Virtual teams – Get the best out of them

We live in an era where globalization has been deeply entrenched in all aspects of life – let alone the workspace. Corporations have become truly global and need to have presence in local markets across the globe to sell their products across geographies. Talent is spread across the world and its needed to go global and setup local units to tap into this rich pool. The advantages of cost competitiveness are always there when a firms sets up units in locations with better cost advantages.
This brings us all to a reality where we need to work on a daily basis with people spread half way across the globe – maybe not always that far, but at least not in the same office that we go to.
Welcome to virtual teams.
Let us see what characterizes  a virtual team.
  • A virtual team is separated by space, time and/or cultural boundaries.
  • They interact primarily by means of electronic media.
  • Face to face meetings seldom or never take place. There have been instances where people work together for years without ever having physically met each other.
  • Individual reputation and performance is measured more by the end results than the effort – since its not immediately and always visible. Its more easy to appreciate an employee sitting across your cubicle sitting whole night and seeing his tired face than someone far off whom you have never met.
Still a virtual team has a common goal and shares responsibility for the task.
There is nothing like having a co-located team but since virtual teams are a business necessity , we need to learn to work with them. A few key principles if observed and some best practices followed will go a long way in ensuring that we bridge the gap and make sure that the “virtual” or “remote” factor does not affect the project in adverse ways. Many of these are based on common sense and are obvious but well here they are. Hope they will be of help to all.
The Golden rule
Never write if you can speak
Never speak if you can nod
Never nod if you can wink
The above quote from an American politician Martin Lomasney sums up an unwritten golden rule common in regular communication.  This rule is great in regular face to face communication, but for projects and especially in the virtual team context, it presents a big challenge. A large part of our communication is using body language but this key aspect is absent in these conversations which may just be on phone or email. It is essential therefore that written conversation be more elaborate and explicit to bridge the gap. Of course video conferencing helps to address this to some extent but it has its own limitations and cannot be used for each and every interaction.
So the golden rule for virtual teams is If its not written, it doesn’t exist.
No water cooler
The biggest problem with a virtual environment is that there is no water cooler. We all know many a times the real conversation does not happen in the meeting but in the informal discussions before and after the meetings – in pantries, in a coffee shop or just in the alley. This is absent in the virtual team. It is not easy to address this gap but we can take some help from technology.
It is essential to use all the means of communication available effectively; to their full potential and switch between them as appropriate.
Means of communication
Conference calls
A very common medium for meetings but how often have we been troubled by a speaker who is in a noisy environment and does not put himself/herself of mute. Its disturbing and annoying. So take some effort to find out how that mute works on your phone or on the conference. I can promise you, others are going to appreciate it. You can always unmute when you have to speak.
Another common communication medium these days but how many times have we got a really long email, so long that by the time we finish it, we forget what the sender actually wants us to do.
A few simple tips here will go a long way in using this powerful medium effectively.
If you send an email with several unrelated questions, typically one gets answered. If items are unrelated, it would be more appropriate to send separate mails, so people can respond for the items that they can whenever they can. Many times the sender might wait to be able to respond to all issues before answering delaying the overall response time.
If your email is more than a page long, think twice, maybe you need to put that information to a document – word, excel or PowerPoint and summarize in the email. This is more relevant especially in situations where we want response from one or two people but many people are in the CC (Oh ! How we love to CC everyone we know). For the people in CC, summary would be enough and the one who need to action on it, will refer to the document anyways.
Instant messaging
IMs are somewhere between an email and a telephone conversation. An important tip here would be to realize when the IM conversation goes on for more than few minutes. Probably its time to pick up the phone now.
1-on-1 phone call
Avoid using a speaker phone especially if you are in a noisy environment. If more than 3 people need to talk, it would be more appropriate to use conferencing bridge. If a person does not answer your call or keeps ignoring, accept the fact that the person may be genuinely busy (maybe he is not and does not like you 😉 but well, lets think positive). Send an SMS citing the urgency and request a callback. Be sensitive to the hour of the day if you are working in different time zones.
Collaboration tools
Technology is here to help us. Use collaboration tools available in your organization – remote desktops, screen sharing etc.
Effective virtual team meetings
  • The basics of great meetings would still apply
    • Have an agenda and publish it to all BEFORE the meeting
    • Make sure the “other” side understood what you said – ask them to summarize to confirm the understanding
    • Issue a minutes of meeting about decisions and action items – even if its just a mail
  • Replace visual cues
    • Others cant see you nodding in agreement or shaking your head in disagreement. Verbalize what you want to say
    • If you need to have a side conversation with someone locally, state it.
  • Share the bad times
    • Many virtual meetings cross time zones. If possible share the time zones. If not, make sure the other person understand why its not possible.
  • Use screen sharing to share notes
    • Provide a common visual reference point – share your desktop
    • Helps everyone see what is being said. It also helps remember more effectively.
    • Facilitates further discussion
    • Avoid issues of mis-hearing
  • Don’t use virtual meetings for things they are not designed to handle
    • Multi hour virtual meetings are hard – split them
    • Issues that are contentious or have major impact on people e.g. asking someone to come on weekend.
    • In such cases, talk with the local manager if there is one and he may be in better position to communicate such things. In case no option, be sensitive.
Culture differences
If possible, learning a little bit about the cultural background of your team members will help to gel with them much better because then you understand why they are what they are. There are no stereotypes but every culture has its plusses and minuses. Knowing and becoming aware of them helps to collaborate more effectively.
Last but not the least, for the leaders of virtual teams, motivation and evaluations of performance are more difficult in virtual teams. Not to say they are easy in the conventional ones, but remote co-workers and teams compound the challenges. Its difficult to interpret delays in response, unreturned phone calls and hesitancy in answering. Before coming to final conclusions, it would be wise to cross check and validate.

Virtual team managers cannot solely rely on the output, they need to act as coach as well – to see the effort behind the output, especially in case of failures. Because behavior of the team members are less visible, they need to be sensitive to other signals. Its easier said than done but awareness goes a long way in reaching the goal.
Virtual teams are a business necessity . There is value in learning to work effectively in this medium and get the interactions as close to co-located team as possible. 

Of course we don’t have a water cooler in the virtual world – at least not yet.

Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh is an enterprise agile coach with interests in varied disciplines. Frequently writing on Agile and Lean related topics, he also occasionally ventures into other stuff like Artificial Intelligence as well..