What do you call a team of people who always meet face-to-face around a meeting table and whiteboard? Adjectives such as minority, rarity, and old-school spring to my mind. As I showed in the Working Remotely infographic in my last post, the proportion of employees working at a distance from their fellow team members has been increasing year-on-year for a decade, and many organizations expect it to keep doing so for the foreseeable future. Most of us, if not all of us, are involved to some degree in projects that include team members from other time zones, countries, organizations, and cultures. This is the new reality, and some people are even saying that because it’s so common, the distinction between “virtual teams” and “face-to-face teams” should be done away with entirely. Before we embrace such a step, though, we need to ensure we have a clear picture of what it takes to be successful in virtual teams.
Here’s three keys for effective virtual teams.
Key 1—Use Virtual Teams When There is a Clear Benefit to be Gained
The first key to success is to use virtual teams when it’s necessary and brings clear benefits, and to avoid the more extreme virtual team designs when the benefits are less visible. Crossing time zones brings problems in meeting scheduling, coordinating work, and aligning biological rhythms across the team (when Roger in Seattle calls into a teleconference at the start of his day, his London-based colleagues are at the end of their day. He’s just ramping up for a day of work, while they’re looking at their watches to head home). Crossing organizational boundaries raises issues of different incentives, competing priorities, and differing performance cultures. Crossing language and cultural boundaries leads to slower communication processes, a greater likelihood of misinterpreting spoken or written statements across cultures, and brings different styles to decision-making into conflict. If there is no compelling benefit to be gained by incurring these greater process and task costs, they should be avoided.
One example of a clear benefit is when a global team is designed to leverage different time zones to push work ahead and minimize dead time across the business day. A team with people in Sydney, Stockholm, and South Dakota can make 24 hours of forward progress on their joint project every 24 hours, by creating specific hand-off times at the end of the business day in Sydney to the team members starting their day in Stockholm, and likewise from Stockholm to South Dakota, and then South Dakota back to Sydney. For projects where speed-to-market is essential, and winning a first mover advantage confers significant benefits to the organization, being able to create three working periods of eight hours a day is a clear benefit. Compare this to the organization with all its team members in a single location—at best they can only make eight hours of forward progress every 24 hours. Assuming that the three location team works well together, the potential for improved speed to market is significant.
Some years ago I worked in such a team configuration, although we only spanned two eight hour periods each day. At the end of my business day in New Zealand, my analysis and research was handed across to either London or San Francisco, and so when I came back to the office the next day, my work had been edited and was ready for me to push ahead with clear feedback and direction. It was a fantastic experience, and the benefits were clearly felt.
Parts 2 and 3 will be published later this week.