Virtual Teams

Innovation work today, like all other projects, is done by cross-functional teams working in multiple locations. These virtual teams face a number of challenges – just as any teamvirtualteam1virtualteam1 does – but offer unique opportunities to accomplish sophisticated technical goals.

Some of the unique challenges that a virtual team faces are:

  • Working in different time zones,
  • Lack of uniform team goals, and/or
  • Communication.

Some of the benefits realized by virtual teams that overcome these challenges are access to highest levels of talent, cost savings, and enhanced individual leadership.

Challenge #1

Working in different time zones can make even the simplest tasks challenging. For instance, on which day of the week and at what time should the team schedule meetings? This is an especially challenging question when the team configuration is biased toward one location or time zone.

Many teams have varying degrees of dispersion and configuration. Let’s take Joe’s team as an example. Joe, Karen, Alberto, and Ming all report to the Denver office and work from 8 am to 5 pm Mountain Time. Raj works in the Bay Area and typically comes into the office at 6 am Pacific Time and leaves at 4 pm. There are no other team members at his office, though the space is shared with other employees working in different divisions. Lucy works from home in London, 7 hours ahead of Denver, and a team of three designers work in India at 11.5 hours ahead of Denver.

Joes’ team should choose a meeting schedule that alternates so that the American group or the Indian group hosts the meeting during normal working hours. This will occasionally be inconvenient for Raj and Lucy, so special meetings should be held to accommodate their normal working schedules.

Challenge #2

Raj and Lucy are also working in isolated conditions. The rest of the team members share office space and can participate in informal discussions. Team cohesion, involving all team members, is built from shared team goals.

When convening a team for an innovation project or any other engineering work, the team leader must be diligent in communicating the team goal. This is not simple a one-way message but a conversation so that team members are engaged in the process. A shared goal can bring the team together, regardless of dispersion, to accomplish a major project deliverable.

Moreover, team goals should be broken down into tasks and activities so that individual team members clearly understand their own contribution to the objectives. Successful virtual teams need more task-level goals than social or interpersonal activities.

Teamwork in a face-to-face situation often involves shared, hands-on work with significant communication through non-visual cues. Teamwork in a virtual setting should be measured by the success of the “hand-off” between team members, whether that is on a daily basis or at a task level. While virtual teams will also share “aha!” moments and laughter, the focus must remain on the activities of the project in order to achieve a shared mission.

Challenge #3

The definition of a virtual team indicates that most of the communication is conducted via electronic means or is technology-assisted. Certainly Joe’s team (described above) is a virtual team since most communication is done via email, text, or shared documents. The truth is that most teams, whether geographically dispersed or not, communicate primarily by electronic means today.

The written word can lead to misunderstandings in the base case. However, when different cultures are added to the mix, communications on a virtual team can suffer. Joe has easily decided that his team will always communicate in English. While English is the natural choice in most situations, some teams may choose French or Mandarin as the primary language. Every team member must have a working knowledge of the common language and be respectful of others for whom it might be second (or third) language.

Further, written communication should be as formal as possible to aid understanding of the task-related messages. Humor is very different in various cultures and might be taken in the wrong way by an isolated team member without strong primary language skills. This is not to say, though, that the team shouldn’t use humor. Joking around and innocent teasing are ways that team members can bond in a face-to-face or live webinar meeting situation. Written team communications, however, should focus on the tasks necessary to complete project objectives.

Benefits of Virtual Teams

Virtual teams can realize benefits beyond those of a co-located team. By tapping into the best talent available around the world, the team can solve more complex problems and create better alternatives. This requires balancing meetings across time zones, so that no one person always has to call during his or her “off-hours”.

Next, companies can realize significant cost savings by utilizing team members in a virtual setting. Talent is available without moving expenses or office costs. Knowledge workers in many nations are less expensive than in the United States and offer diverse perspectives. These cost savings will only materialize, however, if the team is joined in a shared understanding of the project goals. Team members in separate locations must be engaged in tasks and activities to energetically support the group objective.

Finally, isolated team members (like Raj and Lucy) are typically most successful if they are self-sufficient individual leaders. Communication can be a challenge on dispersed teams and written communications should be task-focused. Individuals that are geographically dispersed must be able to interpret project activities and work on these tasks independently with self-motivation. Communication in a common language allows team member to hand-off their work to increase productivity and to achieve the shared team goals.

To learn more, please join us in an upcoming workshop on innovation or engineering management through Simple-PDH.com. Note that are continuing to transition our training business to www.simple-pdh.com while maintaining the consulting business here at www.globalnpsolutions.com. Innovation members receive two monthly communications – the monthly newsletter and our blog post here at the Idea Incubator. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at 281-280-8717 or info@globlanpsolutions.com.

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