Global Virtual Teams – a Challenge

by Anders Fogelstrom on March 17, 2013

Virtual teams are flourishing in today’s international organizations. But to build trust and establish an efficient communication with distant colleagues you need to master the new technologies and keep to certain rules of conduct.

imageFrom local to global

People used to work in companies where everyone knew everyone. All lunched in the same canteen and walked the same corridors. That is all in the past. Even small and midsized companies are acting global. Supply chain, research, sales and partnerships all are international. Companies have a dominating national culture but within that framework many nationalities interact.

Project organizations

Today’s organizations are slimmed with few spare resources as well as being complex and fast moving. This leads to frequent creation of project groups, which are flexible. The teams contain managers and specialists – chosen on the basis of competence and not on geographic location.

Time and money are always scarce so travelling gets restricted. Top managers still fly around the globe as ping-pong balls but most other levels in the organizations have neither the budget nor the envy to permanently pass their time in airports and the Hiltons of this world.

Communication technologies

Communication technologies are rapidly evolving. They are becoming better, cheaper and mobile. This is facilitating virtual teamwork. There is an abundant offer of e-mail systems, chats, social media, videoconference software, blogs, collaborative systems, Skype, mobile video and advanced videoconference rooms.

“The media is the message”

The young generations are born into the digital universe with its blurred frontiers between physical interaction and digital life. Those over 30 are more dependent on real life meetings, even if habits evolve quickly. You get a feeling for a personality through electronic communication. But the personality is filtered and presented differently depending on the communication tool. The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote already in 1967 that « the media is the message ».

Yahoo and teleworking

The recent decision of Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer to ban remote work in the company has created a vivid discussion on the web and in media.

She wrote in an internal memo:

« To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.»

Marissa Mayer refers to challenges, which exist in any organization physical or virtual. How do you enhance those spontaneous meetings that generate unexpected new ideas? But the way to arrive at an innovative and creative organization has to do with the working methods and not how close you sit in the same corridor.

The specialist on virtual teamwork Jaclyn Kostner wrote: « the problem isn’t teleworking. The problem is how it is led, managed, and rewarded.»

Verbal and non-verbal communication

We know that verbal communication only delivers part of the message we are trying to send. Less than half seems to be the agreed figure. But this also differs between national cultures. Some cultures like the Swiss German, and the Nordic for example are so called low-context cultures while someone from Japan or Italy belongs to a high context culture. The American anthropologist Edward T Hall created the terms in 1976.

It means that a Swede concentrates mostly on what is said, while a Japanese looks and experience body language, setting, mood, hierarchy and atmosphere to a much larger extent. This has the effect that a virtual team is more difficult to fully accept and profit from for a Japanese participant than for a German. The communication feels too direct and reduced. The unsaid, which is the most crucial element does not appear in the interaction.

Video Conferences

There are sophisticated video conferencing systems like Cisco’s WebEx and TelePresence and Microsoft’s Lync. There seem, however, to be a general reluctance in many companies to use video conferencing. As the installation is rarely handled people are a bit confused and lost with the technicalities. Many have memories of dark hazy screens and bad lip-sync from failed attempts to profit from older generations of installations.

The fact is that if you use today’s equipment correctly and to its full potential you can actually have better meetings than in a normal physical reunion. You can share documents, make notes and interact in a very productive way. But it is like everything in life – you have to know what to do and you have to train.

Trust – a key factor

Trust is the basis for working together, communicating and doing business.

Some cultures like the Swedish start by giving people full trust and when someone is seen to betray that abruptly loose confidence. Once and for all.

In other cultures like the French on the contrary you start by general suspicion. Others have to conquer your trust over time. You can lose it but reconquering it anew.

In all cultures you have to improve cooperation by getting to know each other. It is the role of small talk about the weather, stories of what happened during the week etc. – these seemingly unnecessary exchanges are essential to pave way for the efficiency at later stages.

Collective Intelligence

In all teamwork you need to be attentive to others, to listen and be open. You must be tactful and show respect. At MIT in Boston studies by Thomas W. Malone and his team are done around collective intelligence. They have proven that for a team to be intelligent it is not the smartness of the individual team members that is crucial but their openness to listen and exchange with the others.

Four rules for efficient virtual teamwork.

1. Build trust. If you cannot meet for a physical kick-off you should at least try to create some informal contacts during and in-between meetings. There is a person behind the function.

2. Prepare your interventions and presentations more thoroughly than for a normal meeting. You have to capture the audience’s attention to avoid ‘multitasking’. Interaction is crucial. If not being involved the participants read their e-mail, and do other things and no one pays attention. Also remember that everything communicates – in a video the way you dress, move and your background can underline or contradict your message.

3. Do not exclude team members. Do not create concentric circles where those working close to you are favored as regards information. The far-away members will feel excluded and underperform. Everyone should have the same relevant information.

4. Organization is essential. Clear agendas, defined roles and responsibilities, protocols and follow up meetings. One has to avoid ambiguity. This is precisely because all the normal signals of doubt, of disagreement which are obvious to participants in a physical meeting. « I can see on your face David that you do not really agree » are eliminated. Structure must compensate for this.

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