Can you hear me now?
working with global, distributed, virtual teams
Jesse Fewell, PMI-ACP, PMP
Today's work world has changed radically. Whether video chatting with China or taking a call at from home, more and more professional work is no longer in person. It can be frustrating, but a deeper look reveals some surprises: Everyone is doing it, and not just for costs; many organizations are thriving with it. Most pain points have simple work-arounds. This paper will walk you through tips and benefits for working with people outside your office.
With the rise of the Internet, emerging economies, and the trend of working from home, today's professionals are dealing with a workplace that is very different from anything the world has ever seen. Never before in the history of mankind have we been able to conduct so much work, so quickly, with so many people outside our own location.
Of course, it's not all rainbows and unicorns. We struggle with time zone issues, language barriers, limited visibility, poor infrastructure, and so on and so on. Sometimes we choose remote teams intentionally for their benefits. But often, this kind of organizational structure is handed to managers and team members without choice.
This paper is about how to deal with all those issues and strengthen your teams.
To understand the dynamic better, I propose the following definition: A distributed team is any group of people working together, where at least one person is not working in direct physical proximity to everyone else in the group.
What's helpful about this definition is that it broadens the concept to include many scenarios: offshoring, working from home, customer-vendor, open source, different buildings, or even different floors of the same building. It could be one person absent from a single home base. It could be several satellite locations working together. It could be a wholly virtual team that has never seen each other's anonymous faces, let alone met in person. But even more interesting is the vagueness surrounding the idea of “direct physical proximity.” What might that mean?
Information technology guru Alistair Cockburn (2006) defined it even more aggressively as the “bus-length communication principle.” Namely, communication between people suffers radically as soon as their walking distance from one another exceeds the length of a school bus (Cockburn, 2006).
Interestingly, a pair of MIT researchers verified this observational assessment in what they called the “30 meter principle” (Allen & Henn, 2011). They found that the degree of communication within teams plummeted once team members were seated 30 meters apart. More to the point, once people are seated more than 30 meters apart, they might as well be seated 3,000 miles apart.
So, if research shows that we don't perform as well when we don't sit together, then why do we do it?
Many times the most important question we can ask ourselves, in any situation, is “Why?” Understanding the context for a problem can help us sift through distraction and frustration to get to a solution, or simply reframe a negative into a positive.
There are several reasons why an organization chooses to work in a distributed environment. Here are the most common:
What started first as a Western phenomenon of offshoring jobs to cut costs has become much more complicated. For example, in 2011 Volkswagen launched a new factory in the United States, a practice called “reverse outsourcing.” Also, the growth of Western companies into emerging markets finds companies like Wal-Mart adding 100,000 jobs outside of its home country. Whether lowering costs or chasing sales, companies move into these situations for very real business reasons.
Many times, teams may not have the skills in-house to do the work needed. A mid-sized New York marketing house may not have engineers on staff; thus, it makes sense to hire a website vendor in San Francisco to work for a brief time on a project. Alternatively, a large accounting firm may need to add hundreds of new people quickly for a new long-term client, and an English-speaking, rapid-staffing provider in Cyberjaya, Malaysia, looks like a great option. Or perhaps a local startup in Silicon Valley is having a tough time recruiting talented engineers when Google and Facebook can pay them much more. Thus, the CEO logs on to a global tech community on LinkedIn and notices that a very experienced Belgian is looking for work and is ready to start right away.
Mergers and acquisitions
Sometimes, a mid-sized company will perform so well with the costs and skills they already have in-house, that a larger firm acquires the company. Now, in order to meet new obligations, we have to interact with the many other offices of the parent company.
In order to attract and retain the best people, companies will often advertise the option to work from home as a means to improve work–life balance. Despite the controversy of Yahoo's 2013 ban on remote work, the U.S. government estimates that as many as one out of four workers do at least some of their work from home. It has become a reasonably standard practice in today's work environment to say, “I'm working from home tomorrow, and I'll just dial into the meeting.”
Sometimes opposites attract. Working with an office across the world can give a business more coverage of global work hours; it's a technique called “follow the sun.”
Also, a more diverse workforce has a broader perspective on the problems we are trying to solve. Varying backgrounds and experiences inject more ideas and information into a conversation. “Team, we've hired our first German employee, located in Frankfurt, to help us understand the European market.” Diversity hires can lead to higher productivity and more innovative solutions, catalyzing companies to remain competitive in a global economy.
If you know why your project, program, or company is working in a distributed fashion in the first place, then you can know what actions are or are not appropriate.
Here are some examples of how we make that connection between context and actions:
- IF we recruit the best and brightest, regardless of where they live, THEN we know that efficiency can be compromised to preserve our DNA.
- IF we are working with European partners in order to open up a new product market, THEN spending money on travel might well be worth the strong revenue potential.
- IF we are using offshore labor to save costs, THEN we know our business case for procuring telecom equipment needs to speak to labor costs and productivity.
Having a sense of the context of your virtual team allows you to be more focused in coordinating the team. That being said, every team runs into issues. Let's take a look at how to understand whether the hoped-for benefits are eluding us.
In collocated teams, problems reveal themselves much more easily and quickly, largely because they're right in your face. Therefore, when working with virtual teams, leaders have to be much more attentive to signs that all is not well.
See if any of these sound familiar:
- “I'm so sick of having to dial in at night for the daily stand-up meeting with California. Why can't they do the task once in a while?”
- “Those foreigners can't make up their minds, so I have to redo all my work.”
- “Come on. It's a joke about Canadians; it can't be that offensive.”
- “Akash is British? I just assumed that he's Malaysian, because he lives in Kuala Lumpur.”
- “All of my work got done, so it must be their fault.”
In virtual teams, the lack of face time means that silos and misunderstandings are faster to form and harder to break. If your team members are complaining about one another, be concerned.
You're in a conference call, and ask into the phone, “What do you think, Bob?” After an awkwardly long pause you hear Bob say, “I'm sorry; what was the question?” That's a tell-tale sign that Bob was not paying attention, but rather was multitasking on email or documents or anything other than the meeting at hand. Of course, this is common in collocated environments where people will be tapping away on their laptops during a meeting, in front of one another, no less. In virtual environments, it's that much more tempting to do so, because the communication is often taking place at your desk or even on the computer itself. If you find that conference calls are slow, jerky, and ineffective, be concerned.
“We have only 2 days before the deadline, and your sans-serif typography completely clashes with the formal brand message we're going for. What are we going to do?”
Today's knowledge work is based on understanding and assumptions. The less understanding we have, the more we have to rely on assumptions, which leaves people to operate in completely different directions. If your distributed work is scheduled to get pulled together only at the last minute, be concerned.
It's been 4 weeks since the last milestone meeting, and the New York office is excited to show off its latest output to a firm in Dubai. The reaction is less than ideal: “Yes, that's technically what I asked for, but that's not at all what I wanted.”
Virtual teams rely way too often on documentation to drive assignments, requirements, and specifications. If you see a program run primarily against compliance to a contract, be concerned.
If we see any of these symptoms occurring, we need to take action to steer the team back on track. The next section tells us how to get started.
True teamwork only happens when we are intentional about creating an environment for real collaboration.
Several models for collaboration and high-performing teams are available in the market, and almost all of them encourage starting off with good chartering. We'll then talk about the value of travel for distributed teams. Finally, we'll examine several examples of working agreements that make virtual teams more effective.
Good managers have known for a long time the value of chartering. An effective team kickoff can set everyone off on the right foot (if you're American) or the front foot (if you're English).
Some basic questions need to be clarified before a global team begins working together. Without these basic pieces of information, you can be assured that there will be issues and problems.
Management science for the past several decades has emphasized the value of articulating the mission and vision of a business endeavor. Unfortunately, too many mission statements and vision statements are much too broad to provide meaningful context. In a global context, it becomes even more critical to articulate specific outcomes and expectations:
- Why have we been chartered? Do we know our purpose and our goal?
- What does success look like when we're done? What are we going to do as our first step toward that success?
- Who is responsible for what? To whom do we escalate issues or ask for answers?
- How will we interact with one another to be most effective?
These are the ingredients for a context that offers sufficient information for teams to begin moving toward a collaborative dynamic. Indeed, this could be the agenda for your kickoff meeting.
If there is any way possible under the sun, have your team kickoff in person. One expert after another tells us the best kickoff meetings are done in person.
During the in-person kickoff, make an effort to have social events scheduled after hours. There is a reason restaurants have most of their seating for more than one person: Eating is a fundamentally social activity. Those who meet and eat together, get along well together.
These kinds of interactions build the relational foundation for real teamwork and collaboration. Also, getting away from the office can spur new ideas, and impromptu work conversations can arise over dinner.
But what about the cost? Perhaps the bulk of the team is located in Budapest, with only three people located remotely. In this case (Exhibit 1), we only need to cover the travel costs for these three people.
Exhibit 1: Sample costs for in-person kickoff meeting.
That is not a lot of money. Sometimes simply putting a number on the unquantified taboo of travel makes it more finite and manageable.
The financial goal of virtual teams is to reduce travel costs to the lowest point where results are not compromised. Going to extremes, however, and removing travel completely is certain to prevent a true collaborative dynamic.
During our chartering efforts, let's say we've covered the business goal as well as the roles and responsibilities of the group. Now, we get to the next question of how we plan to work together.
Formalizing interpersonal expectations is critical in global teams. There are too many different perspectives on what is efficient and what is distracting. Having an open conversation about those things can result in some concrete agreements that prevent frustration down the road.
Here are some examples of what might go into those agreements.
In today's world, many collocated offices will boast a strong representation of international expatriates, allowing for both cultural learning and occasional misunderstanding. However, whenever your team of internationals is distributed across virtual locations, learning becomes harder and those misunderstandings become easier.
The first step is to provide your team some high-quality cross-cultural resources, such as the following:
- The Hofstede Dimensions (Hofstede, 2010) are a fascinating tool. They give you a basic language for understanding cultural differences. For example, an Indian who knows that his country on average tolerates uncertainty more often than Brazilians do will be intentional about crafting a more detailed business plan than he would have done otherwise.
- Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands (Morrison & Conaway, 2006) is one of my favorite books for international business. In particular, it warns readers that the United States is the most litigious society in the world, and lawyers are a much more common part of business than you might expect.
- Global Business Leadership (Wibbeke, 2008) focuses on the leadership skills needed to lead any team that crosses ethnic or country boundaries.
Once your teams have these resources in hand, have them talk through the observations during the kickoff meeting. Consider having a professional cross-cultural training or facilitator guide this part of the meeting.
One of the more interesting trends for virtual teams is with hot Silicon Valley startups, multimillion-dollar ventures comprised of employees distributed around the world. The popular ebook Getting Real (Fried, Hansson, & Linderman, 2009) makes the case that virtual teams increase productivity. Time zone overlaps are reserved for meetings and discussions. All other time is left for individual, focused work. You can't disturb one another, because half of the group is asleep and the other half is at home, away from distracting co-workers.
This policy has been adapted to several larger offices, where even if we work in the same office, we choose to work as if we weren't. In this way, we create more equality between those who work in the office and those who don't.
Two emails limit
One team issued a limit on the number of emails permitted in a discussion thread. If after the second email, you still don't understand what is being asked or said, you propose a video chat. The hard part was enforcing the rule. Some tried a system rule that auto-copied every message to a dummy email account, where everyone could see how long an email thread went. But the real solution came when one person, who hated email more than most, would make mention in the daily conference call of who sent too many emails.
English-only, or not
One multinational financial services company I've worked with has an office in Shanghai featuring a rule where everyone must speak only English. Their global headquarters was in New York, and to encourage unity and equality, everyone was expected to be in the habit of thinking and working in English. Alternatively, a gaming company in Beijing with several Western expatriates has a much more dynamic approach. They recruited several local Chinese professionals with the promise of an English work environment, but all the senior expats spoke fluent Mandarin. Meanwhile, the more junior expats were expected to speak the international variant of English. In this way, there was both the operational need for everyone to learn English and also the support for less fluent team members to be productive as they grew into the behavior.
Once a strong foundation is built for team collaboration, we need to get results. We do that by optimizing daily communication.
In this section, we'll explore two essential ingredients for effective virtual communication. First, we need a toolkit with as many options as possible. Second, we need to match them together the right way for the right context.
Building a Toolkit
Documents and email are not enough for communication to happen. Ever.
Collocated teams know this already. How often have you thought, “This email thread is way too confusing; I'm calling a meeting after lunch”? We often get away with relying on written text, because we can have casual hallway conversations or simply book a conference room to hash it out. In global teams, however, we don't have those organic communications systems.
The more complex and nuanced modern work becomes, the more documents can only record what has been effectively communicated through other means.
For robust remote communication, leaders need to have a toolkit full of options to use for a given situation. Here are some must-have tools to have at your disposal.
This is a must-have in today's workplace. If you don't have a solution installed, get one. Now. From Skype to Google Hangout to FaceTime, there is no shortage of tools to choose from. Also, the technology improves each year, making the experience better and better. Hardware is, of course, necessary for video chat to work. However, with minimal costs, we could easily buy a webcams for each of our two hundred employees’ computers without making a dent in a large program budget.
This is fast becoming cheap enough for everyone. “Human-sized” video chat with curved screen and high-fidelity streams create the very real dynamic that you're face to face with counterparts on the other side of the screen. These high-end systems have traditionally been procured only for senior management to save on travel costs. However, newer startups are offering entry-level products and hosted solutions, which are quickly bringing prices down to where any global team can start considering pricing as part of a program budget.
A video wall
This is a monitor/webcam combination unit mounted on a wall to broadcast the casual activities of your office, every hour of every workday. If someone has a question for a remote team member, he or she can just walk up to the monitor and say, “Hans! I have a query.” This is especially effective if Hans was not on instant messaging earlier when the query first came to mind. It was only when she saw Hans on screen that she remembered she needed him, and was able to get his attention.
Instant messaging (im)
This is a feature built into several common tool sets. From Microsoft linc to Skype to Google chat to imessage, it's everywhere. Know what your corporate environment provides, and if it's not sufficient, find out what free tools are allowed. Every team should have an agreed-upon IM policy, with contact info in everyone's contact list.
This technology is inserting itself into the workplace more and more. From salesforce chatter to doximity to yammer, there are very real efforts to leverage the modern worker's digital prowess in the workplace. The key difference between social media and traditional im is the team-wide visibility of conversations and the archiving of those conversations for later reference.
These are a must-have for any global team. One team I worked with had google translate windows shared between Washington, DC, and Mexico City. As the americans were speaking, they typed the key points into the english window, and the spanish version instantly showed up. The mexican counterparts did the same. In this way, there was a multilingual conversation happening, thereby improving mutual understanding.
Project tools are practically guaranteed to be in place at any large company. Whether it is Microsoft SharePoint, wiki pages, or specialty project tools, every team should have a central place to go to for the latest project files. If your it department doesn't have one in place, there are several free solutions out there that integrate threaded discussions, FAQs, document repositories, and other features to archive your work.
These tools are also increasingly common, and many of them are free. Skype has a screen-sharing option, as do many virtual meeting and teleconference tools. Usually, there is an option to do a one-way broadcast, as in a webinar, or a more interactive transferring of control between participants.
This is another winner in the cost-versus-value category. One telecom company i worked for issues all its project managers wireless headsets for coordinating remote team conference calls. Several of them would get up from their desks and pace in the hallway, as if talking to a group of friends. They were noticeably more engaged in their conversations. Also, when headquarters wanted to broadcast a revenue update over webinar, they used microphone-enabled computer headphones to participate in the briefing without disturbing their colleagues.
Yes, travel is still needed occasionally, even after an in-person kickoff. Yes, you have to be strategic about when to use a travel budget, but you should not accept “no travel” as a reasonable operational policy. As discussed earlier, you should have a cost-benefit analysis that supports the travel budget you think you need. Also, be creative with the asset that it is. Consider rotating the travelers to increase implicit knowledge across the team, and also hosting whole-group meetings at key milestones.
“But we're not allowed to use any Internet tools like Google or Skype. What do I do?”
You ask. You present the business case.
What does IT offer as the official tool? What are other programs using? The larger the company, the more likely an approved a solution is in place somewhere. If IM and/or video are not permitted, translation solutions may exist. Request both a formal solution and a temporary waiver to use the free stuff. Most management organizations understand that basic infrastructure is required to do work.
“But I've already asked, and they won't give me anything or let me use anything.”
So ask again, and again. A little online research will give you the productivity statistics to make the business case for either an investment or a temporary policy waiver.
Virtual teams need a diverse toolkit to maximize communication.
Mix and Match
Let's say you've investigated these tools, found a few already in place, and requested others. Now we have to tackle the next question: Which ones do we use when?
Crafting a distributed communication strategy requires first understanding the underlying dimensions of the tools we're using: directions and channels.
- Directions: Too much of digital communication is one-directional, whether it is email, documents, podcasts, streaming music, youtube, or Hulu. The vast majority of what we call “multimedia” is really just a bunch of people shouting at you. Stop and consider whether you see the same dynamic at work. Does your communication reveal a tendency to monologue, or are you putting in the very real effort to create effective dialogue?
- Channels: Communication consists of several pieces of information: body language, tone of voice, and the actual verbal content. Furthermore, because each kind of information is continuously conveyed from the sender to the receiver, we can consider them active channels of data, broadcasting simultaneously.
Of course, much of that gets lost in a virtual environment. If we rely only on email or conference calls with team members who speak different dialects and languages, a lot of information gets missed. Therefore, we want our virtual tools to leverage the human capacity to transmit and receive information on multiple channels.
When we plot our tools according to these two dimensions, we can use the chart below.
Exhibit 2: Preferred communication models.
Our desire is to use the tools in such a way that we get both a dialogueand a multichannel interaction. Here are some examples:
Use an Extra Projector
If your conference room has a projector hanging from the ceiling, this will likely be the primary tool for displaying a document or presentation the team needs to discuss. Then, to get the extra nonverbal information across, connect a second mobile projector to someone's laptop, to display a video chat window.
Everyone Gets a Screen
If your company issues laptops or tablets, then it could be very easy to have a projector display the video chat, while everyone accesses the presentation on their own screen. Of course, there is the very real temptation to tab over to email and “get productive” during the meeting. So, you'll need a strong facilitator to call out people by name for feedback, suggestions, and questions. In these cases, you want to treat your personal screen as a virtual printout, and not a license to multitask.
Your team has an active video wall, and an analyst walks up to the wall to get Priti’s attention. Priti walks up to the screen and says, “Sorry, John, but the room is rather loud right now. Is it okay if I go to my desk where we can Skype with headphones?”
Later in the day, a conference call starts with a quick slide presentation. But with only one screen available, the moderator switches the view to the video chat mode and says, “Now that you know the story, what are your thoughts?” They've switched from presentation to conversation.
Virtual hallway chat
Two remote colleagues on video chat disagree on the details of a human resources policy. One of them sees that the human resources director is online in the instant messaging tool. He sends her a quick IM: “Do we really have to complete diversity training to qualify for travel? The latest policy document on the intranet says otherwise. See here…” Now, three different remote workers are reviewing the same document: two on video, the other on IM.
Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to initiate and maximize interaction.
Allen, T., & Henn, G. (2011). The organization and architecture of innovation. London, UK: Routledge.
Cockburn, A. (2006). Agile software development: The cooperative game (2nd ed.). Addison-Wesley Professional, New York, NY USA.
Fried, J., Hansson, D., & Linderman, M. (2009). Getting real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application. Chicago, IL: 37Signals.
Hofstede, G. (2010). Hofstede Dimensions. Retrieved from http://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html
Morrison, T., & Conaway, W. A. (2006). Kiss, bow, or shake hands. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
Wibbeke, E. (2008). Global business leadership. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.
© 2014, Jesse Fewell
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA