written by Cornelia Decher, of Decher Learning & Development.Published in: People In Aid - Newsletter October 2008
A Vital element for virtual teams is good communications not just costly technology
Some organisations spend a lot of money on high-tech systems and kit in an effort to make their virtual teams work effectively while never asking the fundamental question: how essential is technology to success and high performance in distance management.
Or to consider the issue another way: if a virtual team is not working effectively, should its distant manager simply accept they cannot be as high performing as traditional teams, or are there ways of making virtual teams as successful as their face-to-face counterparts?
High performing virtual teams have the same needs and follow the same rules as face-to-face teams. Case studies show that successful distance managers spend a lot of time communicating with their team and are more explicit and deliberate in applying good management practice in order to build trust and relationships at a distance, i.e. to actually plan activities and conversations to establish mutual expectations, explore each other’s background and life outside work.
Distance managers should think of all the things colleagues discover about each other “by osmosis” in an office situation and ensure they create opportunities to achieve this virtually. It will need some creativity from the manager and the rest of the team to find the right communication method or technology to suit the purpose and the individuals within that team. The whole team should agree how, when, for what reason and in which situation they want to use which communication method. Sometimes more traditional communication methods might be more suitable.
For example, team members might decide that they want to use e-mail to update on project progress, but teleconference to discuss issues, differences and problems, while posting personal profiles on a team website to get to know each other better, and write conventional letters or postcards to say thank you and praise other team members.
Technology is a supportive and useful tool, but not the whole answer. It needs to be used in different, more innovative and creative ways, so it becomes a tool to build human relationships. As author and management consultant Charles Handy wrote: “If we are to enjoy the efficiencies and other benefits of the virtual organisation, we will have to rediscover how to run organisations based more on trust than on control. Virtuality requires trust to make it work: technology on its own is not enough.”
What else can a distant manager do? In those rare times when virtual team members do meet face-to-face at conferences or training courses, effective teams use any face-to-face time that is available to them for relationship building and issue resolution rather than progress reporting, which can be achieved just as effectively through other methods. The team should plan specific spaces in the agenda (not just the breaks) for networking, even structuring it to ensure maximum use is made of the limited time.
And since technology or the power it needs cannot always be reliable – especially in the developing world – or consistently available to every team member, the team needs other methods available to avoid unsuccessful communication, poor relationships and ineffectiveness.
Finally, technology is rapidly advancing and innovative collaboration tools appear constantly on the market, offering fresh and potentially more effective ways for virtual teams and their distant managers to operate, providing the agency's IT department can cope with such new developments.