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Managing Effective Virtual Teams Published: Sunday, August 1, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

As companies search for more productive and more cost effective ways of getting work accomplished, there has been an explosion of virtual work and project teams. As a result, it has become imperative for people to learn how to work together across boundaries of space, time, and yes, cultures. Driven by the need to leverage expertise located in different parts of the organization, companies are increasingly reliant on geographically dispersed virtual teams to plan, make decisions, and take action on critical business issues.

Virtual teams have quickly become a reality for which the economical context and managers were not prepared. Virtual Team performance depends on a foundation of trust. Without it, team members are reluctant to share information, offer support, and may hesitate to rely on others to keep commitments and follow through on tasks. In the traditional theory Trust requires certain conditions to be met to appear and develop such as physical proximity, mutual information exchange time, a shared social context, common values and similar cultures (Handy, 1995, Meyerson, 1996). But if we refer to the context of virtual teams, these conditions are not always met. So, lets take a look at some fundamental strategies to build trust and performance capability in virtual teams:

Create a strong team identity: Invest up-front time in clarifying the team's purpose and roles and responsibilities. There is enough uncertainty when working at a distance; it doesn't need to be added to by ambiguity and confusion. Clear purpose and accountabilities support cohesion. Translate purpose and overall accountabilities into specific objectives and tasks so that everyone knows what is expected, by whom, and by when. Virtual teams are highly susceptible to 'focus drift' and fragmentation, so keep reminding the team of purpose, objectives, etc.

Focus on relationships before tasks: Early on, team communications should have a significant 'getting to know you' component. They should also demonstrate enthusiasm and optimism. Members need to feel valued for who they are, not just what they do. They need to feel engaged and connected. Trust is usually built early on virtual teams, or not at all. Trust is often built on perceived similarities, but distance makes this process difficult. Chances for misunderstanding are also increased. Goodwill and engagement will solve most problems. Isolation and alienation create problems. Connect, and then collaborate.

Be a cool-headed, objective problem solver: Problems on virtual teams can appear larger than they actually are; people feeling isolated can lose perspective. Small issues, quickly resolved when working face-to-face, often fester and spread paranoia and distrust. You should establish yourself as someone who is totally fair; you don't play favorites, and you don't overburden some at the expense of other. You also need to be pragmatic. When there is a problem, you keep calm, you engage the team in finding practical solutions, and you communicate often.

Stay people-focused: Distance can make faceless abstractions of us all. Never lose site of the fact that your virtual team members are people, with all that that entails - needs for belonging, meaning, accomplishment, and recognition; feelings of frustration, anger, excitement, boredom, and alienation; political pressures and personal pressures. Think about those features of your physical workplace that enable teams to work well together, e.g., formal meeting rooms, informal spaces, the coffee area, and see what you can do to humanize your virtual workplace, e.g., team pictures and bio's, bulletin boards, chat areas.

Develop shared operating agreements: To reduce threats of uncertainty and ambiguity, common methods and processes - operating agreements - need to be established quickly. These agreements provide the team with shared mental models for working together. Typically, operating agreements need to be created in areas such as: planning, decision-making, communicating, and coordination.

Recognize the limits of available technologies: Unless you really have to, don't try and do everything virtually. Sometimes teams are working on projects so complex that no matter how much video or teleconferencing time they have, it will not be enough. Sometimes it pays dividends to bring people together for a few days. Never assume that because you have been designated a 'virtual' team, you must always work in that mode. Focus on cost/benefit over the life of the project. Technology is a tool, and all tools are good for some tasks and not others.

The Information Age has had a powerful influence in how we work, removing boundaries, opening doors to the world, and redefining the scope of who can participate on a virtual team.  To fully leverage this potential, however, we must adopt new tools and methodologies for communicating and sharing information.  We must find new ways to train – both to learn the new technologies and to become more aware of what it means to be part of a virtual team. Virtual teams are not a passing trend but rather are quickly becoming the workday norm. 


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