Dealing with virtual teams across borders: How does your team measure up?

Excerpt from Human Resources magazine feature article July 2013

Author: Gaia Grant

On Thin ICE Intelligent Team Building

NASA is preparing for the first manned expedition to Mars planned for the 2030s. The provisional Nasa budget for this expedition is $17.7bn, so naturally the NASA team is focusing on minimising any potential risk factors to ensure the operation is a success. But they realise that the biggest risk factor is not likely to be the hardware – it will be the crew!

With a group of four living together in a constricted environment 140 million miles from earth for up to three years and relying on the headquarter support team back on earth, the pressure will be considerable. So NASA has turned to research on Antarctic teams to get some insights into what happens to virtual teams under pressure. They have found that challenging circumstances require outstanding capabilities. Both US military personnel and civilians who have lived on ice stations say that as well the obvious skills capability needed for this sort of work, team members must also have a good balance of emotional stability (emotional intelligence) and social competence. Unique team circumstances, such as those found in virtual teams, will require unique team strategies.

Here to stay

The virtual team is here to stay. It is a group of people who are required to pursue shared objectives while based at distant work sites. Members of this team can be in different regions or different locations in the same country. They will therefore frequently need to communicate using electronic or “virtual” means, such as emails, video-conferences and group calls. Often, the team members will come from different cultures as they work across borders.

No longer are we working in homogenous teams that can remain in close physical contact – there is more distance and more diversity in your average team than there has ever been before. With the breakdown of geographical and physical boundaries, a most employees today are working in one or more teams that are not limited to a single location. In the IT field in particular, virtual teams are now in the majority.

Despite significant managerial challenges (see below), virtual teams have become an indispensable reality for the modern organisation, and they can give a great competitive advantage. In 2004 a Harvard Business Review article referred to a benchmarking study into virtual teams, in which they found that 54 high-performing teams in 26 companies across 15 industries were successfully able to harness the knowledge of best-qualified specialists who were scattered around the globe. They found that virtual team members felt freer to contribute than their traditional team member counterparts – particularly outside of their areas of expertise, and they found that the team projects moved faster without the delays of face-to-face meetings (as they could make decisions faster) and more limited access to information. By pooling knowledge workers from different functions and locations, organisations can leverage on the unique opportunities that virtual teams offer. In addition, they allow for a great deal of flexibility in terms of working hours and location.

Set up to fail?

Despite their advantages, virtual teams are diverse and physically disconnected by their very nature, so they can also pose a significant challenge. In order for dispersed teams to outperform collocated teams, collaboration will need to be carefully managed. A study by the Aberdeen group has found, for example, that 50% to 90% of all software development projects executed by virtually teams fail to reach their objectives, which is a staggering finding!

It is advised that organisations understand the risk factors associated with such unique teams to ensure that they meet their objectives. These include:

1. Alignment issues: Lack of synchronicity in aims, namely different expectations, priorities and standards. There is rarely a clearly stated and shared corporate vision, and little shared experience for senior management and business leaders to build on.

2. Communication issues: Misunderstanding of tasks, misinterpretation of the “tone” of correspondence, delays in communication, and the amount of communication (eg email overload) can be detrimental to a team’s productivity.

3. Relationship issues: Long distances and cultural differences can generate breakdowns. Distrust of co-workers’ motives, little or no loyalty to the team, and few opportunities to develop meaningful friendships contribute to decreased performance.

It is therefore essential for leaders to identify the areas where virtual teams could fail in order to pre-empt any management problems.

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