How to make virtual teams work! (part 2)

This second part of the blog post looks at how to make virtual teams work.  Don’t miss the first part: Why virtual teams fail

Telecommuting is on the rise.  It leads to more ‘virtual teams’, which means co-workers collaborate separated from another by location and often also time.

Bitter-sweet 

There is a bright side and a dark side to telecommuting.

Here is the upside:  According to Staples Advantage’s study (see “Employers say work from home works“), 93% of employers found programs that allow employees to work from home benefits employees as well as companies.  Half of the employers report more productive employees and 75% agree that telecommuting makes their employees happier.  No wonder that the amount of telecommuters has roughly doubled in the US over the past 10-or-so years (http://www.globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics).

The stubborn tendency remains that work may get done at home, but careers are made in the office.  The benefit of control over one’s work place and time comes at a price for the career as a recent study by Stanford University revealed: working from home cuts the chances for a promotion in half!

Obviously, there is a disconnect between where the professional world is moving towards rapidly and our mindset that seem to adapt slower and less flexibly to change using digital interaction for effective collaboration.

Because the world is not flat…

Even the most advanced and latest ‘virtual presence’ technology does not offer the same bonding with senior management as face-time does.  The ones working from home can be overlooked or -when opportunity knocks- forgotten, even though they often work harder compared to in-office workers and their productivity is higher, as the study showed.

When it comes to telecommuting the world is not flat.  Simply put, the playing field is not level between in-office and at-home workers, explains the gap between the positive perception of remote working by employers and employees alike, and the sobering reality of career crunch.

Furthermore, it is not the remote workers alone that require attention and need to be managed differently.  It is also the staff remaining in the office (if there are any), since both parties are affected and need to perceive the same leveled plain.

Breaking habits

It is human nature to favor those whom we feel close to and whom we work and spend time with in close proximity. To make working-from-home (or from anywhere else outside the office) work successfully, it is the management’s responsibility to level this playing field effectively and sustainably.

Achieving this is anything but easy; in particular, if managers are used to working out of an office.  For them it means to break with their habits for the better of the organization.  – It’s not impossible though: our habits of sitting at a table in front of a computer all day is just as unnatural for humans; yet we get used to it.

Cover the bases

There are some key aspects to make remote working work:

1. The work itself
First, the work must lend itself to be conducted remotely.  Quite a no-brainer: other than in a factory setting, the necessary tangible tools and resources to collaborate cannot be concentrated in one place but must be accessible to the remote staff where ever they work from.  For example, remote working is not possible for a factory assembling gadgets along a conveyor belt, where each worker contributes to some part of the process assembling the product.  Tools are expensive and immobile, so resources need to be concentrated in around the tools to allow for efficient collaboration.

Not much different from factory workers, the collaboration of knowledge workers is enabled by tools to communicate and to share data and information.  The difference is that technology allows information to be transmitted, so we can collaborate effectively and efficiently from all corners of the world. Choosing the most suitable collaboration tools can become a differentiating competitive advantage; you don’t want to lose quality or effectiveness when collaborating remotely.

2. The workers

Working from home is not for everyone for different reasons.  It does require continued motivation and self-discipline to work from home as if in the office among co-workers.  It takes establishing a new work-day routine in the isolated home environment that is invisible to co-workers.  It becomes just as import for the home-workers to take regular breaks:  Burnout can easily become an issue when home-workers over-compensate because they either feel under scrutiny by management and/or co-workers in the office.  Also less interruptions at home can lead to missing breaks and working longer hours continuously than in the office.

When I introduced remote working as a pilot project in my department several years ago, one of my staff reported in the beginning that he felt guilty taking a bio-break at home, so not to appear unavailable to staff from other departments who remained working from the office.

3. The management

Managing a remote workforce requires a different management style.  Managers need to become more pro-active, use communication channels that the staff is comfortable with and adopt ways to communicate with their staff transparently and effectively.  Key points for managers are to:

  • Establish shared team goals
  • Establish communication best-practices together with the team; this also helps to mitigate timezone, language and cultural differences as well as choosing the proper communication channel depending on content
  • Manage by performance, not by face-time or physical presence
  • Actively create equal opportunities for on-site and off-site staff
  • Set clear rules for management and staff alike aiming to show transparency and leveling the playing field by incentivizing favorable behavior (a matter of organizational justice)
  • Remain flexible and ask your staff for ideas on how to improve knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

4. The performance metrics

Leveling the playing field comes down to truly embracing a performance culture that incentivizes results – not face-time.  Managers need to articulate clear and measurable goals for the team and its individuals in advance and sometimes also more frequently than they used to.  Acting transparently and objectively can be a serious challenge for managers and requires leaving the personal comfort zone.

To achieve this, training may be necessary to shift the culture of the organization and prepare management and their staff alike.

As an example, when I first introduced remote working, I asked my managers to establish and document weekly goals with each staff member and to review them for completion the following week.  After a couple of months, I left it to the managers to use any other way to set and track performance with their staff.  When some managers wanted to put away with the weekly goal agreement sheets, it was their staff who asked to keep them, as they valued the clear and documented goals in their hand.  The staff also found them helpful to discuss facts during their following periodic performance reviews.  Though not planned for, the weekly goal setting contributed measurably to increase trust of staff in their managers.

Plan for the “soft factors”

Interesting are the “soft factors”, which are the real make-or-break but often tend to get overlooked, forgotten or just not taken into account seriously.  What it boils down to is the relationship (trust) and interaction (communication) between managers and their staff as well as among the members of a virtual team.  These soft factors are subtile and often require behavioral changes or adaptation, more for managers than their staff.

Do you trust?

Take the time to ask yourself two questions honestly:

  • Do you trust yourself to be as productive working from home as in the office?

Now this:

  • Do you trust your coworkers or your direct reports to work as productive from home too?

My own experiences are consistent with the research: we trust ourselves more than others. – And this is where the problem starts.

Why trust matters

A trustful personal connection is unsurpassed to build trust as a foundation for robust and sustainable business relationships and collaboration.  Individuals trusting a person we don’t want to work or do business with this individual.

Trust also makes up much of the ‘social glue’ that holds together teams and organizations. Trust is critical for the success of virtual teams. With lack of trust also the willingness to share information dwindles and so does productivity.

When this happens, our energy gets wasted every day with concerns and redundant or counterproductive work.  Workers focus to avoid perceived threats from others, which takes over more and more of their work time, focus, and productivity. In contrast, for people we trust we happily go the ‘extra mile.’

Trust (or the absence thereof) has been identified as the pivotal element ranging from detailed investigations in hundreds of organizations (by Virtual Distance International) to recent bestsellers like “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.

Coming back to the two earlier questions, it proves hard turning the mirror towards ourselves and to accept that also we need to build trust with our co-workers to build and fuel our most robust and valuable business connects and relations.

What is trust?

Let’s take a closer look – what makes up trustful work relationships?  Trust is an interpersonal phenomenon. It comes down to three factors that make up trust at the workplace as Karen Sobel Lojeski, NYU professor at Stony Brook and CEO of Virtual Distance International explains:

  • Benevolence  –  our co-workers have your best interest at heart
  • Ability  –  our co-workers have the knowledge and ability to get the job done
  • Integrity  –  our co-workers will do what they promise.

Innovation needs trust
High trust correlates with more successful innovation – why?

When colleagues trust another they open up and share information. Besides the obvious benefit of cross-fertilization that leads to more ideas and creative approaches, by giving away our views and knowledge we become vulnerable as an individual and even more so in a competitive professional environment. This openness comes with a risk to fail that people are only willing to take if failure is acceptable and does not come with repercussions.

Sharing ideas alone is not enough though. Asking thoughtful questions, constructive criticism and mutual support lead to better solutions while curbing hostility and competitiveness. Opening up happens when a task-related conflict will not easily deteriorate into a personal conflict. Innovation within an organization relies on trust among colleagues as a key ingredient that cannot be substituted otherwise.

How we build trust

Trust requires communication and is built most effectively face-to-face with another person, which offers the broadest information channels.  An MIT study found a 47% higher performance in companies that are highly effective communicators.  Team success is consistently tied to robust team communications. (I wonder if this communication-related increase in performance was ever considered by companies focusing on saving cost…)

Customer-facing business knows that no technology today can offer the same quality and trust-building dialog as in person face-to-face.

Thus, travel to meet business partners and team members remains essential at least in the beginning. Traveling more to meet in person is out of the question for organizations who boarded the ‘cost-cutting’ train: it is considered too expensive.  Saving cost here, though, does not pay off over time when it cuts into building trust for good working relationships.

Even more important is trust-building when on-boarding new staff. It is a challenge if most or all work is done remotely by team members who already know and trust each other.  It comes back to human nature that we tend to rely on the same people we worked with before, which puts newcomers at a natural disadvantage.  Here, management must intervene to level the playing field and provide opportunities also for the new staff.

Perhaps, women are at a natural advantage to connect with others given a higher social sensitivity, i.e. the ability to ‘read’ other people’s emotions face to face better than men.  This is also one of the three criteria that increases group intelligence (see “Boost ‘Group Intelligence’ for better decisions!“)

Investing in trust and technology

Since it is not possible (and defeats the purpose) to meet in person especially in virtual teams, we use digital technology to bridge the distance.  Consequently, we need to invest in effective tools to remove communication barriers and open broad, information-rich channels of communication among all team members.

Rather than relying on one channel or system, it is more effective to enable the team to communicate by offering many channels that cater to the individual team member’s preferences; for example, phone, instant messaging, video chat, email, etc).  For example, waiting more than one minute to establish a video-conference connection is too long and already poses a significant communication barrier.

‘Tele-presence’ seems to be the gold-standard for remote communication but sadly often remains reserved only for executive use if the technology is invested in at all.

Nonetheless, enabling technology can also enhance performance and add value by

  • Indicating if people are online and available to communicate
  • Finding experts or collaborators easily within large organizations
  • Share and exchange information to relevant audiences directly and without delay.

In contrast, here are some examples for communication barriers of organizations with a cost-saving focus that tends to include also ‘technological disablement’ such as

  • Using slow or time-delaying communication or productivity equipment
  • Users spending more time trying to connect than actually communicating
  • Information-poor channels or poor call quality
  • Resolving technology-related problems consumes a long time or is a cumbersome process.

The Deep Dive

Virtual Distance ™ is a powerful framework to identify and quantify barriers within virtual teams.  This methodology helps not only to evaluate existing teams, but to anticipate barriers in future teams.  Virtual Distance makes for a superb strategic forecasting and planning tool to build effective virtual teams.

For more detail, see Virtual Distance International.

Too much trust can hurt innovation

Just as a side note for completeness, there is a risk that too much trust within a team can become and obstacle to innovation (see “Why too much trust hurts innovation“).

It comes down to management again to be observant and vigilant to detect and counteract such tendencies.

While introducing remote work in virtual teams comes with significant change and challenges for everyone involved, the burden and responsibility to make it work in the end remains with the manager.

Have you read part 1 yet? “Why virtual teams fail

 

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 into 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!

The U.S. Army brand

Everyone knows the U.S. Army. This American icon has been around for well over 230 years!

The ‘U.S. Army’ is more than a well-known military force. We recognize it as a brand.  Just like ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘IBM’ portray and advertise a certain company image to sell its product, the U.S. Army needs to constantly appeal with a unique value proposition for new recruits to enlist. The ‘product’ offered if what the recruit expect to get out of it along the lines of ‘what is in it for me’ (WIIFM).

From this commercial perspective, it seems only natural that the U.S. Army hires world-class advertisement agencies to help meeting recruitment targets.  Marketing and advertisement gained importance especially since the U.S. Army turned into an all-volunteer force in 1973. This is similar to a voluntary ERG membership.

Aiming at a moving target

We distinguish four generations at the workplace today. Each comes with different motivations and characteristics.  The collective personality or zeitgeist influences each generation’s behavior and values.  These need to be considered to adapt and effectively connect with each generation in its own way to maximize their potential and productivity for the better of the organization overall.

You can easily find this spectrum of generations reflected in the historic recruitment campaigns of the U.S. Army.  The U.S. Army ‘brand’ changes over time and adapts to appeal and attract fresh recruits.

Let’s take a look at these recruiting campaigns for the four generations before we move on to extract the practical benefits for ERGs today:

1.  Veterans, Silent or Traditional Generation (born 1922 to 1945)

"I Want You"
Uncle Sam

I admit, in practice this campaign hardly affects today’s ERG anymore since most of this age group has already left the workforce by now.

Nonetheless, using the ‘propaganda’ flavor in this message proved very successful in both WWI and WWII.

‘Uncle Sam’ captures the essence of a generation of disciplined conformers with much respect for authority and an ingrained understanding that duty to the country is an obligation.

2.  Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)

The U.S. Army became an all-volunteer force in 1973, which changed the recruiting game entirely.  Not being able to rely on a general draft anymore, the U.S. Army needed a new approach to attract a steady stream of voluntary recruits.

This coincided with an upcoming new generation of the younger Baby Boomers generally characterized as full of optimism and thirst for social engagement.  To tackle the new challenge of effective marketing, the U.S. Army brought in a professional advertisement agency.

"Today's Army"
Who expects “Today’s Army” to be a fun crowd playing football?

The first ads to the “Today’s Army wants to join you” campaign (1971 to 1980) suggest membership in a nice group of people sharing many similarities.

Also, women were now encouraged to enlist. It’s all about optimism, getting together and being involved!

This was a gutsy and somewhat liberal first step to attract a volunteer force.  Though thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ it did not work out all that smoothly as indicated by changes following quickly.

"Join the People who Joined the Army"
All serious in 1973

This ad (1973 to 1976) is like a pendulum swinging back to the opposite extreme!

Tone and focus changed dramatically in this newer version of “Join the People” emphasizing the seriousness and commitment of being a soldier while also highlighting personal benefits.

The message is clear:  No more playing around here, responsibility and duty is back, no more football on the beach!

Finally, the U.S. Army settled on a more balanced campaign.

"This is the Army"
Blends people & duty

Here is an example for “This Is the Army” campaign ads.  The headlines read “In Europe You’re on Duty 24 Hours a Day, but the Rest of the Time Is Your Own” or “Back home, I wouldn’t mind doing the work I’m doing here” influenced also by a loss of military reputation after the Vietnam war.

One campaign or another, the U.S. Army missed its recruitment goal by more than 17.000 in 1979.  This announced a new generation, GenX, coming with a different background and values that required the U.S. Army to re-think and find a new approach.

3.  Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)

Birthrates cut into the recruitment pool. In addition, the smaller Generation X turns out to be tough to target.

This generation came with an inherent distrust of authority originating from geopolitical change as well as changes in western society and family structures.  Despite GenX’s dominant drive for independence and self-reliance, this generation is also looking for structure and direction in life.

6 Be all you can be ad
Personal growth

“Be All You Can Be” (1980 to 2001) emphasizes a personal challenge and an opportunity for self-development, i.e. taking charge of your fate to become a better individual.  Note that the “we” is gone,  it’s all about “me” for GenX.

The benefits offered by the U.S. Army included significant education support.  (The U.S. military remains the largest ‘education organization’ in the U.S. in terms of funding tuition, in particular.)

 

3 "Army of One" logo
Self-reliant GenX

The succeeding “Army of One” campaign (2001 to 2006) hits the true core of the independent GenX by underlining the single person in their message.

However, the campaign was also short-lived because a focus on the independent individual appeared contrary to the idea of teamwork that any military organization relies on and cannot work without.

Facing demographic decline, recruiting advertisement reached out into Spanish-speaking ‘markets’ (in a campaign known as “Yo Soy el Army”) to tap into the increasing Hispanic population.

 

Image result for image top gun free online
Top Gun (1986) movie

 

The U.S. Army made more use of TV advertisement to reach GenX, a generation brought up in front of a TV.

Perhaps the boldest recruitment stunt was the 1986 smash movie “Top Gun” – sponsored by the Pentagon in need of a major image boost. And it worked! Think about it: Tom Cruise is a self-reliant ace who has a problem with accepting authority – a poster-boy Gen-Xer. In the end, he became a valuable team player for the greater good meeting the military’s needs and got the girl.

4.  Generation Y or Millennials (born 1981 to 2001)

The ongoing “Army Strong” campaign builds on a proposition of lifelong strength through training, teamwork, shared values and personal experience.  – What a change from the previous focus on independence for GenX!

“Army Strong” also suggests contemporary leadership, personal empowerment and strength building that found on shared values.
(Read more on managing Generation Y at Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?)

Here, ‘strength’ is meant literally:  The U.S. Army overhauled the fitness training to ‘toughen up’ this generation.  Weakened by a more tranquil lifestyle (such as video-gaming),  GenY-ers often lack experience with physical confrontation that is unavoidable and crucial for effective warriors.

Army Strong
“Army Strong” since 2006

Perhaps confusing for older generations, “Army Strong” caters to GenY’s interest in making a difference not only in their lives but also for their extended communities.  Work is less central in this generation while individuality and leisure value high.

The campaign milks the social ties deliberately addressing not only recruits but also the people who love and support them, i.e. the people who influence the recruits’ decisions such as family and friends as well as the broader public.

Print ad for "Army Strong"
GenY pride and social values

Consequently, the U.S. Army presents itself more as a responsible and somewhat selfless social service in advertisements by highlighting how soldiers serve their communities and for their nation beyond executing force during a conflict.

The U.S. Army adapts its spectrum of communication channels to keep up with GenY, a generation for which technology serves as an extension of their personality and their physical selves.  Constantly online and connectedness with an appealing adventurous fun-factor, the U.S. Army is present across the entire landscape of noteworthy social media these days – it even entertains its own video game to warm up GenY.

Targets on the demographic curve

Next-generation ERGs and the U.S. Army both aim to attract a specific demographic:  The U.S. Army targets 17 to 24-year-old recruits, looking at the lower end, while ERGs typically look for the older end, i.e. young adults with professional training, perhaps a college degree and some work experience.

Thus, the U.S. Army’s target demographic starts just a few years younger than the typical employees entering the (civilian) workforce, so the U.S. Army operates a bit ahead of the age curve that becomes relevant for ERG membership recruitment.

Let the U.S. Army do your research!

Using this time difference to their advantage, next-generation ERGs, in particular, benefit from the U.S. Army doing the heavy lifting with regard to generational research.  With the U.S. Army’s advertisement contract worth more than $200 million each year (or $2,500+ per recruit) don’t fool yourself:  an ERG will never have funds anywhere close to hire a top-notch advertisement agency for attracting new members … unless you are perhaps the guys who invented Google or so…  J

From a next-generation-ERG’s perspective, here is what you can reap:

  • Target Characteristics

Using its marketing dollars, the U.S. Army identifies the characteristics of your future demographics for you – for free!  Look at how the U.S. Army is targeting today.  It gives you a clear picture of what the characteristics are of your next ERG generation tomorrow.

The U.S. Army shares its findings publicly.  This includes a sharp outline of the specific characteristics of the youngest employees that enter your workplace now or it in the near future.  So, keep an eye on the U.S. Army’s next recruiting campaign and time is on your side!

  • Trial-and-Error without getting hurt

It gets even better.  The U.S. Army provides you with field test results on whether their findings hold true in practice:  The U.S. Army’s annual recruitment figures serve as a success criterion for the recruiting campaign.  These figures are available in the public domain and found easily online within seconds.

  • The early warning signal

If the actual Army recruitment figure exceeds or falls short of the target figure (somewhere around 80.000 recruits each year), you get an idea what worked and what did not.  The latter reflects not only that the campaign lost effectiveness but may also indicate that the next generation has arrived with a changed set of values and characteristics.  – Use this as a free early‑warning system for your ERG!

Note that over the past five years the U.S. Army’s number of “accessions” (=recruits) exceeded the “mission” (=target value); note though that the “mission” bar was lowered in 2009 and 2010.

When the U.S. Army misses its recruitment target in the future, the next campaign is just around the corner.  A significant change in the core message targets the next generation.  So, here comes your next lesson and opportunity for the ERGs!

Back to the Future?

If the U.S. Army is not for you, don’t worry.  Choose any military branch of your liking – they all face the same challenge.  You don’t need to love the military to learn from it, and the lessons are valuable.

As a general yet effective approach to strategic innovation, keep an eye on industries and organizations that face similar challenges earlier than you do.  Learn from them and prepare your business and ERG for the change.