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Managing Virtual Teams

June 1, 2001
Dale Pratt doesn't share an office with her team members. She's not even in thesame building or zip code. Pratt, director of HR for Nortel Networks Corporation,works at company headquarters in Ontario, Canada. But as a member of a virtualteam, she has colleagues as far away as Europe and China.

    The company creates Internet technologies, and has 80,000 employees locatedin 150 countries. It is one of the dramatically increasing number of organizationsnow conducting business 24 hours a day, seven days a week with people on differentcontinents and in different time zones. As businesses become more interconnectedand more global, they must learn to make faster and smarter strategic decisions,and to take advantage of technological advancements.

    "We have to work in real time across the globe, really fast, and our employeeshave to be where our customers are," Pratt says. "For us, workingwith our virtual team is the same as other companies where people might sittogether under a centralized roof. We simply use different tools to do our jobevery day."

    Virtual teams may be composed of full-time or part-time employees. They mighthave a global reach, or involve combinations of local telecommuting membersand more traditional in-house workers. A senior executive might be on one planningcommittee for a product release, for example, another for identifying minorityvendors, another to study relocating a plant, and another to evaluate softwaretracking. He may deal with key players who not only are out of the country butalso are working for another company, or perhaps as suppliers who are on thevirtual team to add information and technical support.

    Virtual teams offer tremendous opportunities, and tribulations. Electroniccommunication allows companies to recruit talent without the constraints oflocation, and to offer more scheduling flexibility such as telecommuting andworking at home offices. It also creates the potential for follow-the-sun, 24-hourworkdays and the ability to maintain close contact with customers throughoutthe world.

    On the other hand, it is difficult to manage people who must work collaborativelyand interactively but may not ever actually lay eyes on one another. The complexitiesand subtleties of dealing with widely different personalities, cultures, andlanguages make communication far more difficult among virtual team members.

    These new challenges require diverse management skills, such as the abilityto determine the best technology to facilitate communication, and the abilityto engender trust and productivity among team members even when there is nodirect supervision. Companies that have successful virtual teams have managerswho understand the unique characteristics of electronic communication. Theyare able to create a sense of communal experience so that interaction yieldscreativity and knowledge sharing. They are aware of the arsenal of tools attheir disposal and have learned to use the appropriate technology to communicateand collaborate so that individual team members feel connected to one another.

Tips for Successful
Virtual Teams
  1. Select people who are self-starters, strong communicators, and have other good virtual-team skills.

  2. Keep projects task-focused so team members will be able to gauge their progress and know if they are on target.

  3. Keep team interactions upbeat and action-oriented.

  4. Standardize common protocols.

  5. Create clear goals.

  6. Celebrate reaching targets.

  7. Create shared space -- a virtual water cooler -- where people can interact beyond the scope of work.

  8. Identify barriers to collaboration that you want to overcome.

  9. Identify what people should do when a crisis occurs. Whom should they contact? What is that decision-making hierarchy?

The proper technology for communication
    Managers of virtual teams have a huge array of technology tools at their disposalto create an integrated collaborative environment. The trick is to know whatto use and when to use it. "The more you can interact by voice, text, andaudio, the more you're able to overcome the barriers of time, distance, andculture," says Waldir Arevoelo, research analyst at Gartner, Inc., in Stamford,Connecticut.

    A thorough understanding of e-mail, teleconferencing, and videoconferencingis vital. Knowledge of other tools such as Webcasts, meeting managers, whiteboards, bulletin boards, and data sharing helps managers develop digital environmentsthat foster ingenuity and innovation.

    At Nortel, Pratt trained her virtual team of 60 finance and legal employeeson deal-making skills. Since they were located throughout the world, Pratt chosean assortment of technology tools. One was a group meeting technology, MeetingManager. Virtual participants were on individual PCs and also on a teleconferenceline, so they could talk and listen to one another. She prepared charts thatteam members could view on their screens, and provided an electronic white boardfor random ideas and scribbling.

    The meeting took place -- in real time -- from team members' desktops at theirvarious locations around the world. The meeting had been scheduled on the company'sintranet calendar, and participants were invited by e-mail. Pratt secured chartsfrom the meeting presenters and uploaded them onto the company's Meeting Manager,which allowed for group viewing.

    As chairman, she was able to control the order of the meeting and the viewingof the charts. Participants posted questions on the white board, which Prattcould see. She was then able to address or answer the questions on the computerscreen, or pose and take questions on the phone.

     Nortel Networks relies heavily on Meeting Manager, Web Meeting, and teleconferencing.When visual cues are especially important, the company uses videoconferencing,Webcasts for mass audience viewing, and very regular updates on the company'sintranet so that everyone on the team has the same information. "Thereare as many applications with technology as there are creative minds,"she says.

    It is, of course, a daunting task to communicate with people who have nevermet each other but have to share information constantly. New York-based Deloitte& Touche LLP faces this conundrum all the time. The company has 90,000 employeesin 130 countries, and its far-flung clients need virtual work teams so thataccurate information is available to everyone at all times.

    To address the issue of globally shared data, the firm created a Web-basedtracking system that enables anyone anywhere in the world to check the statusof company projects. The system operates like a file that contains all policydocuments necessary to serve the clients, including appropriate practice toolsthat were developed at different locations around the world. If, for example,there is a tax decision that affects a specific region or client, it is putin the system.

    "One of the virtues of these Web-based systems is that the informationis always available for anyone," says Lou Mitas, partner in charge of EastRegion International Assignment Services. "The work may be done in NewYork and a question may arise in Sydney or Hong Kong. The question gets postedon the Web and gets answered quickly. The answer resides on the Web and is availablefor everyone, so the question only needs to be asked once.

    "If, for example, we're having problems in Kuala Lumpur and a client callsme asking for the status, I can look it up from my office or from my bedroom.I will be able to know the status of any project at any time."

    Still, Mitas knows that technology cannot replace relationships. There mustbe face-to-face interactions and live phone conversations, too. At Deloitte& Touche, practice leaders and client service partners meet in person severaltimes a year at conferences to assure understanding, establish new goals, andfurther develop relationships.

Understanding the needs of the team
    Effective managers of virtual teams understand critical non-technological skills."Trust is a very important component of virtual teams," says LynnNewman, an associate professor of organizational studies at the California Schoolof Professional Psychology in Los Angeles. "Managers have to trust thatpeople will perform when they're away from direct supervision. Individual teammembers need to develop trust across different media, such as e-mail and telephone,which may be difficult to do."

    One of the reasons developing trust is so crucial is that teams are formedto create knowledge. Problems often arise when people work across cultures andhave different perceptions of projects. They have to be able to trust each otherand the leader if they are going to get the job done effectively.

    Developing a productive virtual team begins with selecting the right people.A successful team member is self-motivated and doesn't need a lot of detailedinstructions or structure. Ideally, he or she is a strong communicator, a qualitythat helps counter-balance the anonymous nature of technology. In addition,Newman recommends people who are adaptable, technically self-sufficient, andresults-oriented.

Creating a sense of shared space
    Teams need tools -- as well as leaders -- to create shared knowledge or sharedvision. When a team has a meeting, whether a teleconference, videoconference,or face-to-face encounter, the leader must be explicit about goals. "Peoplemay have gone off on tangents, and it is at this point that the facilitatorkeeps the team aligned in terms of the goals and continues to recognize theknowledge sharing," Newman says. Knowledge creation is building a new productor process around information people already have.

    "When people are creating knowledge, keeping people up-to-date on wherethe group is at the moment is key. You need shared understanding of how farthey've come and what the group knows as a whole."

    Managers should set up regular virtual meetings to share expectations and de-briefings.It is their task to frame the team's objectives so members clearly understandtheir roles. They emphasize the consequences of team decisions, and provideongoing monitoring and honest feedback about how the team is doing.

    Andy Esparza, vice president of human resources/operations at Dell Computer,says that using shared information between his virtual team members saves enormousamounts of time. His global team uses software called HR Direct, an intranet-basedtool that allows him to stay connected with other managers on his team. Usingshared data on compensation programs for Dell's 40,000 employees worldwide,the team is now able to create reports in 30 days for the senior executive teamon tools and compensation program design such as base pay, stock options, bonuses,and profit sharing. The process used to take two months.

    One of the other advantages of the system is the sense of shared space. Whilethe virtual team managers are the point people at various locations around theworld, they have access to the same material whether they're at corporate headquartersin Texas or at a manufacturing facility in Malaysia.

    Virtual teams offer an opportunity to work with the best talent throughoutan organization. But to accomplish this, managers must actively work to createa sense of connectedness and shared space, to use technology effectively, andto know when to forgo technology for personal communication.

Workforce, June 2001, pp. 60-64 -- Subscribe Now!