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Effective management of virtual teams

K Sanjay, Feb 08, 2012 : 18:32 IST

The challenge is how to instill a sense of belonging and trust

In the good old days, the basic building block of any organisation was the functional department. For e.g. there was a production department, a marketing department, a sales department etc.

A department consisted of employees who performed similar tasks. The department were further divided by location, specialisation, job performed or on any other logical basis.

This resulted in a nice and tidy organisation structure with a neat set of boxes when displayed on a chart. Each employee was placed in one of the boxes and it was clear what the organisational hierarchy was. It was assumed that the leader and team were always collocated.

The reason was that there was high level of interdependence and hence they needed to be located in the same place. Another reason for this was that information was mainly formal and written. This made communication difficult if all the members of the team were not present together. Also it was assumed that the structure would exist till perpetuity.

Two trends changed this cozy picture

1. With the rise of the internet and telecommunication costs coming down, it became possible for companies to collaborate at a global level. It became possible for the a product to be designed in USA , developed in India , produced in China or Mexico and technically supported by teams stationed in Poland.

So instead of departments you have teams who work together. The US product designer would collaborate with teams developing the product in India, who would need to collaborate very closely with other teams.

2. The second trend has been the use of the matrix organisation. In the example cited above, a developer would report both to the project manager of the above project and also to the head of development in India. Is he part of the “project department “or the “development department”. The answer was both. This played havoc with neat organisational structures.

When organisations got out of the department mindset, it became possible to work with the best of global talent. For e.g. if you want to develop a watch – you would work with a global design consultant based in Switzerland, your vendor team would source parts from the best vendor globally, you can assemble the watch in a third party facility in say, Taiwan and sell the watches in India.

The design consultant designated for the project would report to the project manger of your company for designing the watch he would report functionally to the appropriate manager in the design firm. So would the rest of the team members.

This has led to the emergence of virtual teams. Wikipedia defines virtual team as “A virtual team (also known as a geographically dispersed team or GDT) is a group of individuals who work across time, space and organisational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology.”

How does a leader go about leading a virtual team? Often leaders find these teams to be a different kettle of fish. The following is a simple step by step process on how to lead a virtual team effectively.

1. Create a team identity: It is important that the virtual team has a separate and a unique identity. This is similar to branding of a product. Give a unique name to the team. You could have a simple name like Project team no 325 to more exotic names like rainbow, winners etc. I feel that the name should be relevant to the main mission of the team.

2. Create a team mission: The leader should clearly state what this team is expected to do and what the key deliverables of the team are.

3. Introduce of team member: his/her background, accomplishments etc. Since team members cannot interact with each other face to face, it is important for them to know who the team members are – their location , background etc.

4. Define the role of each member
* What is the role of each of the team members?
* What is the output expected- deliverables
* Dependencies – who does the member depend and who depends on him
* Timelines – when do you expect the deliverables?

After the role has been defined, the team gets down to actually delivering. It is here that the leader now needs to do the following to ensure optimal performance.

1. The first challenge that the manager needs to manage diverse personalities, agendas, cultures and working styles. He needs to brainstorm with the team and develop a set of values which the team will adopt. What does each team member cherish? This would emphasise common points rather than highlight differences. It would also give a framework to iron out differences. Some of the common values are – respect for an individual, complete transparency in all team interactions and transactions, integrity, respect for all team members and stakeholders, team work, innovation, ownership etc. A team member who is in USA realises that his counterpart in India also has the same values. Team members understand that they all agree on critical areas.

2. The second step is to have clear ground rules for common team issues. This would relate to meetings, team interactions, status reports, collaboration etc. This would ensure that all team members understand how to plan to mange the team on these common issues.

3. The most important challenge a virtual team manager faces is that how to instill a sense of belonging and thereby instill trust.

It is important that the leader needs to communicate effectively, both to the team and one on one with individual team members. The leader needs to communicate so that all team members know the status of the entire project, the issues that some of them are facing, constraints, risks and the way forward. A virtual team leader needs to communicate more than a leader of a collocated team.

Despite the different time zones, a leader should communicate by phone in addition to email. A leader needs to ensure that at least 30 per cent of his communication should be over the phone. The more complex the project is, the more the telephonic communication. This would ensure that the communication is more effective and the chance of miscommunication is minimised. Also in case of a conflict it is better to speak to the concerned parties and sort the matter out rather than have a long email thread.

4. The fourth step is to encourage collaboration and joint problem solving. The leader should leverage the strengths of the team in terms of knowledge and skills.

So, the leader should encourage team members to ideate in pairs or in small sub groups. Since the sub group would have complimentary skills and knowledge the output from such a team is of the highest order. Also, the groups understand differences in perceptions that emanate from culture. If you want a global product than you need to get inputs from other geographies as well.

Virtual teams are becoming more and more common. Studies have shown that the success rate of virtual teams is comparable with that of collocated teams.

Also, leading a virtual team would broaden the horizons of the leader. He is can see the broader picture, work with teams from across the globe and create products and services for the global market. This would hone his leadership skills. I am sure this would result in a large number of truly global Indian managers.

(The writer is CEO, Trikona Consulting)

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