Putting together virtual teams needs continual energy to be successful. It
requires a focus on three things: people, process and technology. In this article,
I will discuss the process issues and considerations associated with virtual
teaming. My knowledge of this issue comes from my twelve years experience
running a company that spans three locations. We have grown rapidly, even though
team members are often 2,200 miles away from each other. We have needed to use
the latest technologies and techniques to collaborate and communicate with others,
both within the company as well as with external partners.
Out of Sight, out of Mind
At SMART, we have found that it
is always easiest to work on a project where people are co-located. If someone
with whom you work is not walking the same halls as you and not running into
you for casual conversation from time to time, then you reduce the camaraderie
that is needed for high-performance work teams. If you are managing someone
who is remote from the main work location, it is often difficult to access adequate
data on this persons performance. In our case, with most of our employees
being knowledge workers, a manager has difficulties coaching a remote person
if most of the time the manager is seeing the data and hearing the voice but
isn't actually in the same office. We find that we need to work extra hard on
opportunities to get to know remotely located people, including regular visits,
videoconferencing calls and meandering conversation audio calls.
Most large companies have offices located in many countries around the world.
This means that a team may comprise of individuals from a variety of cultural
backgrounds. However, there are a significant number of reports that indicate
that cultural differences are often overlooked in the virtual teaming process.
In our North American culture, we often expect team members in problem-solving
mode to offer direct comments about their opinions and concerns. This is not
always true for people who live in other cultures.
Faster Cycle Times
One of the key reasons for implementing conferencing technologies is to
simply keep the decision processes moving forward. Rather than wait for the
business trip next week to sit down with all the team members, listen to the
latest information, debate the pros and cons and then reach a decision, business
in the Internet age demands that we meet now, and reach decisions now. This
can be done with the appropriate application of the right conferencing tools
for that type of meeting.
Project Team Creation and Completion
Most of us dont spend 80 to 90 percent of our time on one project.
We find that we are often brought together with other team members to work on
compressed time-line projects. We need to always be aware of the best ways to
get acquainted quickly with team members whom we might not have met previously.
Should we use an exchange of digital photos, for instance, as a method to get
to know everyone at the start of a project?
Ad-Hoc versus Recurring Meeting Types
There are different meeting styles and tools that are best for the "Lets
meet now" meetings versus the recurring meetings that have a rhythm to
them. We have found that people who participated in recurring meetings were
more likely to invest in infrastructure (e.g., bandwidth) and tools (e.g., acoustically
superior phones and multi-point conference bridges for NetMeeting clients) to
support the ongoing meeting process for the duration of the project.
Establishing leadership or ownership is even more difficult for virtual
meetings than for co-located ones. As a consequence, virtual meetings can be
unproductive (no decisions reached) or repetitive. One way in which you can
establish leadership is to move to the head of the room or to wherever a focus
point is located (whiteboard, monitor, TV, etc.). Although establishing ownership
for decisions or conclusions is difficult, its a key element of moving
forward with team work.
need it, but they dont like the idea of it. Our experience is that new
processes are generally not appreciated. They get in the way of work, and they
force people to spend additional time learning a new way of doing things. The
attitude is "What was wrong with the old way?" when time is tight
and deliverables are due. We have found that getting trained is valued least
in more engineering-oriented companies. At one large consumer products company,
it became clear that the distributed team members would only accept new training
on a process (for meeting effectiveness) if they were also introduced to new
technology. This came to be known as the "Trojan Horse" strategy and
was accepted as a best practice in solving the training issue.
Virtual Team Business Case
It can cost more money to support virtual teams than to co-locate team members.
In the past, many large companies would have done extraordinary things to move
people to where the teamwork was done hence the concentration of corporate
work forces in certain areas. Starting some years ago, though, progressive CEOs
started to consider virtual teams instead of moving people to the jobs. For
many CEOs it was an obvious decision. Their companies had to make changes in
their basic way of doing business. Many of these early pioneers will confirm
that when the finance group got involved, they found it difficult to justify
spending new dollars on tools and processes to support virtual teams.
Every virtual team has had to struggle with this issue at some point. The
retreat of the Apple Macintosh from the corporate market and the
use of Java and the Internet have helped the issue of non-compatible platforms.
However, with business models opening up to an out-sourced world where companies
dont control their suppliers, there are still pockets of people who dont
have the same technology platform. In engineering-oriented companies, for instance,
engineering workstations based upon Unix are the preferred platform, yet these
team members need to inter-operate with management and other team members who
run on the Wintel platform. The industrys efforts to create and follow
standards need to continue. Product suppliers need to build products more like
the telecommunications industry with inter-operability a key requirement.
Virtual Teamwork Requires Move to Electronic Documents
The process issue here is one of change. People are used to going to face-to-face
meetings and exchanging documents, showing information contained within documents,
marking up paper documents, etc. In a virtual meeting environment, paper becomes
less useful. The good news is that most documents are either created on a PC
or can be moved to electronic format with little effort. The biggest issue is
one of anticipation or the need to plan ahead. Not surprisingly, virtual teams
are likely to plan ahead better for recurring meetings than for ad-hoc meetings.
Benchmarking best practices and implementing the ones that are likely to
fit within your culture are the most obvious place to start.
However, it has been our experience that we get better virtual team meeting
results if we follow a template for our remote meetings. In our internal meetings
in the past three years, we have been using a product called SMART Meeting Pro
and have found that its templates for creating agendas, capturing meeting notes
and assigning action items have become second nature. They have also become
important to our regular recurring meetings to keep them on track and to finish
One company we worked with indicated that they wanted to provide a standard
configuration of interactive whiteboards to support data conferencing, a CRT
for videoconferencing and good acoustic cancellation audio. When they prototyped
this in five cities, they found that the first ones to use the standard configurations
were senior managers. They only wanted to see the other managers and talk, not
review documents or mark up whiteboards. Our conclusion was that there were
different types of people requiring different media support for remote meetings,
and we needed to have options based upon the type of meeting that was going
to be held. Clearly, engineering team members can bring value to other team
members if they can draw diagrams on a whiteboard and show diagrams visually.
Creating solutions for virtual teams can be a strategic advantage to your organization.
It is complicated to build successful virtual teams because solutions need to
blend people, process and technology, not just use technology. In our experience,
implementing effective virtual teams requires careful thought and ongoing energy
to be successful. Because it is a process, people and technology problem, look
to process and human-resource people to help in the implementation. Remember
that meeting templates and other process templates can help you get started.
Use facilitators where appropriate but remember that the end goal is to get
everyone in the company, including those on virtual team, to be able to operate
efficiently in a team-oriented group. These participants will probably need
to learn by doing and they will need more simplistic tools to be effective.
Its not just about the tools its about people, process and
David Martin, co-founder, chairman and CEO,
SMART Technologies Inc.
David has been active in
designing and building teleconferencing products since 1990. He led software
teams to build the first Windows-based multi-point document conferencing solutions.
His belief that educators need technology in the background led to the development
of the SMART Board family of interactive whiteboards. He is a member of the
Leaders Forum on Innovation organized by the Conference Board of Canada
and the Canadian Federal Governments Strategic Advisory Council on International
Trade for Information Technology and Telecommunications. David is a recognized
authority on the future direction of applying technology to the problem of working
and teaching at a distance. He often speaks at conferences and seminars on the
subject of "Effective Virtual Teams."