Why virtual teams fail, and how to make them work (part 1)

Turning back?

In times where many companies push their employees to work from home and employees request this new freedom, YAHOO’s announcement surprised putting away with it all and returning to the old 9-to-5 office hours.  (WSJ, March 5, 2013)

Senior leaders like YAHOO’s new CEO, Marissa Meyer, have doubts if remote working models work – or they struggle how to make it work effectively.

Executive paragigm: Cutting cost vs. increasing productivity

When organizations move to remote work models such as “working-from-home” or variations of it, their primary objective is either

  • Saving fix cost by reducing their office space footprint or
  • Increasing the productivity of their workforce.

They cannot have both because once hard decisions have to be made, the other side falls short – and hard decision will have to be made on the way.

If the chosen approach is to increase productivity, the implementation focuses on how to enable employees to become significantly more productive in a sustainable way, even if it incurs cost lower than the productivity gains.

Open spaces for collaboration

Sadly, however, cost cutting tends to rank top on the list for large and mature organizations, which can ultimately sacrifice productivity. Reducing office space “footprint” aims to cut cost from entertaining the real-estate and work environment including everything from utilities, to furniture, to site security, to property taxes, etc.

In practice, individual (‘closed’) offices are replaced by open office environments with the goal to have more employees working in less, shared space.  Setting up colorful open office environments with cubicle clusters or zones for different work purposes is often sold as boosters for creativity and innovation, which somewhat obscures the true motives.

These office setups typically mimic the environment and agility of entrepreneurial start-up companies.  They suggest increased collaboration by enabling those spontaneous and valuable ‘water cooler’ talks that randomly bring together a diverse mix of employees to exchange their ideas and collaborate on a spur, which then leads to new products and creative solutions.  Some offices spaces even seem inspired by “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” (with less edible elements): nice to look at and tempting to get close but caution is advised before taking big bites…

Why not to focus on cutting cost

While architecture and interior design can very well affect creativity and collaboration, there are many reasons why this approach tends to fall short:

  • The goal of cost-cutting is to have more people sharing less space, so the open office environment works best when not all employees work there at the same time, which becomes the end-game of cutting cost.  The approach consequently requires some employees to work remotely, typically from home as ‘tele-commuters’, which effectively leads to creating virtual teams.
    Thus, not all employees are physically present at the same time to start off with, which defeats the idea of spontaneous meetings around the water-cooler or pulling teams together spontaneously as needed.
  • Size does matter:  start-ups take their energy and agility from everyone collaborating in the same space at the same time, which is the opposite scenario of large companies trying to reduce this footprint and, subsequently, ending up moving towards remote working models.
    The start-up model does not scale for large, mature companies.  This is one of the reasons why large companies often break the monolithic organization at some point to form more agile hence competitive entities.  A lesson learned perhaps from Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”
  • Since cost cutting has priority, typically, the workforce was trimmed down, so the remaining staff carries more work on less shoulders.  Not only does this leave less time for the remaining office staff to hang out next to the water-cooler for a random chat, but there is less staff to meet and hang out with in the first place.
    Little to no attention is given on how to make the remaining workforce more productive to manage the increased workload and invest accordingly, as here these ‘hard decisions’ come in and cost cutting is given priority.

Now, this does not mean there are no more water-cooler talks – they do happen and can be extremely valuable.  But they happen less frequent and with a smaller pool of people you could possible bump into randomly.  Since this “water-cooler innovation” model does not scale under the cost-saving paradigm, it effectively reduces the innovation potential resulting from random meetings overall.

What does your workplace look like, does this sound familiar at all?

Paying the price for cutting cost: Virtual Teams

Under a cost-cutting paradigm, the need for working remotely leads to the formation of more virtual teams throughout the organization.  We already find 66% of virtual teams in Global 500 Enterprises include members from at least three time zones and 48% including external business partners (Harvard Business Review study of Project Management Best Practices in Global 500 Enterprises).

When ‘cost-cutting’ has priority, the performance of virtual teams still comes second.  Faced with the increasing need to enable communication for a distributed workforce, for ‘cost-cutting’ organizations here comes the next challenge:  how to facilitate collaboration and information flow on a budget?
This is one of the hardest decisions management is confronted with.

With tight budgets in mind, the focus turns to ‘enabling technology’ and often leads to implementing a better phone or teleconferencing system.  However, cost-saving and -consequently- company-wide standards lead to compromises and mediocre features due to (what else could it be?) cost saving considerations.

What is the cost of ‘rich’ communication?

Face-to-face communication remains the ‘gold standard’ (more about the why follows in part 2 of this blog post.)
Typically, information-rich channels such as latest ‘tele-presence’ systems are disregarded for their ‘expensive’ price tag.  They allow communicating in the broadest possible (virtual) way peer-to-peer. 

If they are purchased at all, they often remain restricted for privileged use by executives; so there is an implied business case for rich communication channels.  

Unfortunately, these are far less frequently shared with their staff lower in the organizational hierarchy.  Regular employees and middle management are often enough left alone with more limiting conferencing systems and other technology to figure out how to make ‘virtual teams’ work.

Interestingly, I have never heard serious consideration given to quantify the opportunity cost, i.e. what the costs are of not implementing a tele-communication system that gets as close to face-to-face conversations as possible.  It would be interesting to find out if the actual cost to buy a more expensive system is offset by the gains for its users and businesses across the organization, don’t you think?

Though this would be coming from the less popular approach to increase productivity…

Composing effective teams

Also the mix of the team members should be considered and lots more can be said about this aspect alone, so let’s just pick a few that that tend to be less on people’s minds:

For example, generational differences translate into different work styles and preferences than can strengthen or weaken a team.  As an example: “Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

Another soft factor that remains stubbornly neglected is the team composition of introverts and extroverts complementing each other for better results.  Extroverts seem favored by hiring managers over introverts, but extroverts don’t necessarily make good team mates as recent UCLA studies show:

Introverts are often perceived anxious or neurotic, which feeds into the stigma of volatility and negativity that can drag on the team, when in fact they tend to work very hard so not to let their team mates down.

In contrast, extroverts appear to be the better team players yet in their core personality its all about being in the center of attention.  Extroverts are good at building relationships and getting themselves noticed; this self-presentation may leave a good first impression but the self-centric core proves rather disruptive in collaborative situations, so the researchers concluded.

Also little attention is given to whom needs to work together and should be closer connected or even collocated; this approach of looking at network and workflow is usually sacrificed by enforcing cost-control top-down.  Established departmental silos and cost-centers effectively become barriers for collaboration rather than by following the internal workflow and connections throughout the lower levels of the hierarchical pyramid that often remain hidden from the executive view down from the pyramid’s tip.

Why to Invest in communication and collaboration

A study on communications ROI by Towers Watson finds a 47% higher total returns to shareholders by companies that are highly effective communicators. (Capitalizing on Effective Communications, ROI Study, 2010)

Even more reason to focus on enabling collaboration and productivity – and to invest into enabling communication and relating technology accordingly.

Let’s leave the misery of why virtual teams fail here – check back soon for part 2 on How to make virtual teams work!

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Top 10 posts for Employee Resource Groups (ERG) / Business Resource Groups (BRG)

Here are my Top 10 posts for Employee Resource Groups (ERG) / Business Resource Groups (BRG):

1.  Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?

The answer is as simple as this: Because it makes good business sense!

2.  Build ERGs as an innovative business resource!

The increasing diversity of employees at the workplace led to employees gathering along affinity dimensions like birds-of-a-feather to form networking groups within organizations. The next step goes beyond affinity and establishes employee resource groups (ERGs) strategically as a business resource and powerful driver for measurable business impact and strategic innovation bottom-up.

3.  How to start building a business-focused ERG?

Let’s start with what it takes to found a successful ERG on a high level and then drill down to real-life examples and practical advice.  What you cannot go without is a strategy that creates a business need before you drum up people, which creates a buzz!

4.  Starting an ERG as a strategic innovation engine!  (part 3 of 3)

While many companies demand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.

5.  How to create innovation culture with diversity!

Strategic innovation hands-on: Who hasn’t heard of successful organizations that pride their innovation culture?  But the real question is what successful innovators do differently to sharpen their innovative edge over and over again – and how your organization can get there!

6.  “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)

What every new employee resource group (ERG) requires most are people: the life-blood for ideas and activities!  But how do you reach out to employees, help them understand the value of the ERG and get them involved to engage actively?

7.  Next-generation ERG learn from U.S. Army recruitment!

What do Generation Y (GenY) oriented Employee Resource Groups (ERG) share with the military?  – More than you expect!  A constant supply of active members is the life-blood for any ERG to put plans to action and prevent established activists from burning out.  The U.S. Army faces a similar challenge every year: how to attract and recruit the youngest adult generation?  Next-generation ERGs listen up:  Let the U.S. Army work for you and learn some practical lessons!

8.  Q&A – Case study for founding a business-focused ERG

If you are planning to found an ERG or are a new ERG Leaders, you might find the attached Q&A helpful.

9.  How to attract an executive sponsor?

10.  Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

It’s a long list to describe Generation Y with a commonly unfavorable preconception. This  youngest generation at the workworkplacern after 1980, also called Millennial) is said to be: lazy, impatient, needy, entitled, taking up too much of my time, expecting work to be fun, seeking instant gratifications, hop from company to company, want promotions right away, give their opinion all the time and so on. But is it really that easy to characterize a new generation?Don’t miss my Top 10 Innovation posts and Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs!

The OrgChanger tag cloud

Top 10 Innovation posts

Here are my Top 10 posts on innovation:

Can strategic innovation rely on creative chaos?  To make a long story short, the answer is: No!  Read what it takes to consistently innovate and give you a very cool example too.

2.  How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3)
What is an innovation leader? Is this role similar to an innovator? (The answer is ‘no’.) – Recognize the three key roles in innovation, how to find an approach and avoid critical pitfalls.

Not everything new is an innovation and some is more renovation than in innovation.  Here is a framework that helps to distinguish an innovator from a renovator and works for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike.  It is important to understand which role to play and when; it all depends on what you need to achieve and what is critical to reach your goal!
Creating value through new products is not enough. Capturing the value requires equal attention on the innovation process. Focusing on creativity and neglecting execution along the value chain is a costly mistake.

5.  Why too much trust hurts innovation
Most managers understand that trust is a key ingredient to effective collaboration and innovation.  Yet, few actively try to cultivate and nourish trust in their own organization to achieve the right mix between trust and constructive tension.

6.  Imitators beat Innovators!
You thought Facebook was the original? Or YouTube? Or LinkedIn? – Get ready for your wake-up call! Break-through innovations are over-rated! Imitators are successful by combining someone else’s innovation with the imitator’s advantage and by doing so they can become innovators themselves!

7.  Boost ‘Group Intelligence’ for better decisions!
Group intelligence can be increased and lead to better decision-making – or why not to rely on a group of geniuses!  New research breaks the ground to understand collaborative intelligence and the – but how to apply it to the workplace?

8.  Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds
Group intelligence beats individual brilliance – and businesses are willing to pay for the crowd’s wisdom in the social sphere.  The MIT’s ‘genetic’ model allows  combining social ‘genes’ to harness the collective intelligence of crowd wisdom successfully and sustainably; areas of application are scientific research or business/employee resource groups, for example.

9.  Can movies innovate with only seven stories to tell?
How innovative are movies really – if at all?  While AVATAR and THE ARTIST appear polar opposites, they share a similar story; so where is the innovation?

10.  ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?
What is the key challenge in the coming years and how to prepare future leaders.

Don’t miss my Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs!

Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs

Here are my Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs and those on their way:

1.  The Rise of the Intrapreneur
How to become an ‘Intrapreneur’?  Why are Intrapreneurs needed? What is the difference to Entrepreneurship?  – The future of innovation within large organizations lies within, if you know how to tap into it with intrapreneurship!

2.  What does it take to keep innovating? (part 1 of 3)
Can strategic innovation rely on creative chaos?  To make a long story short, the answer is: No!  Read here what it takes to consistently innovate and give you a very cool example too.

3.  How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3)
What is an innovation leader? Is this role similar to an innovator? (The answer is ‘no’.) – Recognize the three key roles in innovation, how to find an approach and avoid critical pitfalls.

4.  Starting an ERG as a strategic innovation engine!  (part 3 of 3)
While many companies demand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.

5.  Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?
Not everything new is an innovation and some is more renovation than in innovation.  Here is a framework that helps to distinguish an innovator from a renovator and works for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike.  It is important to understand which role to play and when; it all depends on what you need to achieve and what is critical to reach your goal!

6.  How Intrapreneurs find executive sponsors
Have you ever had a great idea and went to your manager for support but found they were just not interested in it?  Nothing came out of it in the end, and you were disappointed?  Perhaps, you just turned to the wrong sponsor for your project, a common mistake of intrapreneurs. Here are some thoughts on whom to turn for with ideas to make them happen within an organization.

 7.  How to attract an executive sponsor?

8.  Job description for an Executive Sponsor
Executive sponsorship is an important prerequisite for the success of employee groups.  The challenge is finding a great sponsor, so what should you look for?  What would a job description for an executive sponsor look like?  ‑ Here are some practical ideas that have worked.

9.  Measure your company culture in real-time!
It is difficult if not impossible to assess organizational culture directly.  Instead, managers favor surveys to measuring organizational climate as a first step.  However, surveys fall short in many ways and can lead to skewed results as input to managerial decision-making.  Better than surveys is observing employee behavior with a meaningful metrics.

10.  How to approach ‘metrics’?
There is much truth in the saying that comes in many variations: “What gets measured gets managed”“Everything that can be measured can also be managed” or even “What isn’t measured can’t be managed”. ‑ If you don’t measure progress or success, how would you know you reached the goal?

Don’t miss my Top 10 Innovation posts!

Roadmap for Intrapreneurs
Roadmap for Intrapreneurs

Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?

Changing the organization from within by engaging employees in business-focused employee resource groups (ERGs) – the practical “how-to” guide!

Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?

The answer can be as simple as this: Because it makes good business sense!

But what makes this answer so simple? – Well, because it’s made up of a few simple aspects:

First of all, every company, unless it is classified as a non-profit, is in business for one reason: to make money by providing some sort of product or service to its customers.

Simply put, if a company fails to rack up profits it will go out of business. That’s why focusing on the business benefits, the “bottom line”, the return on investment (ROI) makes not only sense but is key for successful employee resource groups (ERGs). It’s the bottom-line arguments, the financial benefits, that open the doors to executive support, buy-in, and funding.

Second, to take advantage of the diversity and capabilities of the human capital readily available.

Let’s look at companies, its workforce and its markets today: We live and work globally – everyone is connected. Our markets today are just as diverse and multi-faceted as our workforce should be. It takes all we know and who we are as diverse human beings (coming from different cultures and ethnicities, religious beliefs, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, and so on) to understand what our customers need and how we can give it to them.

Therefore, it makes sense not only to diversify the product portfolio to mitigate risk and seize opportunity but also to diversify the workforce for the same reasons. Not tapping into all of your workforce’s diversity and capabilities puts you at a disadvantage to companies who know how to maximize their human capital effectively.

Are you still with me? So, the next question is how to meet this goal.

Stay tuned for practical advice, keeping it simple, and examples taking you through the steps on how to build a business-focused ERG.

– Any questions so far?