Is There Anybody Out There?

Working in a dispersed or virtual team

One of the immediate effects of Covid-19 is that it is fundamentally changing the way we work.  For example, people are being told to work from home.  For many people home working will be a new experience, bringing with it new challenges.  Many other people will be used to working from home one or two days a week and now, along with their colleagues, they will be working remotely for weeks to come, and this will also bring fresh challenges.

I have recently written a book ‘Making Relationships Work at Work – a toolkit for getting more done with less stress’.  The 15 chapters of the book cover all the main aspects of how to build effective relationships at work.  Chapter 13 is titled ‘Is There Anybody out There? – working is a dispersed or virtual team’.  Due to the enormous stress that organisations will be under I would like, having received the approval of my publisher, to make this chapter widely available now, rather than for you to wait until the book is published on 30 June.

This chapter on virtual / home working is below:

If you would like to register your interest in purchasing a copy of the book please leave your name and email address (without any obligation to purchase the book) in our website www.learningcorporation.co.uk/register    

Introduction

Virtual or dispersed workplaces have become a common phenomenon and they can take many forms.  Do any of the following situations apply to you?  If ‘yes’ this chapter is for you.

ExampleApplies to me (tick)
I work from home one or more days in the week 
I work 100% from home and only occasionally go into one of our offices 
I am, or will be seconded to a client for many months 
We all work in different locations either in the same country or in different countries, perhaps in different time zones 
I work in a matrix environment.  By ‘matrix’ we mean, for example, you might be based in Hamburg and your line manager is based in Frankfurt.  For 20% of your time you work in a virtual project team and your project manager is based in Bangalore 
I work in a virtual or dispersed team and feel disconnected with my friends at work and with my organisation  

Parts of this chapter are in note form as we wish to share many practical tips with you, whilst keeping the chapter brief.

Benefits of virtual teams

Virtual teams can be an attractive proposition to organisations for several reasons, particularly in industry sectors where talented staff are scarce.  For example, they:

  • Enable the organisation to tap into a wider geographical talent pool
  • Help retain good employees especially those who need to be more home-based, for example to take care of an elderly parent
  • Increase the diversity pool if potential specialist recruits live in other countries
  • Are an attractive recruitment strategy for people who would otherwise be turned off joining the organisation because of the time and cost spent commuting to and from work
  • Enable employees to work more flexible hours, achieve a better work-life balance and concentrate on their work in a more peaceful setting
  • Enable some businesses to continue operating in times of national strikes or pandemics
  • Are essential for organisations which need to function 24 hours a day.  They achieve this is by having, for example, some staff based in Europe and other staff located in an entirely different time zone, say in Asia Pacific

Being a member of a virtual team can create challenges, for example: 

  • Team members feeling lonely, ‘distant’ or left out, forgotten, or cut off from regular social interactions with team members.  This disconnection may result in lower productivity and / or staff leaving the organisation
  • Team members failing to realise that they need to communicate with each other more frequently than in a traditional team where members sit near each other in the same building
  • Feeling that you’re being pulled in different directions by being accountable to two or more ‘bosses’
  • Being required to take part in frequent conference calls at unsocial hours
  • Finding it difficult to trust other members of the team you have not met before and / or where you have no experience of their personal trustworthiness or the quality of their work
  • Having a manager who hasn’t grasped that running a virtual team requires a different mind-set, new skills, behaviours and team processes
  • Difficulty in contacting a colleague when you need a quick decision
  • Being expected to read and answer emails in your personal time 
  • Suffering from anxiety, stress and mental health problems for any of the above reasons

Setting up a virtual team for success

Preparing for the first meeting

If you are asked to join, or perhaps head up a new virtual (project) team, we encourage you to have all members of the team physically present for the inaugural ‘kick off’ meeting.  (Here’s an opportunity to apply the influencing skills we shared with you in Chapter 8).

The above challenges of virtual working should help you build the case for a residential kick-off meeting.  Most of the meeting time should be spent getting to know each other, building rapport and trust and finding out each person’s expectations and concerns about being a member of this team.

The topics to be included should include: 

  • Why the team is being created and how the team’s work is aligned with the organisation’s overall mission, vision and business strategies
  • What the team is being asked to achieve.  This should involve creating a shared vision of what this highly successful, completed project will look like, including clear, measurable outcomes
  • Why each person has been selected and the roles of each person
  • Some activities to help team members get to know each other to build rapport and trust and share their preferred working styles (Chapters 2 and 3)
  • How you are going to work together including agreeing your team’s core values and behaviours, your communication and data sharing processes and how the team will make decisions (Chapter 7)
  • Why frequent communication is key to the success of the team 

After this initial face to face meetings subsequent meetings are likely to be virtual with face to face meetings held as frequently as is practicable.

Agreeing a Team Plan

A tool which we find useful to complete at the team formation stage is a Team Plan, a copy of which is in Chapter 7.

This plan will take two or more meetings to complete.  Managers should resist the strong temptation to complete it themselves as team members are more likely to implement it if they have been properly involved from the outset.

The challenges of communication

With team members based in different locations, communicating effectively with each other is a challenge.  Emails are a quick way to get tasks off your desk, but in many instances, they can be ineffective and potentially damaging.  How many times a week have you sent an email or text message and then worried about:

  • Has the recipient received my email?  
  • Have they read it properly?  
  • Did they understand what I was trying to say? 
  • How have they reacted to my email? (You can’t see their body language).  Have I caused offence?  
  • Are they going to act on my email, or at least reply?

With phone calls you not only experience the words themselves but also the tone, pitch, volume and variation in the voice (‘the music’).  These give you more clues about your colleague’s level of e.g. agreement, enthusiasm, energy and concerns.

Using a communication and data sharing platform

Being able to see the other person is even better.  Virtual team-working will benefit from using new generations of technology where you are able to share data and see the colleagues you want to communicate with.  With some systems you can ‘call up’ and amend the documents that are being discussed in the meeting as well as being able to see your colleagues who are on the call.  

Your organisation may already use a bespoke system or have implemented e.g. Zoom, Slack, MS Teams, Skype or Google Hangout.  However, some platforms can’t be used in some countries.  For example, currently we cannot use Skype when we are coaching executives based in countries such as Oman, the UAE or China.

In our view it is preferable to choose a communication and data sharing platform with proven reliability and security rather than one which uses the latest cutting-edge (‘bleeding edge’) technology.  

Communicating in a dispersed / virtual team

Setting up successful communications 

The first thing to agree is how you are going to communicate with each other.  We encourage you to develop a protocol covering:

TopicIdeas to include in protocol
Choice of communication methodList types of communications e.g. email, phone, video call, face to face meeting with examples of when it is appropriate to use each type 
Good practice re video callsState your name each time you speak if one or more listeners cannot see you on their screensListen attentively and let people finish what they want to say without talking over them or interrupting them in other ways
Frequency and timing of callsAgree the frequency of whole team conference calls, varying the starting time if team members are working in different time zones so that the same person does not always have to get up at 03.00 hours!
Cultural considerationsSome team members may appreciate receiving documents to read in advance of calls because it suits their learning style, or because English is not their first languageUse clear language.  With global teams it is likely that English has been adopted as the business language.  English native speakers need to remember to use plain language and speak clearly.  Even when speaking to a colleague in another English-speaking country it is important to clarify what the other person means when they say things like ‘first base’ or even ‘urgent’ as a word or phrase often has a different meaning in different countries.  Chapter 15 comprehensively covers the riches of diversity
AccessibilityBear in mind that a team member may not be able to pick up emails or calls whilst working at a client’s premises or at some remote location
Clarity when delegatingWhen delegating work to a colleague who is working remotely, to avoid misunderstandings, ask them to confirm in writing the steps they propose to take to complete the task.  Review and agree this before the work commences.  Look back at Chapter 12 for a host of proven tips on how to delegate effectively
Format of notes of meetings / phone-callsThe rest of the team will want to be updated when only a few members of the team are on a call to discuss a specific issue, or a single member of the team has a conversation with a client.  Summarise the conversation and provide a link to the full notes of meeting on the organisation’s intranet

Encouraging successful virtual relationships

Developing trust and recognising diversity

You need to compensate for the fact that team members will not benefit from casual conversations in the office corridor or at the water fountain or over lunch.  When you “meet” virtually:  

  • Build in time for social chit chat, especially so if some members have never met face to face. Those team members who are ‘people persons’ will immediately see the necessity of this, whilst those who are more task-focussed may need to learn the importance of ‘small talk’ and patience 
  • If some team members believe that it is more difficult to maintain concentration when engaged in virtual meetings one obvious remedy is to keep the business part of meetings focussed and brief!
  • Have regular feedback sessions (Chapter 11) to discuss how things are going, not only about the tasks but also about the quality of inter-personal relationships

Managing conflict

When any group of people work together, they may develop the habit of complaining about each other, either in meetings or off-line.  This can often happen because of cultural differences – for example how different cultures construe what ‘being on time’ means or because of different working styles.  Alternatively, there is the danger that members may shy away from disagreeing with each other for fear of upsetting a colleague.  ‘Group think’ can then set in which may result in poor decision-making.  As this danger may be more prominent in virtual team working it is important to find ways to encourage team members to ‘speak up’ and express their opinions.

Should there be signs that conflict is growing between some members, many practical tips on avoiding and resolving conflict are in Chapter 14.

Protecting IP including copyright

It is more difficult to protect copyright and other forms of intellectual property in a virtual environment compared to a traditional team.  For example, a team member might be seconded to a client and become involved in jointly developing with the client a product or a system or service.  It is quite likely that the team member will draw on the experience gained in your own company and inadvertently share your company’s copyright material or other valuable IP.  At the end of this project your company is left with the problem of who owns the intellectual property in this jointly developed product, system or service.

Therefore, with staff secondments to external clients, managers need to make sure there is a clear and comprehensive protocol regarding IP and the use of other confidential information and that there is a written agreement with the client.

Maintaining momentum 

‘Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success’.  Henry Ford

As with other types of teams there is usually a lot of enthusiasm and goodwill during the formation stage.  Due to the special challenges of being in a virtual team the risk of losing momentum is higher than in a traditional team.  For example, the manager, being based at a different location, will find it more difficult to check on progress and quality of work.  And it’s not just about monitoring and control – the manager will not be available for the kinds of quick and informal conversations that face to face contact make easy and which serve to maintain focus, encouragement, support and motivation.

Here are some practical tips help maintain momentum:

Interim deadlinesBreak down the main tasks and outcomes into small manageable packets of work and agree deadlines to complete each packageCreate a culture of shared ownership and leadership of the project by, for example, allocating certain tasks to small sub-groups or individuals to manage with agreed deadlines (especially important in larger virtual teams)
Visual progress chartAllocate tasks to team members and record them on a Gantt Chart so that all team members can see their own and each other’s progress against the plan
Weekly check-insHave short, weekly check-ins where each person shares their progress to date and their main tasks and challenges for the coming week
Early warningsBe open about any problem at the earliest opportunity and share ideas how to overcome it
Support each otherRecognise that in a matrix environment each person will have other responsibilities and seasonal pressures and therefore team members should be willing to work flexibly to share the work at peak times
Make it enjoyableIncrease the connection between individuals by trying to make virtual working as enjoyable as possible e.g. spend part of regular team meetings on personal updates, social topics and include a social networking platform in the shared workspace
Keep in touchCheck on each person’s well-being as well as their technical progress and challenges and encourage all members to keep in touch with each other on a 1 to 1 basis.  This will generally be initiated by the team manager, but all team members can be encouraged to maintain their relationships this way
Learn from the bestRead articles and books about virtual teams and talk to virtual teams in other industry sectors about how they have overcome the ‘social distance’ and achieve high performance

Conclusion

Virtual team working is already widespread, and its use is likely to increase.  The ‘Office in your Pocket’, together with other future advances in technology will provide essential aids to team members but technology by itself is not the answer to the challenges of working virtually.  Make human engagement the first priority.  Building rapport, credibility and trust (Chapter 2) and communicating with attentive listening skills (Chapters 5 and 6) will still be paramount, supported by the many tips we have provided in this and other chapters.

Applying this in your workplace

  1. What lessons have you learned from this and earlier chapters that could help to make your virtual team more effective?  For example:
  2. To overcome the feeling of being cut-off from the team
  3. To improve the quality of communications
  4. To guard against the loss of copywrite?
  5. How might you share the tips in this and other chapters with your team or your team leader?

Further references 

  • Hall, K, ‘Making the Matrix Work: How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut Through Complexity’, Pub Nicholas Brealey International, 2013
  • ‘Leading Virtual Teams (Pocket Mentor)’ Pub Harvard Business School Press, 2016

Shawbell, D, ‘Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connections in and Age of Isolation’ Pub Piatkus, 2018