Project Management Institute

Guidelines to create a culture to promote successful use of virtual teams

Overview

During the past 10 to 15 years, there has been an increase in the number of organizations that are actively practicing a management-by-projects philosophy. Projects are viewed as organizational assets, and programs, consisting of a number of projects along with other work, are the vehicle by which to ensure that benefits are coordinated and managed effectively. Portfolio management shows the intent of the organization. Through a portfolio management system, projects and programs are selected and continued based on a defined process and are prioritized to show their importance to the organization. A continuous “stream of projects” has emerged as the method for ensuring the growth and survival of the organization.

This movement toward a management-by-projects philosophy has been fostered through the increasing use of virtual teams. Through the use of virtual teams that are planned and supported appropriately, projects can be delivered in a more effective and efficient manner. By using virtual teams, organizations no longer are limited by physical boundaries, as the geographic location of the team members is not a consideration. It is not necessary to physically collocate team members to work on a project, because resources are not limited by their specific location, and this enables key subject matter experts to be part of the project whenever their services are required. Further, if planned accordingly and given the nature of the project, a 24-hour work force can be deployed to increase the timeliness and efficiency with which projects are successfully completed. Additionally, using virtual teams enables organizations to form joint ventures more frequently through alliances with valued partners and suppliers, based on the unique competencies, skills, and knowledge of resources in these organizations, that are needed in order to build specific products or deliver services or results in the shortest time period. This use of virtual teams means that there is a transformation in terms of how organizations optimize strategies and resources in order to respond to complex and competitive business pressures.

This paper describes the benefits and challenges associated with virtual teams. It then focuses on the types of virtual teams and the importance of collaboration among team members, including the formation of swift trust, the team charter, and English as a common language. It concludes with guidelines for consideration in creating a culture that fosters the successful use of virtual teams.

Benefits and Challenges of Working with Virtual Teams

Numerous similarities exist between virtual and traditional or collocated teams. The definition of team, for example, is comparable in both environments. Katzenbach and Smith (1994) define a team as a small number of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach, for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Parker (1994) states that the team is a group of people with a high degree of interdependence geared toward the achievement of a goal or the completion of a task. Mayer (1998) defines the virtual team as one composed of people who are distributed across buildings, states, and countries. Delise, Thomas, Jugdev, and Buckle (2001) assert that a virtual team is a collection of task-driven members separated by geographic or temporal space. In both environments, there are similar levels of responsibility and accountability to perform various tasks and activities and a need for communication, team building, and knowledge management. Work in both environments requires a shared commitment to the goals and objectives of the project, its benefits, and its vision, as well as its priority in terms of the organization's portfolio management system.

Benefits of Virtual Teams

The increasing globalization and complexity of work makes the use of virtual teams a necessity for many organizations. Through the use of communications and information technology, greater collaboration among people working in a virtual environment now is possible as organizations are not limited to working with people located in a single time zone. The virtual environment enables people to work together without the constraints of socialization, time, and infrastructure.

Although effective use of resources is often the motivation for the formation of a virtual team, another key factor for consideration is the incentive for a lower total cost of the deliverable of the project. For example, the exchange rate between two different currencies that are potential providers for the same resources may make a resource in a country with a favorable exchange rate one that is exceptionally lower priced. This means that additional savings may be gained if the buying power of the skill favors a particular location. Regardless, the major benefit is that through the virtual team, the project manager has the ability to select the most skilled, and possibly the lowest price, for the resource as there is an expanded resource pool that is available.

Juhre (2001) notes, for example, that at times when skilled technical resources are in demand, global staffing becomes a critical success factor for enterprise projects. In addition, there is the potential that if team members are working on comparable activities, a 24-hour work force can be used on projects in teams that span the globe, even if the team has only one shift in operation at any given location. Documents can be easily passed from one location to another given an effective configuration management system and attention to documentation management among all team members. The subsequent team can review and enhance what has been accomplished and then pass it on to the next team in the next geographic area. Software, systems engineering, and information technology projects especially have benefitted from this approach.

Challenges Associated with Virtual Teams

It is necessary, however, to recognize that virtual teams do present challenges that are not present in traditional collocated teams. These include, but are not limited to, consideration of the different time zones involved in the project, the locations of the key stakeholders, the need to effectively use web-based technologies for collaboration and communication, the requirement for rigorous documentation control, contingencies for volatility in the exchange rate, regional and political risks, and possible differences in terminology even when a common language is used.

Often, there is increased pressure on a virtual team to form and develop into a cohesive group in less than optimal time. Communication channels must be established and followed. As noted by Mehrabian (1968), lack of verbal communications for much of the work and the inability to observe nonverbal clues present additional barriers. Few, if any, social encounters are part of the virtual team environment, so it is easy for team members to be unaware of the work performed by others. Many team members can easily be silent in the virtual environment, and this silence may mean agreement rather than support. Also, a groupthink-type situation could prevail more readily than on the collocated team. Consequently, attention is required concerning how best to establish, manage, and nurture these teams, especially because in increasingly more cases, virtual team members may never meet face to face on a project.

Types of Virtual Teams

The first consideration is how best to set up the virtual team for success. One approach is to follow a work breakdown structure and combine it with a resource breakdown structure. In this way, a work package could be assigned to a separate team to design, plan, and implement this work and complete the deliverable. It then would have a separate project manager, or team lead, for this work package, reporting to the overall project manager. Following such an approach, the team responsible for a particular work package has no need to be in contact with other members of the team nor does it need to communicate with them.

If, however, the project is one that is planned and implemented by a single team, a separate project manager for each work package is not required. Tasks are assigned on a team member-by-member basis, as are resource allocations and schedule adjustments. The team works directly for the project manager, and team members actively communicate and collaborate with others on the team, since everyone is working as a cohesive unit. For increased effectiveness, these teams require common processes and procedures that everyone on the team will support.

Traditional processes, as a result, may require some modifications in order to quickly gain the trust and confidence of people who may never meet during the course of the project and who are unaware of the other team member’s skills, knowledge, and competencies. Furthermore, membership on the virtual team often is one that is extremely fluid, as people leave and join the team more quickly than on the typical collocated team. The new members joining the team need to buy in and support new processes rather than ones they may have been following elsewhere, and may have new ideas to propose to further improve the existing methods of operation. Therefore, the processes that are in place must be ones that can quickly capitalize on the positive aspects of the technical and intellectual diversity that comprise the virtual team.

The Importance of Collaboration

Collaboration must be fostered on all teams but takes on more immediate importance in virtual teams. Collaboration, or problem solving, has been recognized as an optimal method of resolving conflicts as through this method, diverse and conflicting points of view are recognized as important and viable and are integrated into a unified solution (Blake & Mouton, 1964; Thomas & Kilmann, 1974). It further is described as behavior that attempts to satisfy completely the needs of parties that have dissimilar goals (Mishra, 1996). It involves a combination of high assertiveness and cooperativeness when one team member considers the merits of another team member’s position. It further emphasizes learning from others by way of testing assumptions. More importantly, if a team member demonstrates a willingness to work with others and to understand other perspectives, he or she will gain greater trust and support, which in turn will improve future ongoing communications within the team.

As Parker (1994) explains, those team members who exercise collaboration are goal-oriented individuals who prompt the team to fulfill its mission with new ideas and enhanced processes. The virtual team is the ideal mechanism for collaboration as compared to a traditional team, because in the virtual team, team members are more likely to regard one another as peers. People generally are viewed in terms of what they have to contribute instead of their position or stature in the organization’s hierarchy. This means that team members can be both independent and collaborative at the same time.

The Need for Swift Trust

For overall success in virtual teams, and in the management-by-projects environment, there really is insufficient time to build trust in the normal way as team members must quickly form as a team and assume others have a comparable commitment to the project’s vision, mission, and values. In the majority of virtual teams, the conditions required to develop trust simply do not exist because physical proximity, daily informal and unplanned interactions, and face-to-face meetings are lacking.

This means that to achieve effective collaboration, the formation of “swift trust” among team members is essential. Trust facilitates collaborative, and cooperative, behavior. Meyerson et Al. (1996, p. 177) describe swift trust as follows: “To trust and to be trustworthy within the limits of a temporary system means that people have to wade in on trust rather than wait while experience gradually shows who can be trusted and with what. Trust must be conferred presumptively or ex ante.” Mishra (1996) explains that swift trust is necessary for work in temporary teams, particularly when there is pressure because of time or importance to achieve the goals of the project. It is the willingness to rely on team members, who may have not met previously and may never meet, to perform their roles, both informal and formal, in a quickly formed team effectively. It also involves establishing and communicating clear roles and responsibilities among team members.

The Usefulness of a Team Charter

One approach to follow is to use a team charter. The Project Management Institute (PMI), in its A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)---Third edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2004) and also in The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2006), describes the importance and usefulness of project and program charters. The team charter can expand on these charters with an emphasis on team support and commitment to the project and can delineate roles and responsibilities. It further can describe methods to resolve conflicts among the team members, including escalation processes, communications channels and methods, decision-making processes, and the prevailing practices and procedures that the team members should use to perform the work. The charter can facilitate understanding by each team member of the processes he or she needs to follow. At times, for example, independent decisions by one team member are appropriate, while at other times, a coordinated group decision is required, with consensus among the entire team. If work is to be done in an interdependent manner, the charter should state how activities are to be coordinated, recognizing potential other commitments by team members.

The team charter should be designed in a manner to highlight specific performance expectations, especially in terms of promoting respect, trust, and open communications including the requirement for delivering promised outputs in the timeliest manner possible. Also it should include and prescribe the methods of communication, such as timetables to follow to respond to e-mails and postings in discussion forums and times for conference calls so specific team members are not always inconvenienced. It establishes the ground rules for the team’s operation and enhances interpersonal trust through expectations that team members will behave in specific ways. It can provide a shared frame of reference, especially because virtual team members typically come from different geographic and educational backgrounds and have varying levels of expertise.

Ideally, the team charter should be discussed and developed at a kick-off meeting when the project begins. Team members then should sign the team charter to show their acceptance of it. When new members join the team, they too should sign the charter. Periodically, the charter should be reviewed to ensure that it remains effective in terms of team interactions and is not becoming an extremely bureaucratic process.

The Use of English as a Common Language

Because communication in the virtual environment truly is a challenge, especially on those teams that span the globe, one approach is to adopt English as the common language for the project, even though there are a larger number of native speakers of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. This can be done by following a formal English approach, using one in which dialects, accents, slang, and colloquiums are eliminated. Charles Osborn, for example, was an early proponent of such an approach in which he developed Basic English as an international language with 850 words to use in handling day-to-day processes. David Crystal expanded on this approach in 1997 through his work “English as a Global Language.” In 2003, he noted that the English language exists as a political and social reality worldwide. Kolby (2000) prepared a 4,000-word dictionary to help with this endeavor, stating that it is essential to an educated vocabulary for success in business, education, and life.

Eight Key Guidelines to Follow for Successful Virtual Teams

Although there are challenges, the opportunities associated with virtual teams outweigh them in many respects. Consequently eight guidelines to foster the successful use of virtual teams and the promotion of a virtual team culture are suggested:

  1. Plan and manage virtual team formation
  2. Determine communication requirements
  3. Meet commitments according to plans
  4. Establish a team-based recognition and reward system
  5. Promote membership on a virtual team as a sought-after opportunity
  6. Develop “swift trust”
  7. Promote and establish mutual accountability

Plan and Manage Virtual Team Formation

First, it is essential to plan and manage virtual team formation. The project manager is responsible for four key roles: leader, manager, facilitator, and mentor (Flannes & Levin, 2005). As the leader, the vision of the project should be clear and explicit, as should the need for the virtual team. People further must recognize the benefits that are to accrue from successful execution of the project. In the manager role, an administrative structure is required that is flexible to meet the needs of the project, the performing organization, and the customer. As the facilitator, the project manager must set the stage for the project by providing an environment in which people wish to be part of the virtual team and will commit to working on it in an enthusiastic fashion. Finally, as a mentor, the project manager must nurture those team members who may be new to working in a virtual environment.

A kick-off meeting is a perfect opportunity to plan the project’s deliverables and inaugurate the team. Held electronically, the kick-off meeting sets the stage for the team members to become familiar with the business need for the project, its goals, and objectives. Team members should be encouraged during this session to share their views on what would comprise an effective team in order to deliver the proposed and promised output. These views then can be incorporated into the team charter that also includes a statement indicating the commitment of the team members to one another. During the kick-off meeting, team members can introduce themselves to one another and learn if they share any common bonds or interests.

Determine Communications Requirements

Second, determine the virtual team communication requirements. Virtual project managers must lead the team and facilitate an environment in which trust is built across geographic boundaries to share information and create environments in which virtual work can thrive. Working together in a collaborative fashion, the team should prepare a communications management plan for the project. It is necessary to ensure that information is not distributed unevenly and contextual communication is communicated. As much as possible, a process should be put in place to enable people to recognize the most important part of the messages that are communicated and to receive information at the same time.

Sometimes miscommunications may occur that can create hard feelings that may remain undetected for a long time because of the virtual environment. To avoid this, other communications ground rules are needed: use of English as a common language on the project; establishing times by which responses to e-mails are required or postings in discussion forums are expected; the best ways to offer suggestions and provide feedback; when conference calls are required; when team meetings are to be held; and how to respond if there are breakdowns in commitments. Team members need involvement early in the project as to when each communication technique should be used. Open communication must be encouraged so that every team member feels comfortable contributing to discussions and debates.

The project manager must recognize that since virtual team members may never meet face to face, they may require faster and more prompt communications than teams working in a collocated setting to overcome the sense of isolation that often exists. When a communication item is received, if time constraints do not allow for thorough feedback and an immediate response, team members should acknowledge that it has been received and state when a more in-depth response can be provided. As on any team, virtual or collocated, team members will have private conversations. Such private conversations should remain private unless they are relevant to the team. It is necessary to understand what information is critical and should be shared within the team.

Meet Commitments According to Plans

Third, ensure that the team members meet commitments according to plans. The success of the team will depend on effective execution of all project management processes. Each team member should demonstrate high performance standards. This means organizing and managing time productively to be able to complete assigned tasks as promised. It also requires timely responses to others to assist them as needed in completing their assigned work. Additionally, while the virtual team is the mechanism to ensure effectiveness in resource use, sufficient resources to accomplish the project’s goals and objectives are required. From time to time, note the importance of communicating the importance of the project to the organization and the customer, its vision, and its priority in the overall corporate portfolio especially during team thought-provoking, problem-solving sessions. Use action-item logs and issue logs and ensure that regular status reports are prepared and analyzed so preventive rather than corrective action can be the norm.

Establish a Team-Based Recognition and Reward System

Although our work is performed typically as a team, our performance tends to be individually oriented and measured. PMI (2004, p. 209) states the need for “clear criteria for rewards and a planned system for their use” as a way to reinforce desired behavior. PMI further notes the usefulness of “rewarding win-win behavior that everyone can achieve” (ibid, p. 214).

In order to align the work of each individual with that of the team, more so than in the traditional environment, in the virtual team a team-based reward and recognition system is recommended. Ideally, it can be complemented through a multi-rater, 360-degree type approach in which team members, the project manager, functional managers, and even the client, as appropriate, conduct separate appraisals of each person. Furthermore, the items to be evaluated should be collectively determined by the team during the team’s kick-off meeting or at a separate team meeting on this topic. A new system may need to be designed, or an existing system may need some tailoring, to meet the unique goals of the project. The primary focus is to improve work performance of the project team, pointing as necessary to any developmental issues or the need for new tools and techniques to support virtual team effectiveness.

Membership on a Virtual Team: A Sought After Opportunity

Fifth, promote the concept throughout the organization that membership and participation on a virtual team is a sought-after opportunity. There is a direct relationship between the maturity of a project team and the success of the projects that the team undertakes. When the organization’s leaders are committed to the use of virtual teams for the projects, and when virtual teams deliver results that meet and sometimes exceed customer requirements, and these project teams are recognized throughout the organization, people will then view work on a virtual team as being as desirable as that on a collocated team. This further is enhanced if the organization officially states that virtual teams are a strategic approach for its success.

Swift Trust

A commitment is an agreement to get things done. A culture that is built on swift trust facilitates this. However, swift trust does not come about accidentally. There are factors in the environment that serves as preconditions to enable and encourage trust to be given and used effectively. Processes are needed around knowledge management, collaboration, and communication. Collaborative tools can be the catalyst for building relationships that provide the sense of “connection” within the team, rather than relying on proximity alone to provide this connection. Access is required to whomever is needed regardless of his or her title, position in the organization, or location. Trust replaces control in the virtual environment. Being included as often as possible is one way to promote trust among team members. Make the virtual environment an exciting one that is proactive with a sense of enthusiasm among team members.

Promote Mutual Accountability

Seventh, promote and establish mutual accountability. Success is central to the culture of any team. Early successes can help build a winning attitude and can set the direction of the entire project toward success. With success created early in the project, team members are motivated to continue to follow a successful path. One approach is to set up a “responsibility assignment matrix” for each of the work packages and associated activities and make sure it is agreed upon by all team members. In this way, one can see what others on the team are working on and whether or not they can contribute. Team members can recognize the contributions of others---both those who are responsible for a key task as well as those people who supported the ideas of others or provided some needed information. Each team member can look for opportunities to then celebrate individual and overall team success (Skulmoski and Levin, 2001). In a collaborative culture, helping others to succeed can be viewed as being as important as one’s own success. Each team member should take time to listen, and to understand the points of view of other team members, treating other team members as equal partners in the quest for project success. Additionally, the team can prepare an interface management plan to note both internal and external interfaces that may be barriers to overall team performance. Such approaches can help one focus on the task or process rather than on the person involved. Then, if there seems to be a personal problem, one can refocus on the process and context that caused the problem to promote productivity and support trust among team members.

Continuous Improvement

Finally, ensure that virtual team members establish and continually enhance the environment for their work. Ideally, each team member should have a personal learning agenda. Individuals should be motivated and afforded opportunities to develop new skills and competencies and to take an active role to develop further the skills he or she needs for further advancement. In addition, each team member should make a commitment to improve effectiveness and efficiency of the team’s processes and procedures in completing the project’s deliverables. Continuous improvement, not business as usual, must be fostered; therefore, continuous improvement programs must be set up to encourage individuals and the team as a whole to propose improvements in processes and procedures as part of the organization’s commitment to knowledge management for future program and project work.

Summary

Over the past 10 years, the use of virtual teams has transformed the way many organizations today are managing programs and projects. Although there are challenges associated with the use of virtual teams, their benefits easily overcome these challenges. The project team can follow a number of key guidelines to help ensure success on each virtual project.

 

Note: Some of this paper is adapted from: Rad, P.F. and Levin, G. (2003). Achieving project management success using virtual teams. Boca Raton, FL, J. Ross Publishing.

References

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Mishra, A. (1996). Organizational responses to crisis: The centrality of trust. In Kramer, R.M., & Tyler, T. R. (Eds.), Trust in organizations, frontiers of theory and research (pp. 261--287). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Parker, G.M. (1994). Cross-functional teams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)--- Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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Skulmoski, G., & Levin G. (2001, January). Creating the environment for successful projects: 5 key ingredients for project managers and project participants. ESI Horizons, 2(9).

Thomas, K.W., & Kilmann, R. H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument, Palo Alto, CA: Xicom, Inc. Consulting Psychologists Press.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, Ginger Levin
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA

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