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Managing virtual teams

In today’s competitive environment it’s not always possible to assemble a team of experts in one physical location.

Question: Is it possible to have a team of experts that are not together in the same location and have them function as a cohesive team?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Does it take more work than when you have a team all together in the same place?

Answer: No, but it takes a different type of skill to manage a virtual team.

The most important ingredient to manage this new sort of team is what I would term ‘virtual trust’. This blog will explore how you can build up a relationship with someone you do not see, or rather with someone who is a voice on the end of the phone line. This applies not only to people that actually work for you but also applies to people, such as an outsourcer, who manage work on your behalf or your company’s behalf.

A real life example..where in the world is the RIG

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So let’s take a real world example since it’s always easier to relate to something when you can understand it. The SAP NetWeaver RIG(Regional Implementation Group) Americas, is part of the PTU SAP NetWeaver Business Unit in the board area of Shai Agassi. We are a global team, with a team in EMEA, a team in Asia-Pacific and Japan, and my team here in the Americas. Our mission is to ensure the successful implementation of the SAP NetWeaver solution. We provide expert consulting advise to our customers and partners for their strategic projects and we help enable our customers, partners and internal consultants to use the SAP NetWeaver functionality.

I have a team of people here in the Americas, the United States, Canada and Argentina. These people are located in various cities in the US, Montreal and Buenos Aires and are spread out across 3 time zones. This makes scheduling a team meeting fun! The members of my team come from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, not all are originally from the US and some of the team speaks English as their second language. So we have to be careful to be clear in our communications to the team.

In the beginning when the team was small (around 10 people) it was easier to get to know everyone and even meet a few times per year to work on joint projects. As the team grew over time, the ability to have a new member of the team physically meet all the team members was really restricted to specific events when the team would be together, such as the SAP TechEd event. We had to come up with ways for this new person to feel part of the team and to become a productive member of the team quickly and easily.

Assimilating a new team member

We would start by introducing the new team member via our weekly team call. Then we assigned the new person a specific mentor to help them get acclimated to our mode of working. In this case these two individuals would start working together on a specific project. Over time, as other help was required, they would also work with other team members. This is where the ‘virtual trust’ comes into active play. How would the other team members respond to the new team member? Would the new team member be able to lend their expertise to others on the team and in doing so be an active contributor to the overall team success?

Building trust

As the new person reaches out to the existing team and vice versa the trust level builds up and the new person is absorbed into the team. While this is going on, you have to remember that the new team member is not able to simply have coffee in the coffee corner with other team members or even go to lunch with them. They are communicating with them via phone, IM (instant messaging), email and other means. Remember, they don’t really know each other and could be too busy to respond. After all they have their own work to do too. So it’s a delicate balance of reaching out for help and being an eager contributor to make this work. The right amount of time has to be spent building up relationships with new people. This relationship is usually cemented in place by the time you finally meet in person. There is no undo button that can be used to change the relationship that you already worked hard to build up and manage.

Key skills of remote mentoring

Key skills to use during this phase are active listening and active messaging. All parties have to be able to hear the concerns of the new team member and react accordingly. The manager of the team also has to understand how to hear when there are issues and resolve them quickly. Never underestimate the power of the written message during this phase. The way you say something in writing and the manner in which others read and interpret what you wrote are really important considerations so that you are not misunderstood early on. This is especially important when you have team members from all cultural backgrounds as part of your team. You could easily offend someone if you are not aware of what you are saying and how you say it. So there is some study required on the part of the new team member to get acclimated to the team members and to understand how to communicate with each person.

It’s really not that hard if you’re flexible

Working in a virtual team is not harder then working together in a physical team. It’s just different. All members of the team have to be prepared to make some adjustments to make this work and for the team to be a success.

In my next blog, I will explore ‘a day in the life of’ a virtual team member and from there I’ll add some thoughts on when you have to work virtually with other people who are not on your team.

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