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 person’s 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.

Cultural Differences
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 don’t 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 "Let’s 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
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, it’s a key element of moving forward with team work.

Training
People need it, but they don’t 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.

Cross-Platform
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 don’t control their suppliers, there are still pockets of people who don’t 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 industry’s 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.

Best Practices
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 on time.

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. It’s not just about the tools – it’s about people, process and technology.

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 Government’s 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."


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