On Virtual Teams

The emergence of teams (and today’s virtual teams) and teamwork as an attractive tool for the modern enterprise did not develop from a vacuum; the importance of teams and teamwork was created by specific corporate needs.

By Larry Tremmel

In particular, the inherent structural tension created by the administration of vertical organizational structures and the management of cross-functional business processes have produced an environment in which support systems are ineffectively aligned with business effectiveness. Although command and control systems followed the functional structure of the corporation, true value-creation is located within corporate business processes—and these value-creating processes crossed the boundaries of even the best managed functional units.

Teams and teamwork emerged to fulfill this management/value-creation gap. As with any new methodology, many types of teams were created as the enterprise searched for the right balance between organization and business process effectiveness. Although the first teamwork environments were predominately geographically localized, the introduction of new digital communications technologies and the expansion of the enterprise beyond its traditional value-chain elements has led to the creation of a new hybrid—the virtual team. The virtual team is characterized by time and space independence. Even though the virtual team can transcend geography and time zone constraints, its function remains true to its original purpose: strengthening the value-creating process of the enterprise. On the other hand, technology-based virtual teams are a unique hybrid of the team genus. To be successfully leveraged, virtual teams require creative approaches—especially in the area of communications.

Communication in Virtual Teams

The quality of communication is the key metric for successful teams whether the teams are ad hoc, virtual, or collocated. When dealing in virtual teams, communication becomes even more important as members do not share the same space. Personalities are hard to distinguish and react to. All members need to be aware of the team goals, metrics, and deadlines. To do this effectively, Internet applications and email communication must be worry-free, and with ease of use of the telephone.

Communication obstacles in virtual teams include:

  1. Type of internet connections
  2. Software packages
  3. Time zones
  4. Content meaning
  5. Personalities
  6. Conflict acknowledgment and resolution.

Internet connections can play a major part for team communication if messenger services are employed. For even regular communication can be delayed if some members have chronically delayed delivery or generally unreliable systems than other virtual team members. Specific anti-viral and anti-spam email features within software packages can keep members from being able to open attachments. Some ISPs restrict the delivery of email attachments larger than preset file sizes. Since much of virtual team communication is done via email, the consistent treatment of email attachments is a prerequisite for effective virtual team communication. Other concerns include software version mismatches with shared applications, computer crashes during upgrade processes, and software that fails to adjust to scale differences.

Time zones can create obstacles when meeting deadlines. It is important that all members are aware in which time zones the deadlines occur. This problem becomes magnified with global virtual teams where application localization presents time/date information within the local culture.

Many times, when emailing it is difficult to understand just what is meant by a message. When emailing it is critical that others do not misunderstand the meaning. Reading your email message and thinking about it from an outsider’s standpoint can be beneficial, improving the delivery of the target content without the need for repeated subsequent “clarification” emails.

In virtual teams it is hard to get to know a person and their personality trends. This can make it awkward to begin communicating and giving feedback. Conflict acknowledgement and resolution can also be very difficult to recognize as personal styles are not as easily recognized. Some tactics for overcoming these obstacles include:

  1. Charters
  2. Honesty and trust
  3. Metrics
  4. Deadlines
  5. Goals
  6. Feedback

Charters are a necessary for teams to begin their communication. With the charter, teams lay out the goals of the team, the tasks, who is responsible, deadlines, and metrics and communication methods. The charter is the basis for team progress and communication. All members need to be in agreement of the charter to proceed.

Honesty is crucial for the success of virtual teams. Team members need to be trust-worthy and honest. Members need to be able rely on each other to meet deadlines and team goals. If there is a problem or conflict, members need to be able to share their opinions or problems with others. Do your best to share a bit of your personality in the team email you send. Be open and warm with your content; avoid abrupt email conversations. Use email to develop relationships as well as the delivery of content.

Deadlines are the backbone of a project, which keeps members on task. Without deadlines, members would work at their own speed. Members need to identify and communicate issues early with the team—especially with inflexible RFP drop-dead dates.

Metrics allow a team to measure their communication and progress towards team goals. By using metrics, a team is able to value their success. By using feedback between team members, metrics are more easily decided upon. Feedback leads to improved products. Certainly, outlines of deliverable content and page requirements are a rich source for metrics that demonstrate progress.

When working in teams feedback plays an important role. Feedback lets other team members know that you are involved and participating in the teamwork. It stimulates further discussion or unearths hidden issues that could impact team success. Feedback results in enhanced team morale, improved relationships, and enhanced productivity.

For successful teams, clear communication is a must. Key aspects of communication include trust, honesty, and feedback. Once a team charter has been decided upon and deadlines are in place, the structured team management and the agreed upon execution timelines, optimize the team’s chances for successful outcomes.

Decision-Making in Virtual Teams

Decision-making is an issue that must be considered when developing or working within a virtual team. Just as the lack of face-to-face interaction creates challenges in communication and content, it also alters the process of making decisions, for both team and the individual.

Challenges to Decision-Making

Decisions that are based upon the team’s findings, or those that affect the team, are often made through a modified democratic process. Each member has a chance to voice his/her opinion and can affect the decision. When the members are spread apart geographically, this process becomes difficult. With team members spread apart, leaders cannot micromanage the team effectively. There are times when leaders must make executive decisions. This may work well in collocated groups, but leaders may not be apprised of every determining factor when dealing with team members in other offices or time zones. In these situations, it is difficult for the leader to make the small decisions.

Depending on the degree to which virtual team members are spread apart, it may not be feasible to hold every meeting in a real-time environment. It may also be unrealistic to expect every member to be on the same page in some areas of the team assignments/duties. This delays decision-making. A collocated team may be able to hold a face-to-face meeting every day for a week, and then make a subsequent decision. A virtual team is not likely to follow this agenda. With virtual teams, the leader must be flexible, continually reading the situation and be willing to dynamically edit the proposal management playbook as necessary.

Best Practices

Establish a decision-making process early. The decision-making process should be set in the team’s charter. It should clearly indicate when decisions are to be made. Virtual teams do not have the luxury of being able to call emergency meetings, so these processes must be established ahead of time. If the process is mapped out, each team members will know exactly how much time is available to research an issue, voice an opinion, and seek reaction. All of these are needed in order to make an educated decision.

Not only should the “when” question be answered in the team’s charter, but logistics of the decision-making should be outlined as well. How will the team make the decision? Will the Proposal Manager make unilateral decisions? Which ones? Will a consensus be required among team members? If so, how will this be done? These questions need to be answered early so that a problem does not arise when decisions need to be made—and made quickly under intense time pressure.

The Proposal Manager should delegate power to members of the team. The leader cannot possibly be in control of every situation on the team, nor can he/she make every little decision. The team members should be empowered to make decisions to a certain degree. If the leader tries to micromanage a virtual team, it is likely that the leader will be stretched far too thin, losing effectiveness in situations where his/her expertise is a critical requirement.

Expect delays. This is par for the course in virtual environments. Team members often live in different parts of the country, in different time zones, or even in different countries altogether. It should not be expected that every member of the team will see an announcement and respond within minutes of its release. Decisions that require input from various team members must be given ample time to incorporate possible delays. In other words, do not expect immediate results and plan for this.

Virtual teams are established to assist with many team-oriented activities including problem solving. There are several models for problem solving with collocated teams that may be used effectively with virtual teams. As virtual problem-solving groups perform their tasks, member roles become highly interdependent. There is a need for well-orchestrated interactions including reciprocal communication; feedback is essential. One factor has been shown to have a substantial effect on a team’s ability to perform is its interaction style. Interaction style is best understood in terms of the communication patterns in which a group engages as it deals with the inherent conflicts of task orientation and maintenance of member relationships.

Problem Solving

In most situations, problem identification appears as the logical first step. However, the number one reason vertical team problem-solving efforts fail is because the team overlooks the identifying macro issues and concerns—the environment from 360 degrees—and skips directly to the solution part of the process. Time must be allocated to identify everyone’s concern, which decreases the likelihood of misunderstanding, increases the awareness of the problem and optimizes the quality of solution options. Also: by identifying everyone’s perceived problem, interpersonal relationships are enhanced because everyone is given an opportunity to express their concerns. This helps to make all team members realize that their opinion is important, creating a conducive working process.

During the problem-solving identification process, brainstorming can be used to stimulate and capture creative thoughts and ideas. There are several variations of brainstorming that can be used and depends upon what is most comfortable for the group. Using Post-It Notes on the proposal development war room wall, (“walk the wall”), is a frequently executed form of brainstorming—a tool first used by Walt Disney.

The next step in the virtual problem-solving process is analyzing the data. The goal of this step is to systematically evaluate the data collected to categorize data into trends and differentiate root-cause issues from minor problems that are only symptomatic of the core concern. During this phase, the team looks for relevant data that explains why the problem exists.

After analyzing the data, the next step is to evaluate and select potential solutions. Once the problem is defined and analyzed, the next step should establish the one specific goal that any acceptable solution should attain. If the problem is complex, a prioritization matrix should be used as a tool for the team to select the best solution when there are several to choose from.

Lastly, once the virtual team arrives at a solution, the team should create a plan for its implementation. The implementation plan can be a simple modification to a project plan that outlines deliverables, contingency plans and individual responsibilities without the loss of any currently employed project tracking tools.

The use of virtual teams should be carefully considered. While they are good in one sense, they can be destructive in another sense. Because virtual interaction makes it easier to either consciously “free ride” or unconsciously “socially loaf,” virtual teams are more likely than face-to-face teams to engage in defensive style. This along with the lack of emotional cues may promote a tendency for virtual team members to become passive. In addition, the lack of personal inhibition in virtual teams together with increased tendencies toward insults and profanities could cause more aggressive behavior. To that extent, these arguments suggest two things:

  • Face-to-face teams will be more likely to demonstrate a constructive interaction style than a virtual team
  • Face-to-face teams will be less likely to demonstrate defensive styles than virtual teams.

As the positive attributes of virtual team problem solving are evaluated, virtual teams can bring many different views and attitudes to the team’s capabilities. Expertise can be pulled from anywhere in the organization; they are not dependent on location. Teams can react faster and solve problems quicker; for many team members find it easier to meet and accomplish tasks virtually rather traditionally due to the lessening of traditional constraints. Finally, virtual teams are cost effective: travel expenditures are minimized. Reach-back capabilities are easily employed.

Final Word

Because virtual teams require specialized communication tools and tactics for success, it is easy to assume that a virtual team is different from collocated cross-functional traditional corporate teams. However, this is not a true perception. Virtual teams address the same issues and needs as their non-virtual counterparts. It is only the chronological and spatial attributes of virtual teams that make them appear different. As digital communications technologies become more and more sophisticated, the perception of these “special” attributes will all but disappear. Eventually, only teams and teamwork will remain. Virtual teaming will be the new normal.

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Published on June 11, 2020 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow