You want to work from where? Taking virtual teams to the next level
Over the past 10 years, advances in technology have enabled the virtual team and remote worker like never before. With technological barriers generally removed, what remains as obstacles to successful virtual project teams? This paper examines the key team member competencies and managerial innovations that, once addressed, drive virtual project team success from a remote possibility to a virtual certainty.
Few would argue the idea that we exist as part of a global workforce. Globalization continues, changing countless norms and ideas, and challenging business philosophies all around the world. One part of this change – expansion – concerns how we accomplish work through others. Technology has heightened our awareness of the global workforce and has certainly enhanced our capabilities to work from virtually anywhere (Lipnack & Stamps, 1997). “Crackberry” addicts can attest to the pros and cons of instant accessibility from anywhere on the planet. High-speed connections to the Internet, continued improvements and enhancements to mobile computing capabilities, and Web 2.0 collaboration tools have all greatly altered the landscape against which we do business.
These technological advancements have enabled the virtual team and remote worker as never before. Virtual teams and remote workers, as interrelated ideas, hold great promise for the workforce of tomorrow and for how business will be done in the future. While neither idea is a new concept, we do need a simple definition of both a virtual team and remote worker. We define a virtual team as a group that contains team members not in a principal location of the project's central physical locale. A remote worker is defined as one of the “team members” of the virtual team. Therefore, a virtual team is made up of remote workers. Organizations today continue to leverage these two elements of our business environment, which will only become more prevalent with time. In fact, many believe that in the future, virtual teaming will be the norm and the traditions of today's approaches to workforce organization will be gone (Garten & Wegryn, 2006).
With these trends, so obvious in literature and popular press, why does virtual teaming continue to be such a difficult concept to implement for so many of today's companies? The concepts of “virtual teaming” and “the remote worker” have been in the business lexicon for 10 to 15 years. Does technology remain a barrier for virtual team success? If not, then what is? Why are virtual teams challenged?
Just 10 years ago, we primarily worked with people geographically separated with just three technological devices: e-mail, telephone, and a collection of travel technologies (airplanes, hotels, rental cars, etc.), which allowed us to not be geographically separated. There were a number of twinkles in the technological eyes—instant messaging tools came to exist, for example, but were not widely used in our business environment. Many businesses leveraged network drives extensively to store records and share documents—in effect, to support “collaboration” between team members.
Primarily, we e-mailed and called each other and that was about it. We were limited—but, no longer. The advances have not been subtle. We have a glut of tools at our disposal and the cost of use is from the realm of micro payments. Entering workforce participants know how to use instant messaging and other collaboration tools and most of the working world is coming to grips with them as well.
This is not to say that we've reached the “end of the Internet” when it comes to the evolution of collaboration tools. The evolution continues and from a business and project delivery perspective even more advances are needed. However, technology is no longer the barrier it once was. So, what does that leave? Two barriers: the worker capabilities and the management practices supporting them.
There are two different perspectives to consider: the worker's and the manager's. It is important to remember that for any two people to effectively work together, whether peers or subordinate, they must communicate, share ideas, and collaborate in some way (Gibson & Cohen, 2003)—even if the two people in question are simply delineating a to-do list. This holds true whether two people are sharing a cube or whether they are 8,000 miles apart. The difference today from 10 years ago is that technology has pulled the two workers who are thousands of miles apart to be virtually sitting in the same cube. If this is the case, why are we still challenged when it comes to working in virtual teams? If communicating is the crux and technology has removed the communication barriers, what is the problem with our people?
The first problem is that of the people we ask to participate in virtual teams. Whether they work from home, as part of an outsourced operation (domestic or foreign), or simply from a different floor, these workers are all logically “remote” in relation to each other. Tools shrink that boundary, but some obstacles remain. You are not able to drop in on each other with an idea; you have to coordinate a conversation, even if it is only a minor “nudge” from your Windows Live Messenger. You miss facial expressions and body language, e-mail being notoriously suspect when team members try to infer emotion from the emotionless text in front of them. All of these are subtle, but important, examples of the dynamics that exist in human interaction at the work place.
The other half of the problem comes from the manager's perspective. At the core, you will find confidence and trust challenges. The manager cannot see work being accomplished and deadlines being met, thereby, impacting the way he or she manages. He doesn't know how diligently the work is being pursued. Obedience, diligence, and intelligence are the watchwords of today's workforce when it comes to trusting workers to be remote (Hamel, 2007). Often, workers have to demonstrate these factors at the office before they are allowed to “go remote” or become home-based.
Exhibit 1: Impact of Tools Evolution on Delivery with Virtual Teams
With these perspectives in mind, consider the basic relationship between our tools, people, and processes. These three represent the critical elements of an organization's ability to effectively deliver products, solutions, or services. Regardless of size, this triangle of interrelated elements illustrates a simple concept—impacting one corner of the triangle has a potential impact on the other two, much like the triple constraint of project management (with scope, time, and cost) (see Exhibit 1).
This allows us to see the interaction between the three concepts as well as provides a framework for the areas on which we need to focus for successful virtual teams. The tools have advanced to a point such that they are no longer a barrier for virtual teams and remote workers. These tools are still evolving, but they have reached a “tipping point” for us to consider the barrier effectively removed. The people element represents the capabilities of individual contributors trying to actively participate as team members virtually. Within the process element, we find the manager's perspective applied to virtual teams. It is in these two elements that we have the opportunity to improve and achieve greater virtual team success.
A Disciplined Remote Worker
The disciplined worker for virtual teams is one that exhibits core competencies and behaviors that drive their success in the constructive team-style interaction that the manager promotes (Cooke & Szumal, 1994). As dimensions of a person's performance, there are a number of core competencies with which to be concerned. There are illustrated here and discussed in the following (see Exhibit 2).
Exhibit 2: Four Focus Areas for Remote Workers
If you consider your experience with virtual workers, you know that some people do better than others in virtual team configurations. Personality plays a critical role in how some succeed and others struggle. The right mix of team members in crucial to having a constructive, thus productive, team, particularly one which is constituted virtually. A unique way to assess these personality characteristics of the remote worker is to consider the Five-Factor Model (McCrae & John, 1992). The dimensions of this broadly accepted model include extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism (see Exhibit 3).
Exhibit 3: Five-Factor Model Applied to Remote Workers
The first consideration of personality is extroversion. Certainly, you do not want any team entirely constituted of extroverts; however, for remote workers there is a healthy level of extroversion required. In the remote worker, extroversion implies that the person will be sufficiently outgoing as to not let a little thing—like not being physically in the room with others—stop him from being an active participant in the team.
Agreeableness is another key personality trait to consider in the remote worker. This does not mean that you want remote workers that are weak-willed, rather that they use reason and logic in discussions and communicate their facts and ideas in a non-confrontational style.
It is of vital importance that the remote worker cares about the quality of their work. This means someone who owns, completes, and is accountable for their work regardless of location. It is more important with the remote worker because of the inherent degree of autonomy that exists and the need for heightened awareness of output quality.
Genuine interest in the ideas of others is one aspect of openness, but another is to behave in a way that creates a sense of accountability. It is openness in the bidirectional sense. To confidently receive and simultaneously promote ideas is the challenge of virtual workers. Openness is our goal with the free exchange of ideas as the products.
Lastly, the level of neuroticism of the remote worker is crucial, related in that the remote worker be calm and able to handle confrontation in a flexible manner. The remote worker must not easily be rattled and can generally remain focused while operating with imperfect information. Perhaps the most important of all five characteristics, neuroticism speaks to the ability of the person to work through adverse situations without experiencing the same level of dissatisfaction or anxiety that one might normally feel in the workplace.
Innovative Management Practices
Not all virtual team members need all of the previously mentioned characteristics to be successful. There are a host of other qualities that could be added to this list. Establishing virtual teams with the right mix of personalities, communication, quality, self-direction, and expertise embodied by the disciplined remote worker will improve the productive capacity of your virtual team and enhance their chances for success. Although the people portion is of vital importance, an even more important element is the process point represented here as innovative management practices.
True management innovation is rare, but for successful virtual teams, management innovation is mandatory. Conventional wisdom doesn't apply. Ten years ago, leveraging the virtual team meant the company “relinquishes direct control of its project teams, infrastructure designers, and builders in order to achieve the results it seeks” (Mayer, 1998, p. 7). The shift in thinking is that you are not giving up control; rather, you have to change what you control and how you control it. You accomplish this by driving innovation into your managerial processes.
The focus of managerial innovation has to be on creating practices that promote the disciplines of the remote workers in a virtual team. You have to create an environment supportive of positive behaviors in remote team members of virtual teams. This begins with the manager who has to be capable of process and practice innovation. The creative capacity to implement change requires that the proper executive or managerial compensation structures are in place and are supported by the organizational design.
It has been said that control is not about changing behavior, but about enforcing standards. Organizations too frequently have processes or procedures in place that are designed for controlling the work processes and products of those in traditional, hierarchical, and organizational structures. The unique nature of the virtual team and the collaborative technology leveraged by historically successful processes can stifle our virtual team. When projects become difficult, mangers tend to “focus” on the activity in question and thus on the team member or members assigned to it, thereby, stifling their creativity and work output. This focus—sometimes called “micromanaging” — may work when the team is centrally located, but doesn't transfer to the virtual team in theory or in practice. When you have built a successful team of disciplined remote workers, you have a host of innovative opportunities open to you that have little to do with day-to-day activities. Rather, they are concerned with the management practices you employ strategically.
Historically, we've focused on obedience, diligence, and intelligence as some of the more important attributes of any worker. These create a traditional focus, one that continues to pin-point management practices that are controlling task performance. Fundamentally this traditional focus applied to virtual teams is flawed. At the office, you are able to assure obedience, diligence, and intelligence. With remote teams, you cannot do this. The manager that tries to continue this traditional focus becomes distracting to the remote worker and thus harms productivity, relationships, and ultimately compromises the ability of the team to meet its goals and objectives. Thus the traditional focus is flawed it its application when applied to the remote worker and virtual team. If the traditional focus can no longer reasonably assure delivery, what do we do? Though obedience, diligence, and intelligence are important, they are less important than promoting the creativity, passion, and initiative of virtual team members. This is a shift in focus from traditional to incentive based management (see Exhibit 4).
Focusing our incentive model on passion, creativity, and initiative allows team members to work more naturally in the virtual setting. How do you create incentives for passion? Inspiration of the remote worker is achieved through sharing the vision and objectives of the company. Describing how his work contributes to the aspirations of the company will engage the passion of each team member. With a virtual team, you create incentives for creativity two ways. First, you apply enough control to keep track but to not stifle creativity. Keep it simple. Make it easy for the team to understand so that less brainpower is spent processing procedures and rules and more brainpower spent on creative problem solving. The second is to reward the creative behavior. Demonstrate appreciation consistently, both verbally and through written communication, to the individual and via the team. Financial incentives are also a good way to encourage creativity and monitor control.
Probably the most important element of the three components of incentive focus is initiative and is absolutely critical for virtual teams. Initiative is promoted in two ways. The first is an unwavering expectation that all remote workers have initiative. The second is to reward the behavior. We need to expect remote workers to work proactively, identifying gaps or needs in individual projects and filling those gaps accordingly. When the remote worker meets these expectations, we reward him with public or private praise, money, etc.
Exhibit 4: Moving from a Traditional to Incentive Focus
It is using an incentive focus that enables the remote worker to be able to sustain this move from self-sufficiency to self-directed focus. Without incentives from management practices, the team member will inevitably fall back to a traditional behaviour and will not give you more than self-sufficiency. For the virtual team to have the best chance of success, self-sufficiency is not enough, as the goal for the remote worker is to sustain self-directed behaviors.
We've outlined and discussed a framework for driving success with virtual teams and remote workers. We've discussed three distinct dimensions that demonstrate the relationship between tools, people, and processes. Given that our tools have outpaced people and processes, we looked at a variety of aspects of these two lagging vertices. Let's discuss the application of this framework.
The attributes of the remote worker are not new, nor are the process areas. It is what we do with these areas tomorrow in the workplace that will drive the success or failure of our virtual teams. None of these ideas are earth shattering, but they are underutilized. Virtual teaming and remote worker programs can help our organizations through a variety of methods. We don't put these concepts in the best possible position for success by reverting to traditional managerial approaches and procedural standards that weren't written with the virtual team in mind.
In your team of remote workers, begin by simply evaluating the characteristics of those team members. Do you see personality issues? Do you see communication quality challenges? Next, check your processes. Are they as light as they can be? Are you using the right incentives on the team to get the end deliverable that you need? To champion change in an organization is often a long undertaking, but ask yourself what you can influence today for your immediate team. Ask these questions using the framework presented in this paper, discover core problems, and action appropriately.
To conclude, the framework applies not just to your current team; initiatives and constituents of virtual teams are not limited to just direct line employees. With any business partners that are geographically separated, the framework can help identify challenges in the relationships and engagement practices. The practices here can be modified to fit different relationships, whether it is suppliers, vendors, or outsourcing operations. The framework allows you to quickly apply the agile process using principles instilled within the remote worker to drive understanding and improvement to any situation where you have team members separated by time and distance. Practical application of this framework will help ensure your virtual team's chances of success from a remote possibility to a virtual certainty.
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Gibson, C., & Cohen, S. (Eds.). (2003). Virtual teams that work: Creating conditions for virtual team effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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Mayer, M. (1998). The virtual edge: Embracing technology for distributed project team success. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60(2), 175–215.
© 2010, Larry Winters
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC