What is the best way to manage a virtual team?

Technology has made it possible for us to connect and work with others around the world.  I love the descriptions from the World is Flat (Thomas Friedman, 2007) of analyses being completed in Australia overnight for physicians in the United States.  We are all familiar with the outsourcing that has taken place with call centres in Canada (Nova Scotia) Ireland and India.  In a way, these are virtual teams.

But here, I will focus on virtual teams that are working together on a project for one company.  These are teams where the members reside in different countries, often in different time zones.

A few weeks ago, I had a Dutch woman come and visit my students.   She said that the Dutch are often thought to be blunt because they speak their minds.  In the meetings she attends, people are expected to say what they think.  So I can just imagine how her and my Egyptian colleague, who tends to communicate in a very circular fashion, would manage on a virtual team.

I have read that virtual teams need to be clear on their objectives and their roles.  I am not sure if you have ever had a conversation about roles over the phone, but this can be quite difficult – some of us like to play on paper or on a white board to help illustrate what we mean – the visuals clarify our thoughts and this just isn’t possible over the phone.

The technology used is important, often key to the success of virtual teams.  Some teams use Skype which has a video streaming component, but I’ve found that even when I am working with one other person, the video sometimes overloads the system and has to be turned off, so I am not convinced that it will work with a team unless you have a dynamo computing system.

I’ve also used video conferencing when working in a team and although the interaction is a little stiff, the visuals are great.   I don’t think we realize how often we speak over one another until we are in a video conference or a teleconference and then it becomes quite clear.  ‘No, sorry, you go ahead’ seems to be a common phrase – with at least two people saying it at the same time.

Using a common system to exchange and update data can be really helpful.  Both Dropbox and SugarSync work very well – except when two people are editing same document at the same time – then it gets confusing.

So with all these concerns what does work?  How are virtual teams successful?  What role does the manager play in this success?

According to research cited by Guedes-Gondim et al. (2011) the performance of work teams depends on the member’s beliefs about the effectiveness of this mode of work.  So when a manager is putting together a virtual team, perhaps one of the first questions she needs to ask the potential members is how successful they have been on other teams.   If they can cite successes and enjoy working on teams, in general, this should make them a better candidate for a virtual team.

Team members who have used the media and worked with each other in the past are more likely to see success early on in the process.  Guedes-Gondim et al. (2011) cite research showing the types of communication virtual teams engage in, normative – what the team values and expects of each member, regulative – how the work is to be done i.e. structures, protocols and organization, and cognitive – performing the task.

Given this, perhaps the role of the manager is to help the team develop protocols, and define roles and responsibilities while keeping focused on the end result.  The manager can also ensure that there is an opportunity for team members to recognize each other’s strengths and learn more about the ways that each person will contribute to the project’s success.

Guedes- Gondim et al. (2011) also cite research that shows that people who are in the same occupation, with similar education and professional standards can work well together across cultures.  Physicians, scientists, accountants, and HR professionals, for example, are more likely to understand one another within their professional context.   A team that is diverse in both culture and profession are going to be find it more difficult to communicate and will need more guidance from their manager.

I know that trust is important in every team’s interactions.  It seems that one role the manager can play is to provide opportunities early on for team members to learn more about each other.  They could review case studies of successful teams to they can see what has worked for others.  This would give the members an opportunity to build a bit of history, to see where they agree and disagree and how they can support one another and resolve issues that may occur as they progress in their work.

One of the statistics I read a number of times is that only 30% of virtual teams are successful.  This is not an encouraging statistic but there are similar statistics around about change management projects.  It seems that if managers help the team members focus on their strengths, learn to work with conflict, rather than avoid it, and develop trusting relationships, virtual teams can be successful.    Inspirational management, indeed!

Guedes- Gondim, S. M., Puente-Palacios, K., & Borges-Andrade, J. (2011). Performance and learning in virtual work teams: Comparing Brazilians and Argentineans. Revista De Psicología Del Trabajo y De Las Organizaciones, 27(1), 31-31. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/963820749?accountid=1215

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