Article – Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming, Part 4

As published in the Project Management Institute (PMI) NH Chapter May/June 2005 Newsletter for HeiterConnect, Inc.

Working with virtual teams is rapidly becoming standard practice, on or off shore. This is the last in a four-part series on the Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming. In this article we’ll focus on the virtual project team as a living system and how the third condition for self-organizing systems, relationships, plays a role.

For our purposes, we will look specifically at interaction. When working with a virtual project team, we lose the opportunity for much of the interaction that happens automatically with co-located teams. Interaction is essential for building relationships. Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers note, “Through relationships, information is created and transformed, the organization’s identity expands to include more stakeholders, and the enterprise becomes wiser.” Simply put, relationships are “pathways to the intelligence.”

You may recall from last month’s article we discussed some technologies available to help with collaboration. The technologies themselves have great potential, but as project managers we must ensure the right interactions are happening. For example, conference calls are the most frequently used tool for collaboration. Having the team dialed into the same call doesn’t guarantee we are having productive interactions. We need to track who participates and encourage those who are not participating. It’s far too easy for our team members to “hide” on a call. Silence from a team member can mean many things: they may not agree with what’s being discussed or proposed; they may not understand; or they may have stepped away. Often we just need to ask for their input or feedback.

Additional approaches you can take to foster interaction on your conference calls are to swap roles within the meetings and share the agenda. Alternate who will “scribe” (take notes) or keep track of time during the meeting. Make it a part of the meeting process to check with the scribe to verify there was enough time to write down the important topics or ideas being discussed. It may make sense to have sections of your meeting organized by members of the team. Sharing responsibility for the meeting not only helps with participation, it may also help to develop a stronger sense of ownership and commitment.

We improve our chances of successful interactions using team collaboration spaces and email by both establishing shared protocols with the team and making sure the team is properly trained. As a team we need to agree how the technology will be used, how frequently it should be accessed, and what issues and information are appropriate. You may want to collectively decide how many electronic interactions on a contentious issue are allowed before the issue needs to be resolved in another way, maybe with a call. An ongoing spiral of emails or messages that doesn’t appear to be advancing the issue towards any resolution may cause the team to be less inclined to use the tool. Not everything can be expressed effectively using these technologies. Be explicit about what should be done in those cases; some issues may require the added cues of real-time interactions, such as the telephone.

As you plan your projects with your virtual team, it is even more important for you to clearly define your transitions or handoffs. These are critical points within your project; in the virtual space it is possible that a less clearly defined handoff may be missed. In addition to defining tasks and dates, we should define with the team how handoffs will happen. You may want to ensure a more formal handoff happens via phone or email. For example, in the case of email, it is important that the receiver acknowledges they received the handoff.

Finally, remember it’s not always about the technology and the plans. Take time to celebrate successes with the team. Expressing your appreciation to the team on a conference call still goes a long way. Team lunches together to celebrate are difficult to arrange when team members may be thousands of miles away. If you have taken the time to get to know your team, you may see other ways to reward them. Small tokens of your appreciation can still find their way to remote team members. It may take a call to someone at their local site to help make arrangements, or you may want to go online and arrange some surprise be shipped to them. Regardless of what approach you take, don’t miss the opportunity to celebrate successes with the team.

Thank you for joining me in this four-part series. Adjusting to managing virtual teams is a challenge, but one that can be managed. Start with our two core principles: 1. Make the implicit explicit; and 2. Slow down to speed up. Take a look at your team as a living system. Are the three conditions (identity, information, and interaction) being met? If they are not, this series should help you get started.

<– read part 3