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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Leadership: Managing Virtual Teams

[Also available as a Podcast]

Ever managed a virtual team? Considering doing so, but not sure what to do, and how effective that team might be - and who should be in it? And what, exactly, is a "virtual team"?

I have been managing and working with virtual teams for the past 11 years. From an on-site project manager role working with on-site/off-site resources, to now managing a team in a mostly virtual context, this session addresses some of my experiences - and lessons learned - working with Virtual teams.

The Virtual Team is a myth

First, let's dispell some myths. There is no such thing as a "virtual team". All teams are real, living organisms - but the methods of interaction within the team cover a range of types - from "fully virtual" (no physical face to face contact whatsoever) to "part-time virtual" where people do meet and work together on a regular basis but are periodically apart, continuing their working relationships remotely using a variety of communication tools. And of course, you have the "non-virtual" teams where people are always physically together during the work day.

Like any other team, a "virtual team" consists of real people, with all their quirks and personalities - that you need to work with (and occasionally around) to help maximize the performance of the team. If you forget to treat them as people, that is where the trouble begins.

Virtual is in the Eye of the Beholder

Everything is relative, according to Einstein. He may have been talking relativity, but the principle still applies - whether someone is working "virtually" depends on where you - and they - are. You may be located in the main office, managing a team of resources that are serving very real customers in person, doing site visits or providing extended onsite services. (They are certainly very "real" to the customer). 

These team members are all working together as a virtual services team - they may not be working on the same client at the same time, but they are working together, and reporting back to the same department hundreds or thousands of miles away, using phone, email, videoconferencing, Skype, MSN, Webex, you name it - all as part of their job. You may not see these people in person very often at all - sometimes not even for years. They may not see each other that often either - but they will engange and support each other, be there to answer questions and provide suggestions for the tough problems. This is an example of a "mostly virtual" team functioning as a network.

You may be involved in a project where there is a fully staffed on-site team, where 90% of the time everyone is together in one place - but when they are not physically there, they are still engaged, connected and providing value through a variety of tools such as VPN - providing a comparable level of service from their home or hotel as they did from their desk in the project office. This is an example of a "part-time virtual" team.

And sometimes, you will be working with dynamically formed teams across multiple cities or countries, where there may never be any direct physical interaction, but you still need to get the job done. This, of course what most people think of as a "virtual" team - all of the interactions are by telephone or other electronic means. This is more of a "fully virtual" team in our definition. 

In your work you likely will, or already are dealing with one or more of these virtual team types.

Virtual Teams are not a "New Idea"

No, virtual teams are not a new invention. They go back hundreds, even thousands of years. Any King or Queen who dispatched armies or ships to explore or conquer put their trust in the leaders and their crews/ranks who were heading out - they were the "virtual extension" of the home team.

"But wait a minute", you say - "that is completely different than virtual teams today".

Is it really? Well think about it:
- Virtual team members rarely interact physically with "headquarters"
- Messages are exchanged periodically between the "in the field" team members, leaders and HQ
- You trust that those working in the field are representing your interests and doing the best they can on your behalf
- Those in the field are operating independently, with initiative, and can solve problems on their own (self-motivated)
- Distance is a factor (some degree of physical separation, large or small)

So how is this really different from a telecommuter, or on-site project manager or other team member, other than the communication tools and time factors? (Envoy carriage or carrier pidgeon vs email/phone, and days or months vs minutes)? Not really so different, after all.

Familiarity breeds contempt? I don't think so!

Whoever coined this phrase must have been thinking about 19th century traditional management-employee relationships, but this concept has no place in team development. Teams gain strength when the people in the team get to know each other - professionally in a work setting, and from a human perspective as well - getting to know each other. A great team that grows together cares together, shares together - and outpaces the competition together. This also helps when someone is having a bad day - familiarity promotes understanding and giving a little slack now and then. But it is also a key factor in trust building. You only can really trust who you know - so you had best get to know your team.

If anything, lack of familiarity breeds contempt and resentment in teams; it is a real show-stopper in the functioning of the team. Anyone who has worked in a distributed office model will have seen this - "we" and "them" are the flag words. "Why do they do that? We never would do that here..." and so on. Understanding each other, our perspectives and where we are coming from (and why) can do nothing but strengthen teams, especially virtual ones. So we need to build those bridges, earn that trust, and get to know each other.

But how?

Face to Face - the ideal party starter

There really is no ideal substitute for a face to face interaction. You can survive for a long time (years even) without being in the same room as the other person, and still work together effectively. And there is no prescribed amount of face time either - more is better, but some is better than none. You would be surprised how even a 5 minute conversation will define your relationship and your responses towards that person. Every time they interact "virtually" with you - email/phone/videoconference whatever, that initial personal interaction will come to mind and temper your responses. All of the subconscious observations that happen when face to face get stored away, and help to promote long-term group bonding.

(This does bring to mind the importance of first impressions, so smile, be nice and hope they don't remember you as obnoxious or annoying).

Of course, we are social creatures, so if and when there is an opportunity to catch up with the other team members in person, take advantage of them - those few minutes (or hours, or days) of conversation will help strengthen the bond even further.

The same applies to the customer as it does to your team - if you are able to attend the project kickoff in person as the one and only site visit - make sure it happens. And if you are the PM reading this - it is well worth the budget line item expense to have the key people there from each team, at least - to meet the rest of the project team and the customer at the outset.

Video vs Face to Face

There will be situations where some, or even all of the team members will not be able to meet face to face at some point in the project. It is not ideal, but all is not lost. A number of video conferencing solutions exist, many of them free and quite acceptable quality-wise as long as you have a decent Internet connection. So if you can't be there in person - see and be seen. All of the visual clues help in team bonding too.

Interestingly, some people are quite uncomfortable or feel unnatural when faced with a camera; and for some it may be a complete put-off. If this happens, don't sweat it - turn off the camera and just have the phone call. The purpose of the video was for more team engagement, but if it causes issues, use it sparingly instead of forcing it on the team.

The Virtual Water Cooler

Many key decisions have taken place around the water cooler, in a hallway, over coffee - anwhere but at your desk. These impromptu meetings also help to strengthen the relationships through social chatting as well. This dynamic still applies in a virtual team - but obviously modified. 

So what is the virtual equivalent of the water cooler/coffee shop or hallway? Instant Messaging. MSN, Sype, Yahoo!, Google, etc - all variations on the same theme, and you can also get clients that bridge the gap between IM networks. Phone calls are great of course too - but it seems easier to "chat" somehow with IM - you can also be interacting with more than one team member at a time if needed, where that would be rude on a phone call to put someone "on hold". Brief delays in responses are also more acceptable in IM - on the phone you feel the pressure to respond right away, vs thinking about what you need to say.

For the past 10-11 years I have used MSN as a business and social communication tool, because everyone else on the team uses it, and new members are encouraged to use it as well. I still use it on a daily basis - only as much as is needed, but knowing people are available if you need help does reduce stress when you are remote. Your colleagues (and expert help) are just a click away.

However, social rules and norms do apply here, rules that you will need to form in your own teams. Simple things like not just chatting when you are bored, primarily using it as a support and networking tool for work. And while you are working on an issue together, of course it is OK to chat a bit while you do. 

Knowing your manager or a particular expert is available if needed, but that you will only ping them when you really need something helps too - they will be more likely to respond positively if they are only interrupted when their help is really needed. Because of course, we all have our own to-do lists we are working through each day. Respecting each other's time, but making yourselves available to each other helps to foster sharing and strengthens the team.

Communication, Communication!

Out of sight really is out of mind. Regular communications with your team members helps remind them they are not out there "on their own" - there is a network of people in the team working together. And unlike the old days where messages took days, weeks or months to be delivered, today we have near-instant access to each other.

I am not saying you should Spam each other with a flurry of fluffy emails each day - but do stay in contact by keeping people in the loop as needed. And if you are thinking of someone you have not heard or received an email from in a while, maybe reach out and check in on them. They might actually be feeling lonely out there on the fringe.

Personally, I do not have daily interactions with every one of my team members; it depends what is going on that week, but I will have regular contact with each team member at least once a week, and sometimes multiple times a day with a team member if needed to support their specific tasks, or to make decisions etc.

Are they ignoring me? Check your outbox! The reason you may not have heard back from XYZ on the questions you had on deliverable ABC may be because you forgot to press SEND. Within your team if you develop a habit of positive acknowledgement (i.e. Received, Thanks), this will help reduce things falling through the cracks. If you have not received an acknowledgement of your email within a day, perhaps you should follow-up. Maybe they did not receive it. Maybe it got caught in their Spam filter, or blocked due to attachments etc. So close the loop on your communications by making sure the message was received.

When I send attachments to someone that might get filtered out by their email server, I also send a short email with no attachment asking them to confirm receipt of the other email. Doing this, particularly when you know their email server has a history of blocking emails with attachments, will help ensure the message is delivered - and that you do not get behind on your deliverables/tasks/etc.

This way, "we" also won't get all twisted in a knot because "they" are ignoring us. Communications involves sender and receiver - so make sure they received it! And when you are all in the habit of positive acknowledgement, things will work smoother with less frustration and will result in less "them" and "us" talk - and more "we" talk.

Note: You don't need to respond "OK" to their "Thanks-received" message. Unless of course they need to know that you received their acknowledgement (perhaps when signing contracts or change orders). Otherwise it it just overkill.

Going Virtual

Ready to take the plunge and go virtual? Perhaps reduce the corporate CO2 emissions by letting everyone work from home a couple days a week? Great idea - just send them home and tell them you will see them back in the office on Thursday...?

But no, you need to actually do some planning first, and probably some self-assessments. "Going virtual" is not for everyone. Some people find it hard to work on their own, and feel they need to be immersed in the office environment in order to feel productive. This may be for a variety of reasons - they may not feel motivated to do the work, there may be too many distractions at home, they may miss the water cooler banter, or they may just not be buying-in to the idea at all.

While many people can learn to work effectively "virtually", there are some key things to consider:
- Self-motivated people tend to adapt easier

- You need "space" to work, wherever that is, with a minimum of disruptions. (Not the corner of a crowded dining room table with the kids runnning circles around you). A separate room with a door is ideal. A locking door is even better.

- Define your work - setting specific tasks and goals to achieve each day will help you focus.

- You do need breaks. But make the breaks work with you - don't let distractions create the breaks for you.

- Your work day may not be 9-5 any more. Get used to doing effective, concentrated work in smaller chunks and periodically larger chunks. You can get a lot done in as little as 30 minutes, actually - when you focus.

- A satellite office may not seem "virtual" to those working in it, but they may be remote from everyone else. They might currently feel isolated and defensive - so make sure to reach out and include them, open those lines of communication.

If someone is having trouble "going virtual", perhaps they don't really want to, or are not quite ready. Or maybe they really work best in the office atmosphere, which is of course OK too. They may be a HQ person more suited to working with local staff and supporting remote virtual team members both.

My Virtual Leap

I used to be in the same time zone as many of my clients, or at least within 2-3 hrs depending where they were. Today, I work with customers and manage a team being quite physically remote - not exactly as far from them as I could possibly be, but far enough if you count living in "tomorrow" in the South Pacific. Home is now New Zealand, and though I do travel a few times a year, 90% of my year is spent "working virtually".

I end up with a very non-traditional work week; my Monday is most client's Sunday, so it is generally very quiet and a good catch-up day to prepare for the week, or have a "date day" with my wife while the kids are at school and there are no work time pressures. Depending on the time of year and the client's timezone, I can end up with as little as 3 and up to 7 hours of work overlap for calls and meetings within their normal business hours. The rest of the day is "getting it all done" after the calls are finished.

Most weeks, it works pretty well. However, there are some trade-offs; my Saturday is their Friday, so there is less real overlap that day, especially with kids' sports on the weekend. 

And then there are times when the morning/afternoon overlap is not adequate during crunch time, so having a "more local" team member cover that time period makes it all flow - and conversely, when the customer needs something fixed for the next day - they can send the issue later in their day, and the work will be done during my normal hours - usually getting it done for them to use first thing in the morning their time (unless it is a big deliverable).

And to extend that - last summer we had one team member working while in India and another in Europe, so we were able to hand off portions of some critical path work to follow the sun during crunch times. During those months, "the sun never set on the virtual team!"


You may already be working with Virtual Teams, you just may not have realized it. Anyone who takes work home, emails from the bus, airport or coffee shop is, to at least some degree, participating as a Virtual Team Member while they are doing so. The tools we have today, plus the prevalence of laptops, WiFi, VoIP, smartphones, tablets etc all enable us to extend our reach, and do more from almost anywhere. For some, the progression from "part-time virtual" to "mostly virtual" or even "fully virtual" may seem a natural course to pursue; for others, just having the flexibility to be "sometimes virtual" is enough.

Of course the other danger is that as you are "connected" nearly everywhere you go, work follows you there too - so it is even more important to strike a balance between work, family and play. So when you are working with your vitual team members, always be mindful of "when" they are (if you know what timezone they are currently working in) - they may be available after 6pm local but only in emergencies - or perhaps they just left the laptop on - so don't be surprised if you don't get a quick response sometimes. I have a timezone map plugin on my calendar on the PC, so I know what time it is wherever they are.

For the past 11 years I have had mostly positive experiences working with virtual teams - I do see many of them face to face a few times a year, and I definitely look forward to the social interaction when I do. And I very much enjoy training customers in person, which happens a few times a year. So I cannot quite say that I am "fully virtual" myself yet - perhaps 90% at most. I am not sure I would like to be "fully virtual" as a solo act in one location for an indefinite period. But it is good to know that my working relationship with the team and extended team still flourishes no matter where I am, using the internet and various communication tools. It helps that the extended team already exists as a functioning virtual network - so the stretch of a few more time zones and 7000 miles does not make that big a difference to them.

Reading this, you may be "sometimes virtual", "mostly virtual" or even "fully virtual". But as long as you keep in mind that people are people, and the Team itself is a very real thing, you can leverage tools plus good common sense to effectively manage your team, no matter the distance or time zones that separate you.

Gary Nelson, PMP
Gazza Consulting Services

1 comment:

  1. Well written Gary. It certainly meshes with our experience running virtual teams. Another post that might follow this would be your view on working with off-shore resources, especially when we have a tendency to group the workers and manage an intermediate relationship with a 'manager' of that team. I find that is a challenge that requires a different approach . I am interested in your thoughts.