Article – Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming, Part 1

As published in the Project Management Institute (PMI) NH Chapter Nov./Dec. 2004 Newsletter for HeiterConnect, Inc.

Working with virtual teams is rapidly becoming standard practice, on or off shore. This is the first of a 4 part series on the Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming. In this article we’ll focus on what a virtual team is and 2 core principles for success.

In our consulting and training work, we define a virtual team as ‘a small group of people from the same or different organizations, who interact through interdependent tasks to achieve a common purpose.’ Often these teams are not directly managed, not in the same physical space, not in constant teams (coming together for a particular task) and may include language barriers.

If we compare co-located and virtual teams, some distinctions come to mind. Virtual teams are dispersed, while co-located teams share the same physical space. In co-located teams, it is far easier to talk and show things, communication is often quicker, and you can rely on body language more for understanding. With a virtual team, there is a greater opportunity for misinterpretation of communications, less opportunity to create trust, and most meetings need to be planned in advance.

How do we make our virtual project teams more successful? Two core principles for success we use frequently are:

a. Make the implicit explicit
b. Slow down to speed up

a. Make the implicit explicit

In a co-located situation, it is far easier for us to gauge our reactions and behaviors based on those around us. We learn quickly whether or not it is ok to join meetings late or multi-task during a meeting. In the virtual space, team members have fewer interactions and cues to rely on.

An important step in making things explicit for your virtual teams is creating operating agreements. Operating agreements allow anything that would have been implied in a co-located team to become explicit. If we look at virtual meetings, we can make them run more smoothly by creating and agreeing to meeting protocols. Meeting protocols could include: come prepared; voice opinion, but allow others to do the same; eliminate background noise; say name before speaking; be as precise and succinct as possible; no multi-tasking.

b. Slow down to speed up

With all the pressures on today’s projects (budget, schedule, political), we often feel the need to charge forward. Slow down to speed up means taking the time up front to make sure things are set up properly. This could include defining operating agreements, ensuring the necessary technology is working properly and project staff is trained to use it, or planning extra communication into your schedule to ensure all team members are focused on the right activity. For instance, if we take the time to define when status reports need to be turned in, what they must include, what format they must follow and how they are to be delivered, we reduce the possibility of re-work being required.

Next month we will focus on the virtual project team as a living system and how identity plays a role…

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