How do a group of people that live in different countries and even those in the same country that aren’t all in the same physical location work effectively together as a team? That’s the question I’ve been mulling over in recent months having experienced just that from the inside. Actually, having recently worked in an environment just like that it caused me to cast my mind back to one of the first companies that I worked in and the challenges faced when I re-located half way around the world yet remained as part of a team based in Sydney.

Done well, a team spread across different time-zones can actually bring great productivity benefits as work can be achieved around the clock. However, it brings great challenges to be overcome in effective communication, understanding and ‘team bonding’. My early experience started on a strong footing as I had close rapport with the whole team that I’d worked side by side with for 18 months. The longer I was away though and the more people that joined the team in Sydney, the more the challenges arose. Those were the days where internet access was still via dial-up, email was in it’s infancy and mobile phone’s were large and expensive!

More recently I was integrated into a team that had not even all met face to face. I was not in a position to meet them all face to face either. Most work was done in isolation of each other.

Needless to say, in this ‘internet-age’ where video conferencing is increasingly accessible and reliable, travel is cheaper and easier and the economy is increasingly global, it is more and more common to have virtual teams and there’s lots of conversations about how to make it work well.

As with anything else, to do it well requires focus and effort; it won’t happen by itself and it won’t happen in the same way as it does for co-located teams.

So what’s the key?

‘Technical’ Skill? Some would say this is self-evident. Recruit the best, find people that are self-starters and competent enough to manage alone or remotely. This is a false economy and mis-placed attention in my mind. The overhead of both management and senior leaders needs to be significantly increased for virtual teams to work. This is regardless of the experience and/or quality of people on the team. The time and effort required by the managers in each location (assuming ‘mini’ teams in different places) and the overall management of the team cannot be overlooked and needs to be factored into their accountabilities from day one. It takes more effort than managing a local team.

Communication? Self-evident again? It’s easy to trot out the standard need for strong communication skills etc. What’s important to realise is that the vast majority of communication is non-verbal. Gaining understanding, commitment and agreement from people around a table is far easier than through video conference, particularly if video conferencing is reduced to audio conferencing and people don’t turn their webcam on! The power and value of ‘water cooler’ talk or casual ad-hoc conversation across a partition, in the lift or along the corridor is easy to overlook until you don’t have it. As team members find out about decisions made in their absence it can easily become dis-empowering. You need to ensure that a common language is spoken fluently by all team members.

Strong Sense of Purpose?  Given that you can’t see who’s on the other side of the phone line or email, it’s easy to loose sight of what they’re doing and how they fit in. Our tendency is to work with those closest to us. If you’re working remotely, you may have very few (or no) team members co-located or you might have a local team that is part of a bigger project. Regardless there needs to be an overt sense of the membership of the team, the reasons the team exists and what it’s aiming to achieve. Within this each part needs to clearly understand it’s accountabilities and how it interacts with the other people in different locations.

So what’s the key?

First: Define your ethos

What is it that you want people to experience when they’re part of the team? What will define the behaviours, standards and values of the team? What’s the reputation you want the team to have? Answer to all of these questions will provide you with a personality for the team which each location can take a responsibility for generating and maintaining. This personality needs to be a shared responsibility.

Knowing what it is is one thing, communicating it appropriately in different locations is another thing. It’s not a one time activity, it needs to be re-enforced regularly through behaviours, spoken word, written word and decision making (see below)

Second: Recognise the effort required to manage

Management of the team needs the space and energy to keep the different parts of the team connected, feeling part of the whole as well as on track and delivering. Accept that this will take more time than it does for local teams and plan the overhead in.

Third: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

It’s easy to fire off an email or an Instant message or an SMS. Surely that’s efficient and productive, meaning that the person at the other end can engage with it when they’ve got time and can focus. Picking up the phone is not that much harder, but we can’t be very reluctant to do it. Long distance charges are no longer that prohibitive and direct conversations can be much quicker and less mis-understood than an email that is easily read in the wrong tone of voice.

But there is no substitute for face to face and if that can’t happen physically, it can happen by video conference. That said, there is nothing more frustrating than a video conference *without* the video and knowing that someone at the other end is multi-tasking. Much like the discipline of having phones off during meetings, having webcams on should be a default policy. It keeps us accountable to each other to be fully present and ensures that we’re communicating the value of other people’s time and contribution.

Forth: Social interaction

Communication is important but the reality of different timezones and work pressures does mean that it’s difficult to get everyone on the same call at the same time. Find a social media platform to replace the water cooler and partition conversations and encourage active participation by setting the example and using the medium for dissemination of information and canvassing of input and collaboration

Fifth: Outcomes

Work is what we do, not where we go. Focus on what the team is achieving and the outcomes delivered, not attendance. In the end, if we’re not together, it doesn’t matter who’s working when (aside from commitments to appropriate all in video meetings) so long as the team is clear on the targets and goals and how they are being achieved. They key to making this work is trust and respect for members of the team. That trust and respect will come from the quality of their work and their ability to follow-through on things they’re accountable for.

My experiences early in my career where challenging partly because the technology didn’t exist to support distributed teams well. However it also suffered from a lack of pro-active effort to treat the team as one team. The most recent experience of this type of environment didn’t have the technology challenges, but the culture and behaviours let the team down.

So, no excuses, virtual teams are hard. If it’s a necessity in your situation, make a deliberate choice to put specific effort into making it work well for all involved.