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

 

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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!