Working with virtual teams


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A few weeks ago, we asked people to comment upon this task:

NewVenture, a Frankfurt-based company with 750 employees, is planning to start a new product line. Management is discussing whether additional 50 employees should be hired and put to work in newly rented office space, or if some kind of flexible work arrangement should be made, allowing the prospective employees to work from their home office. One extreme scenario under consideration is to employ freelancers from all over the world, organized in distributed teams, for the new product line. (…)

What advice would you give?

• Will virtual teams ever be able to replace old fashioned communication culture in organizations?

• What are the greatest challenges of working with distributed teams?

• What could a facilitator do to make working with distributed teams a success?

We had invited comments from Marcella Bremer (co-founder of the Dutch consultancy firm Kikker Groep and co-founder of OCAI-Online), Mohamad Jamil (Management Consultant, United Arab Emirates), Paul Culmsee (Seven Sigma Business Solutions, Australia), David Price (Debategraph, UK), and myself (Ralf Groetker, Germany). See here. In addition to that, many people wrote comments on our partners’ websites Berlin Change Days and on Collaborating Minds.

I tried to summarize the main points of the discussion in form of a Dialogue Map. Here it is (click image for larger view):

For a PDF-version, click here.

Some comments. Let’s start with the question of optimization and minimal standards. What I found interesting is that the way the commentators approached these questions revealed different methods (which could be applied more systematically if one wanted to deal with the topic more systematically). One method used to search for success-factors for virtual teamwork was to look at established checklists of either minimum standards or teamwork-enabling factors. Another method would be to do field research in order to find out why people could have reservations regarding virtual work environments. (It would be interesting to actually try this out.)

Where are the main points of discussion? Significant disagreement is to found in respect to the question if problems associated with virtual teamwork are in any way different to those experienced within face-to-face meeting (and thus need special treatment). Commentators have not so much disagreed openly about the ingredients of good teamwork (although different points were mentioned), but rather concerning the issue if these ingredients have to be handled differently in a digital context. In other words: one reason why “virtual” might be different is that the conditions for good teamwork have to be created in virtual environments by others means than they are created in face-to-face environments. Another source of disagreement was whether or not there are really certain situations where virtual teamwork is not an option at all.

Opinions also differ in respect to priority of the issues. Priority can mean many things, though: it can stand for

  • points which are most important to discuss for various reasons (personal interest or professional self-interest is one of these reasons)
  • minimum conditions: points that have to be considered in order to prevent a failure
  • first-in-line issues that should deserve priority in the chronology of implementation

Thus, different priority was assigned to

  • Technical features vs soft facilitation skills
  • The items on the checklists for what makes teamwork a success

A smaller point that somehow struck me was an observation by one commentator that I dubbed “Robustness”:

“The two most useful tools to in making this work as well as we did were a very robust communications infrastructure for conference calling (video was conceptually nice but not available to all and always more trouble than it was worth), and a integrated calendaring function (in this case powered by an enterprise system with Microsoft Exchange and Outlook) that allowed everyone involved to see each other’s availability AND to schedule meetings when a discussion was needed for whatever reason.”

My own impression from personal experience is that down-to-the earth features such as described in these sentences can be really game-changing. There also some more of small observations of this kind in the map that might be interesting to check out.

What also stroke me was that most commentators do not wish to differentiate between different collaboration settings or aims of collaboration. From my point of view, this should be essential. If collaboration serves the purpose of generating good decisions in terms of close-to-the-truth judgments, then variety and dissent should be a prominent design feature of collaboration. If, on the other hand, the goal is consensus then a quite different is needed. Still other goals are workload distribution or division of labor according to expertise. I would not expect that even on a general level guidelines for successful virtual collaboration can be found that are not taking these distinction into consideration.

One last point I want to stress belongs to the issue “Features of virtual teamwork which face-to-face teamwork doesn’t offer”. This point is expressed by the following comment:

“If we’ve come to know ‘collaboration’ as an interaction with multiple avenues for communication in the face to face world, perhaps we shouldn’t be looking quite yet to replicate that in the digital world but more simply change the language to ‘contributing.’ It may just be a slight-of-language but the outcome will be the measure of effectiveness not the extent to which one combination of interactions replicates another. “

I think this describes neatly what can be observed in many virtual environments. There is some interaction between participants. But more often, people are willing to contribute ideas, opinion and expertise without to expect immediate feedback. In terms of problem solving, these contributions can very helpful. To me, the comments that we received on “virtual teamwork” are much richer and more helpful than what I had found before in the literature and in the web. I would not call the process of writing and receiving comments on that topic “collaboration”. But surely people have been contributing in a very helpful way. Thank you again!