Virtual teams are on the rise – there is no denying that. They started to pop up in larger enterprises roughly fifteen years ago and have been increasingly utilized by organizations that work on a global scale ever since.
I decided to write this post when I discovered that working with virtual teams seemed to be the most challenging type of handling efforts of a team for many people. Since I have been working in global fields of operations, I felt really at home with these subjects and wanted to share my experiences with you.
Sometimes I have heard people asking people what virtual teams should be good for and that they could never be as efficient as a team that is sitting within the same physical room. These and other objections are coming from no particular group of individuals alone but stretch through all ages and backgrounds really.
I would like to line up a few of my favorite reasons on why virtual teams can be a very good thing. But like with every good there is, it requires a little bit of insight and dedication to make it run really good.
Whether you are running a service, working on projects, supporting users or selling products, we have to face that most of these require a global reach today and even more so in near future. This can be achieved by deploying small teams in a particular region and connecting them virtually to leverage synergies of knowledge and availability.
If a user from New York calls to get an issue solved, they will usually not care if the person who solves the issue is sitting in London, Rome, Sydney, Singapore or any other city in the world as long as the issue gets solved.
A popular reason to use virtual teams is to provide a continuously available service across the whole day, every weekday and even sometimes including the weekend.
In order to avoid night shifts within the operations, the business is split into usually 3 regions across the globe. Often the three teams physically are located in the Americas, EMEA and APAC. Each team has a shift of eight hours within the local day-time and then hands over to the next team when their day starts.
Optimal Workspace Utilization
A little less popular is a virtual team deployment in order to ensure an optimal utilization of workspace and equipment. In this case the team is not necessarily split by their physical location but by time.
This is often pursued in order to avoid costs for additional office space or it can also happen in the manufacturing sector.
Deployment of Specialists
Sometimes projects require to include a subject matter expert that is not physically located near the project team. Naturally the specialist could travel to get the work done face-to-face with everybody but this might be a costly option if you consider all of the required expenses that come on top of the actual project work.
For the specialist it also wields more value to work as a virtual team member, as he or she is also able to work on other projects meanwhile.
An additional benefit of running a virtual team is an increased business continuity. If office A has a temporary issue with their network connectivity, then office B and office C can still run the business without an availability issue.
Leading a Virtual Service Team
Leading and managing a virtual team is for all the team members, not just for a person slightly higher in the org hierarchy. As there are often little to no local controls in place, the whole cooperation relies heavily on trust, intercultural mediation and a good communication. You also have to account for people working in different timezones and make sure nobody is somehow enforced to do overtime or work from home late just to be on the same page as everybody else.
The Permanent Link
For operational teams, that are permanently split in two or more locations, it’s a good practice to establish a permanent link over real-time communication. The most efficient and immersive way of doing this is with a multi-site video conference. Less immersive options would be a phone conference or a chat room that is always on. Utilizing this permanent link, the teams can cooperate just like if they were in the same room, or as close to that as possible, only aided by communication technology.
“The more the merrier” is an old saying and that also counts for differences when building a team. Make sure you mix gender, age, cultural backgrounds and career paths in your team as good as possible. The more variety you can get into a team, the more interesting their ideas and approaches will be. Experiences stay with a single person but knowledge grows when it’s shared.
In order to work together, a shared working platform is very important. This is to share and work on documents, update each other on news and even enable pre-defined workflows and processes.
You can compare this virtual platform with a physical meeting room table where all team members sit around and talk about their efforts and discuss next steps to achieve an approaching milestone.
Such collaboration platforms are usually deployed within the organization’s network or are made available through the cloud.
A new aspect of collaborative working are the social features to the solution as well as the integration into other communication methods. If the deployment is neatly integrated, it can save a lot time by eliminating redundant activities and ensuring the standard processes are adhered to.
To name only a few potentially good picks I can recommend you having a look at the following solutions:
- Microsoft SharePoint
Most importantly however is to analyze your team’s needs and find a well suited solution to cover these requirements. Make sure you also engage senior management of your organization on that matter, as there might be already solutions in place that are just not well utilized (so far).
Now instant messaging has got a little bad reputation and yes I can understand the objections of the medium becoming an informal way of communicating. But instant messaging is just like steel – you can do something good with it or you can do something bad with it.
In my opinion instant messages can be great for rapid communication and exchange of little pieces of information that are urgently required.
Beyond the exchange of information one to one, you can utilize instant messaging for virtual teams by deploying a permanent chat room for the team members. This way you can directly update everybody in the team and ask for feedback or help on a matter without delay. This also wields the benefit for team members that are currently not working, to be able to read through the “script” and see for what has happened while they were out and get the latest updates.
Newer instant messaging solutions will also interwork with other ways of communicating as in establishing a conference with video capabilities, with sharing a screen or working together on a whiteboard.
Particularly useful are also the presence functions that let everybody know who of the team is currently available, away, busy, in a conference or in another customizable status. So when you are going to ask a question to the team you can direct them to someone who is online and available and not have to ask several individuals and wait for an answer, even though they might not be on their desk.
However if the content of the conversation grows into something larger than expected, one should move the conversation to a real-time based communication method that allows for a few more dimensions than text, such as a phone call or even better a video conference call.
Email won’t change and it won’t go away. It might annoy you but it’s undisputed. Some companies work on email and collaboration solutions that are kind-of email of the future but they can only be of true value if they are following standards and if those standards are deployed for all organizations and private individuals. However email is not all that terrible. The effectivity of email depends on how it is composed and why they have chosen email for their means of communication.
Or in other words – phone calls. I don’t like this way of communicating very much but it is still widely adopted and popular with many people. I don’t know anything to tell you about this, that you don’t already know.
Video conferencing or video collaboration is my preferred means of communicating in an enterprise environment. It leverages real-time voice plus video image with optional usage of video from other sources such as your screen that could be shared with others. These solutions can entail either single-person applications like desktop software with a webcam, hardware integrations in meeting rooms or huddle areas with video capabilities.
Do you have any other ideas or remarks about the work with virtual or teams? I would love to hear your opinion on this. Just drop a comment below. If you ever want to talk about virtual teams and enterprise collaboration hit me on Twitter. Many thanks for reading!