Managing virtual teams for high performance
Senior Enterprise Solutions Advisor, International Institute for Learning
High-performing teams are a must in this world of high competition and higher expectations. Virtual teams are a fact of life. They are increasingly common in all organizations, given the common use of shared resources, increasing number of cross-organizational projects, partnering, and outsourcing, and the increase in the number of people who telecommute or have flexible hours.
Virtual teams are a challenge. Members cross cultures, time zones, and organizations and often communicate over significant distances using electronic means. We will explore how to manage virtual teams by addressing issues of cultural and personal diversity, communication, and coordination issues. People, processes, and tools must be addressed.
The essential elements for team effectiveness are as critical for virtual teams as they are for any team—clear objectives, well-defined roles and responsibilities with matching capabilities, effective communications, respect for diversity, conscious relationship management, and commitment to working together to get the job done within pre-established, agreed-upon rational constraints.
The challenge is to actively address the issues that arise when people communicate via the Web, work on multiple projects simultaneously, never or rarely meet face-to-face, and often work for a variety of organizations, using electronic tools and meet synchronously (present at the same time) and asynchronously (not present simultaneously).
Our theme is high-performance virtual teams. Let's first explore performance, then focus on teams and best practices for managing them.
High Performance and Performance Improvement
The goal of any project team or organization is high performance. High performance for a skier is the ability to ski at high speeds over all sorts of terrain under any conditions, turning and stopping at will, being considerate of other skiers, and doing it all while making it seem effortless.
For a project team, high performance is the ability to work at the highest level of effectiveness for an extended period of time. This means delivering quality products on time, within budget, while satisfying stakeholders. Team members and the team grow and learn. The team manages change. Members enter and leave easily without disrupting performance or making new members feel like aliens.
Continuous performance improvement is raising performance levels over time by fine tuning the way people work. High-performing teams use every issue as an opportunity to reach for ever-higher performance.
Performance can be measured using many metrics. Strike a right balance between objective measures, like on-time delivery, budget compliance, number of changes, and the amount of rework performed, and subjective measures, such as stakeholder satisfaction.
Satisfaction generally correlates with high marks in the objective measures, but is strongly influenced by the way expectations are managed and by the nature of the working environment. When objective and subjective measures diverge, find the reason for the lack of correlation to uncover more complete and accurate measures and to manage expectations.
Systems, Process, and Cause-and-Effect Analysis
No discussion of high performance would be complete without a brief mention of a systems- and process-oriented view and cause-and-effect analysis.
A system-oriented view recognizes that teams exist in a system made up of interoperating entities such as people, organizations, tools, and processes. Any change anywhere can have an effect on anything else. Process orientation recognizes that every outcome is the result of a process or set of steps. To change the outcome, change the process. Process orientation is supported by cause-and-effect analysis. Identify the causes of performance shortfalls. Evaluate each to determine root causes. Actionable causes can be eliminated, or their impact or frequency reduced.
Pitagorsky (2006) stated that with virtual work teams:
We're dealing with a highly complex interplay between all of the various elements that we find in projects…For example, the level of project managers’ and team members’ behavioral and other skills, sufficiency of methods and the effectiveness of portfolio management are among the elements that must be addressed systemically and systematically to improve the environment so as to set the stage for effective virtual team activity…”
A virtual team is a team. Rad (2003) gives some definitions of “team”:
Parker (1994) defines a team as a group of people with a high degree of interdependence geared towards the achievement of a goal or the completion of a task. 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…. a project team is the basic unit of performance for most organizations. (p. 7)
There are healthy and dysfunctional teams.
Dysfunctional teams promote low performance. They are characterized by interpersonal conflicts, poor leadership and direction, lack of accountability, insufficient skills, poor communications, inappropriate methods and procedures, and so forth.
Healthy teams enhance performance. They promote synergy by communicating, managing conflict and expectations well, and having common objectives that unite members. There are well-defined roles and responsibilities with matching capabilities. The work is challenging, not impossible. Effective leadership supports the team. Members are actively involved in decisions directly affecting them. Blaming is replaced with accountability.
Health is a requirement for high performance.
A virtual team is “a team made up of people who are not co-located and/or have different working hours and/or work across multiple teams simultaneously” (Pitagorsky, 2006). Virtual teams often involve people from diverse cultures. There are many variations. “There is a continuum between the physical team (everyone co-located, dedicated members, working synchronously) and virtual teams” (Ibid).
The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams
Working in virtual teams is challenging because people working on multiple projects need to coordinate and communicate across time zones, distance, languages and cultures. Challenges include ensuring
- Common understanding, given language and cultural differences, without the availability of body language and tone-of-voice cues
- Coordination so that everyone is where they need to be, when they need to be there, with the right information, materials, and skills
- Honoring individual cultures while creating a common team culture when working across organizational boundaries.
Following is an example of a virtual team setting. The project is to reengineer the way a global organization manages its wholesale credit business—common procedures and reporting for the process from request for credit, through negotiation and approval, ongoing operational management of credit arrangements, and aggregate reporting of credit exposure. The team has members in three locations in New York City, and members in the United Kingdom, Germany, India, Singapore, and Japan. Although there is a core team of dedicated performers, most of the team is made up of part-time members from various functional groups, including IT, business process design, human resources, operations, and front-office business areas. Outside vendors are responsible for some activities.
Managing a virtual team requires a disciplined yet flexible approach. There is no cookbook. The virtual teaming issues must be addressed to adapt to the needs of a specific situation:
- Synchronous and asynchronous communications and meetings
- Realistic disciplines and guidelines for electronic communication, including e-mails, Web meetings and document management
- Codes of conduct: behavioral norms, like the turnaround for requests, schedule compliance, availability for synchronous ad-hoc communication, and so forth
- Managing interpersonal issues in the virtual environment
- Regular status reporting as a means for keeping the project visible
- Virtual kickoff sessions
- Tool requirements
- Managing across time zones.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Meetings
Effective communications is a critical factor in any team. Scheduling meetings among people who work in different parts of the same building is difficult; scheduling meetings among people on different continents is exponentially more difficult. When members of a team are in Europe, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere, someone must be up in the middle of the night for synchronous meetings, held with some of the attendees physically present and some participating by telephone, the Web, or videoconference.
Asynchronous meetings are virtual meetings in which the attendees are not present at the same time. Traditionally, these have not been considered to be meetings at all. But when we analyze them we can see that they should be facilitated, have an agenda, explore the agenda items, make decisions, and plan actions.
To treat asynchronous communication as virtual meetings, the team applies a disciplined approach to address issues and come to effective decisions without having to meet synchronously. Facilitation is needed to have the right people attend and participate with common objectives, staying on topic with the right level of detail, and ensuring closure within a finite time. Blogs, e-mail streams, and discussion forums are the main media for asynchronous meetings.
There are advantages to both synchronous and asynchronous meetings. Synchronous meetings streamline communications, condense the timeline, and enable efficient discussion of complex issues. Asynchronous meetings require writing, and writing promotes greater precision and accuracy. An audit trail is produced, documenting decisions and their rationale. Asynchronous meetings make scheduling across time zones manageable.
The virtual team must decide when to work synchronously and when to work asynchronously. Generally, we try to minimize the number of synchronous meetings by limiting them to complex and interpersonal issues and using them as a kickoff, checkpoint, or wrap-up for asynchronous communications.
Disciplines and Guidelines for Electronic Communication
Whether asynchronous communications are through e-mail or a topical forum, there is a need for some discipline. Left to themselves, some team members write e-mails with no subject, or subjects that do not relate to content. Some go on and on for pages. Others write too many and copy everyone they could think of, while others didn't copy people with a need to know. The volume and manageability of the asynchronous communications can get so bad that it takes more time to read the day's e-mail than one has.
Establish guidelines that address subject naming, limited distribution, response, length, use of attachments, document naming and document management.
E-mail chains, Web logs, and discussion boards need to be facilitated. For example, who monitors whether people are staying on subject or are unconsciously morphing from subject to subject? When do you go synchronous with an issue that seems to be getting “circular” or it seems to be getting too complex for asynchronous discussion? How formal should facilitation be? Who will facilitate? How much authority will they have?
Codes of Conduct—Culture, Work Values and Practices
Project teams and organizations are “intercultural encounters.” Diversity is a fact of life. People from every continent are working together on projects. Migration and the increasing global scope result in cultural diversity. Natural cultures and organizational cultures come together and effect the way individuals and teams communicate and perform. Everyone has a unique personality. Everyone is conditioned by their culture and their personality. The virtual team must address diversity through a code of conduct that articulates the team's culture and values.
Values drive cultures and behavior. According to Hofstede (2005), cultural relativism posits,
‘One culture has no absolute criteria for judging the activities of another culture as low or noble’…. No human being can escape from using value standards all the time. Successful intercultural encounters presuppose that the partners believe in their own values. If not they have become alienated persons, lacking a sense of security from which one can encounter other cultures with an open mind (p. 365).
We want to work with open minds to identify a common set of values to achieve high performance; however we define it as a team, group, or enterprise.
Cultural differences include the pace of work; how people of different genders relate; allowance for dietary, dress and holiday observances; the way decisions are made; what people mean when they say yes or no; authority; ambiguity tolerance; confrontation; and truthfulness, among others. Here we will use pace as an example. All differences must be addressed to promote team health.
Values vary regarding time, cost and productivity. Consider a slow-moving environment, such as a company run by an artist who has sufficient funds and is in no particular hurry to finish his projects. Sometimes he can take days to respond to an e-mail or phone message. Sometimes he just decides to take a day or two to go to the beach or hike in the woods.
Consider a fast-moving environment, where communication is moment to moment, target dates are deadlines, time is money. Speed and high productivity are essential to keep up with the marketplace and maximize profitability and/or service levels.
What happens when the two have to work together to reach some common goal? There can be conflict and frustration that could impact relationships.
The high-performance team must acknowledge and address differences like the turnaround for requests, schedule compliance, availability for synchronous ad-hoc communication, and so forth. As a team, the members can consciously engineer a new culture to fit the needs of the situation and to achieve common goals. In the project context, team members aware of their own conditioning and the fact that others are conditioned differently can negotiate common values based on behavioral norms.
Team members with a common goal, who are open to communication and adaptable, can come to consensus regarding their codes of conduct. If some contributors are not open, then those who are can choose to work around and accept differences. For example, if someone is chronically missing deadlines and is unwilling or unable to change others on the team can recognize the situation and adapt by buffering the rest of the project from the impact of late delivery. Of course, late delivery of poor quality output or no delivery would require a stronger approach.
The code of conduct and the team's procedures and policies reflect agreements among team members as to how they will operate. Periodically review the process to improve the way the team works together.
Managing Interpersonal Issues in the Virtual Environment
Personality is built up from the combination of “human nature” and culture. Nature and nurture combine to create personality. Personality drives behavior. Behavior can be consciously adjusted, overcoming personality traits that get in one's way. A healthy team brings cultural and personality diversity to the surface and addresses them as part of the team's development and planning.
Interpersonal issues are conflicts arising out of emotional reactions ranging from angry aggression to withdrawal. They exist in every environment to some degree.
Handling interpersonal issues is always a challenge but more so in the virtual environment, with its different values around accountability, confrontation, psychology and emotional expression, communicating in writing, lack of face-to-face contact, lack of time to get to know one another, faux pas caused by lack of intercultural or interpersonal sensitivity, and so forth.
Many of the interpersonal issues that arise have their roots in a lack of diversity awareness and unmet, often unstated, expectations. Adding to these may be issues of uncertainty avoidance, fear of loss of authority or security, emotional reactions to the behavior of others, among other causes. Project managers are not psychologists, but they and everyone on the team profit from an understanding of the nature of personality and the concept of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor ones own and other peoples’ feelings and emotions and to adapt one's behavior to the needs of the situation. A high emotional intelligence means less reactive behavior, which translates into less interpersonal strife. Issues will arise. If they are brought to the surface, as appropriate, given the needs of the group and its members, they can be addressed to achieve common goals amicably. When necessary, escalation and intervention are needed.
Interpersonal issues are natural. As with any risk, open discussion of interpersonal issues and how to handle them before they arise – a method for managing them – can be established to address them when and if they arise.
Recognition that everyone has feelings and their own conditioning translates into objectivity, which makes reactive behavior less likely. High performance teams root out reactive behavior.
Communication – Keeping the Project Visible
The communication and reporting in a virtual team can be far less complex than the cultural and interpersonal issues. Yet in complex systems, there is some interrelationship between operational and behavioral (such as culture, personality, interpersonal) factors. Visibility and transparency may raise personality and cultural issues. Transparency means accountability, potential scrutiny by others, and loss of autonomy. There may be power struggles. If there is resistance to candid, regular, accurate, up-to-date information, look to the behavioral factors and address them while creating a communication plan that addresses the information needs of the stakeholders.
Regular status and progress reporting is a principle means for keeping the project visible. In the virtual team, as in any environment, there is need to have a clear plan for:
- What information is to be reported to whom for what purpose
- At what level of detail
- How frequently
- By whom
- How it will be derived
- How it will be delivered, in terms of media and format.
The high-performance team wants to minimize effort and maximize visibility and information availability to those who have a need to know. We need the right mix of technology and procedures to achieve this goal.
In the virtual team, regularly posted progress information – such as the task or deliverables completed, actual effort, and cost data – should be enabled through the use of a common Web-based tool, with necessary policies, procedures, and training. If the project is small, with a small number of team members, much of the communications can be informal.
For example, in a global consulting project, team members were distributed across three countries, two firms, and multiple roles and departments in each firm. From Pitagorsky (2006):
We relied on open informal communications. We [agreed] from the very beginning, that within the core team nothing should be held back, that we needed to feel comfortable to raise even uncomfortable issues regarding relationships, criticism, etc. but to do it in a kind and respectful way.
We engineered our highly interactive work sessions so that they could be attended comfortably by the participants. We utilized a web based conferencing tool that enabled us to share applications and do writing and design work including the development of graphics simultaneously so that everyone could see what was happening and give feedback as though we were in the same room.
Because we were working in an agile/informal style, trust in the expectation that people would follow through was essential. We felt comfortable that when someone said that they were going to do something they would actually do it either in the time that they said they were going to do it or let everybody know as soon as possible if there was going to be a delay or any kind of difference between expectations and results. One team member who fails to meet and manage short term expectations sets off a chain reaction that affects the other team members’ schedules and may require them to take on additional responsibilities. Realistic estimates and candid and realistic progress assessments are necessary.
Some formal process is needed. Daily oral reporting or informal e-mails work for the core team, particularly if there are short daily team meetings, but managers and clients, among others, want to be informed regarding project performance and forecast to completion.
Progress communication can be active (pushed to the recipient) or passive (recipient retrieves). Active communication includes e-mails generated upon completion of critical tasks to inform project managers and interested task managers, status reports, formal progress presentations, and so forth. Passive reporting means posting status and progress information on a common Web site or project room. Dashboards, automatically updated based on data entered by project performers, are ideal for virtual team reporting. Interested parties can access information as needed. Strike the right balance between sending out information and expecting people to access it from a common location, given the nature and needs of the stakeholders.
Virtual team identity is enhanced when there are regular progress updates. Make sure that all team members are updated, not just clients and sponsors.
Virtual Kickoff Sessions
Kickoff sessions are forums for making sure that everyone understands the team's objectives and approach, including the way intercultural, interpersonal, and content issues will be addressed, how meetings will be run, how decisions will be made, when and how to escalate, what terminology will be used, standards for communication, and behavioral and performance expectations. Periodic follow-up sessions are needed to refine the process.
Kick-of sessions need not be physically face to face but, if possible, should be synchronous. Being too busy is not a good reason for avoiding an interactive, synchronous kickoff session. Having half the team up at 4 a.m. might be. The kickoff meeting is an opportunity for the team to bond. Bonding can take place asynchronously, but it takes much longer and may not occur at all.
Options are videoconference, Web meeting, teleconference or live, physical collocation. Budgets, technology limitations, and personal schedules of team members are the deciding factors for choosing the right venue, be it virtual or physical.
Process and Tool Requirements
To manage a complex virtual team there is need for well-thought-out processes and a supporting toolset. Minimally, everyone should have access to e-mail and telephone, with the ability to easily call and conference across regions, countries, and continents, given the team's geographical distribution. A common document management procedure and a central repository are needed. A shared electronic team space (e-project room) for posting and retrieving status information, maintaining a common calendar, issues, changes, risk register, and documents further supports high performance.
In a large complex environment or where there are multiple small projects, a knowledge management tool that enables common, just-in-time access to templates, policies, procedures, and best practice guidelines adds value.
A server or Web-based project management tool with integrated data capture and reporting is needed to make a comprehensive master project plan available, and to enable streamlined reporting at multiple levels of detail.
Managing Across Time Zones
Among the unique challenges of working in virtual teams with global span is managing across multiple time zones. The most obvious issue is arranging synchronous meetings when some team members must be available at inconvenient hours. There is a 10.5-hour time difference between New York City and Mumbai. Five p.m. in New York City is five a.m. in Singapore.
Coordinating work in which hitting target dates means coordinating the flow of deliverables across interdependent tasks can be complex in a project with team members across multiple time zones. Sometimes time zone differences enable faster turnaround because of the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week availability of resources. However, the opposite may be true if people in earlier time zone are delivering results needed by people in later time zones. The person in New York City gets the work done well after close of business in the United Kingdom, but well before close of business on the Pacific coast.
Common calendar management, paying attention to time zone differences when scheduling and respecting the personal needs of team members are critical success factors to help avoid interpersonal problems, schedule slippage, low productivity, and turnover.
In some cases, team members in some parts of the world may have to shift their normal work schedule for all or part of the project duration to enable synchronous availability and 24-hour coverage.
There is no magical solution. As with the other issues, address the time zone issue as early as possible during project life. Make trade-offs among productivity, risk, personal and team productivity, and so forth to come up with the right solution for the specific situation.
Maximizing Virtual Team Performance
In conclusion, the challenge of working in virtual teams can be addressed by taking a flexible yet disciplined approach that is tailored to the needs of each situation. There are many varieties of virtual teams, each with its own unique needs.
Generically, the approach that will lead to high performance begins with an awareness of virtual team challenges, their causes, and possible solutions. A set of principles and guidelines that are a framework for adaptation is needed. Among those principles are:
- Respect for cultural and personal diversity
- Creation of a consciously engineered team culture that meets the needs of the team as a whole and of its individual members
- Scheduling that addresses time zone issues through the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous meetings
- Practical processes and tools that address communication, collaboration and control needs, and that are available and appropriate to the level of complexity and criticality of the work, and to the capacity of the team members to effectively use them.
Pitagorsky, G. (2006, November). Virtual teams – Making your virtual team really hum. allPM Newsletter, Issue 87. Retrieved May 15, 2007, from http://allpm.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=1638&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0
Rad, P. F., & Levin, G. (2003). Achieving project management success using virtual teams. Boca Raton, FL: J. Ross Publishing, Inc.
Hofstede, G., & Hofstede G. J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.
© 2007, George Pitagorsky
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA