When I think of virtual teams, the first thing that comes to mind is when team members work in remote locations across the continent or globe with different time zones and different cultural background, working on different parts of a project based on their skills to achieve corporate goals through Internet and electronic channels. However, I have missed out a very important area of virtual teams. Virtual teams is in fact any time when the team members work together primarily through communicating electronically. This means, virtual teams includes when team members work within the same building but on different floors. With this in mind, it is interesting to recognize that a lot of us are working in virtual teams daily. In fact, even the writers for the Coffee Shop HR are working in a virtual team setting.
Based on what worked for me in managing virtual teams combined with my findings from How to Manage Virtual Teams by Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst and Managing a Virtual Team by Mark Mortensen and Michael O’Leary, I found four common elements, which I called the “Four C’s” of managing virtual teams. They are communication, collaboration, culture of a global mindset and closeness and connection.
The first C is communication. There are a few things that must be communicated immediately, including an established common objective/goal, an understanding of the project on hand and a set of ground rules, suggested by Siebdrat et al. Communication is vital because this helps to ensure everyone is on the same page and reduce future communication errors and misunderstanding, which can affect the project progress and success. Often, projects have many different components that are connected so if one component of the project stops due to a communication error, it affects the components/steps that follow. This is like a domino effect.
When I say communication, it is not just what needs to be communicated but also how and when. As suggested by Mortensen and O’Leary, it is important to ensure everyone can use the technology to connect and communicate. Don’t jump to the newest platform or communication tool because sometimes, not everyone has the knowledge or time to learn this new communication tool. With virtual teams, people are often working in different time zones so setting up a regular communication schedule is vital. It is important to encourage communication at other unscheduled intervals as well.
The second C is collaboration. The team needs to understand each other’s role in the project and coordinate the work early on. And as mentioned, people are working in different time zones where one member from the team may be having dinner as another member from a different time zone is getting into work and another heading to lunch. With this in mind, it is important that everyone focuses on the importance of teamwork and tries to have greater understanding and flexibility with each other to accommodate the different time zones.
The third C is to have a culture of global mindset. With any teams, there is going to be individuals with different mindset, but with virtual teams, there is even more likelihood of cultural differences or ways of thinking and working. It is important to increase the team’s acceptance of each other’s differences and encourages a global mindset. HR can try to create training programs to help team members to be more culturally sensitive to embrace each other’s differences and have a global mindset. In addition, HR can definitely help to gauge and place individuals that are more likely to succeed in a virtual team setting.
The last C is closeness and connection. As suggested by Siebdrat, Hoegl and Ernst, with the lack of physical contact between team members, it can reduce the social ties and closeness between them. With a lack in this, it can decrease the trust in the other team members. So it is very important to ensure there are periodic face-to-face meetings to bring people together and create a sense of closeness and community. I know from experience, I have always had successes when I conducted periodic meetings and hosted events to bring team members together and encourage them to connect. Those team members that participated have always turned out to be more engaged, connected and on track with their tasks.
As companies continue to disperse their teams and with the trend of remote work, we are likely to continue this trend with working in virtual teams. As I am pretty sure there are a lot of elements to managing virtual teams but the “Four C’s” of communication, collaboration, culture of a global mindset and closeness and connection are four elements that worked for me and I hope they can help you manage your virtual teams too.
Mortensen, Mark, and Michael O’Leary. “Managing a Virtual Team.” Blog.hbr.org. Harvard Business Review, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.
Siebdrat, Frank, Martin Hoegl, and Holger Ernst. “How to Manage Virtual Teams.” Sloanreview.mit.edu. MIT Sloan Management Review, 1 July 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.