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Managing Virtual Teams – or „Can Everybody See My Desktop?“

Working from distance has become ‘natural’ – especially in project environments

We are used to getting information in a matter of seconds from anywhere in the world. And it is also common in business environments to work together without meeting physically – for instance in virtual teams. A former colleague was railed at by a stranger in a ski lift in the Rocky Mountains for not switching off her mobile phone while on vacation. During the lengthy ride with the lift, she was able to close a deal with a customer. Her answer was simple and straight: “You might be on vacation here, but for me it’s a normal business day”; and she skied away in a good mood.

What has developed slowly over the past 20 years is taken for granted today: working from anywhere in the world. Virtual teams make it possible to involve experts no matter where actually they are located. Another advantage is that projects can be run even with no budget for travel expenses. Despite all these opportunities, it is not easy to work in a network. Often something is missing – in a nutshell “human contact”. Facial expressions, gestures, and many other factors provide us with extensive impressions that are necessary for us as social beings – impressions that complement the spoken or written word with essential information.

This is why they still exist: business trips. We will not abolish them. Personal contact is considerably important if you work with someone over a longer period and you’ll want to solve difficult tasks together. The project team is such an organizational and social construct that corresponds to these criteria. What to do, if you work across locations, countries, or continents?

The tools are available

There is a ranking of the effectiveness of communication media, when it is about working from a distance.

Snail mail and fax – ok, we leave it aside.

Email: Asynchronous, universally established, possible to archive: always a good choice. The information transfer via email, however, is restricted, since the wording of information and the respective interpretation is dependent upon personal factors or cultural influence.

Emotions, humor, and further context? Hard to transfer, even if abbreviations such as J, lol, rofl are used.

Messengers: such as WhatsApp and the like: Asynchronous with a touch of synchrony, but not universally available. This means that the same tools have to be used. Usage: perfect for an organizational exchange within a team. Open messengers, however, are taboo for business-relevant information – for data protection reasons. Information transfer is even more limited compared to emails. Even colourful emoticons can’t help at this point.

Telephone conferences: synchronous, universally established. Especially strenuous with larger groups, but indispensable. Much more information can be exchanged than through written media.

Web conferencing outranks the means of communication previously mentioned. It’s better than telcos but not as good as face-to-face meetings.

Webco is the better Telco

Web conferences: synchronous, widely used by now, and because of its improved information exchange via desktop sharing and videos superior to all other channels mentioned above. Unfortunately, web conferencing is not universally compatible. For that reason, I am myself using five different platforms in order to communicate with my various contacts. I suppose it’s only a matter of time until there will be a universal solution (oh, I’m such an optimists).

Choosing your means of communication has to be right for your purpose. I won’t send my daughter an email when I want her to turn the music down in her room next door. WhatsApp is a lot better for that. ;-) (Of course, using this symbol is meant to be ironical and the irony is concerned with the ubiquity of the aforementioned, annoying symbols. However, in a written text that doesn’t come across right – see, wrong channel.)

Projects depend on communication

All project leads reading this will be familiar with such a challenge: Keeping virtual teams together, motivating people, and meeting everyone’s personal needs is a tough challenge, which becomes especially complicated if distance is added to the mix.

Communication containing as much additional information as possible is absolutely necessary in this job. That means, whenever possible: web conference WITH video. Compared to that, calling people on the phone is like drinking champagne from a paper cup.

Why then, were most web conferences I attended done without using the video function?

Sharing your desktop is enough. They say. Wrong.

Video is fooling around. They say. Wrong.

Video is still a technical challenge. Unfortunately, that’s true.

But people take all of that as an excuse.

Videos can be so much more than fooling around. And you, all of you project managers and hosts of web conferences, you have to establish moving image!

People have to practice, e.g. handling the tools, the correct illumination for cameras, sitting still, coaming, shaving, etc. However, you get used to it. The fight for the moving image of participants is worth it. The superiority of web conferences with video over telcos is obvious, and scientifically proven. [1]

Now, let’s assume that web conferencing is established. Is that it? Is that enough if you want to form a team like a football squad out of employees located apart from each other? No. We need more.

Virtual leadership needs more than webcos

Books and articles about transforming project teams into high performance teams are legion. It isn’t easy and there is no single recipe. The task gets even more complicated if team members are working in separate locations.

Also, virtual teams are often characterised by diversity. This includes people having different experiences in using the means of communication mentioned above.

The project lead’s work has to address these issues. Together with the team, he or she has to develop a distinct culture for every single project based on the various cultural backgrounds and experiences in using different communication media present in the team. Line Jehle uses the phrase “purple space” [2] to describe the mixture of cultures involved.

Moreover, work flows have to be integrated, so that every member of the team can play its part as efficiently as possible. That sounds like there’s a lot of IT involved. Partly, that’s true. However, in a larger perspective IT solutions aren’t more than a hygienic factor. Leadership skills and active participation of the team members are much more important and challenging. Everybody has to show interest in each other as well as a high degree of tolerance. Exchange and cooperation within the team take time. However, this is the only way for a team to become successful.

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