When aspirin was first introduced, it was seen as the miracle drug. It had an effect on 50 different ailments. Today it has become the largest selling health problem solver in the world. It has an effect on everything from gout, to pain, to cancer.

Most managers these days experience virtual teams as the headache, not the miracle of aspirin!

One large corporation had a group of over 100 people working together. They called themselves a team, but by any definition of “team” they were not one. They were also virtual, located in many different regions of the world. Another company tried to grow by adding a group of people from a new merging culture to do much of the work at a better price. Of course this “team” failed because the cultural differences were too difficult to overcome. A third person led five different “teams” located through out the world. Even this very competent leader/manager found it difficult to keep each team aligned and working toward the needed results.

Teams have been a source of much discussion for years. The more we seem to learn about how teams function, the more questions are created. From the days of Henry Ford, to the studies done by the UK’s Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the National Training Laboratory in the United States, to the self sufficient team development of the 70’s, team structure keeps evolving. Now with the global economy and the emergence of virtual teams, team issues have become even more complex. But there are answers and some very good ones indeed!

Virtual teams have the same problems as teams that can sit down face to face and discuss their progress (or lack thereof). The challenges of getting everyone on the same page, (the direction, goal, or mission) and keeping them there (alignment and engagement) are always present. It would seem that the challenge for virtual teams is even greater.

According to Kimball Fisher, author of The Distant Manager: A hands on guide to managing off site employees and virtual teams, states that there are several types of virtual teams.

  1. Shared Time, Different Location, Shared Culture
  2. Shared Time, Different Location, Different Culture
  3. Different Time, Shared Location, Shared Culture
  4. Different Time, Different Location, Shared Culture
  5. Different Time, Different Location, Different Culture

Teams that share the same time zones are much easier to communicate with then those that are on the other side of the world. Teams that share the same location have the advantage of bulletin boards, and arranging face-to-face meeting more easily. Teams with the same culture can use the same metaphors and follow familiar corporate norms in their work. The more differences a team has, the bigger the challenges for communication, understanding, and engagement.

One would expect a virtual team would be harder to manage. I was a little surprised to read a different view of this.

David Nevgot, the co-founder of a small, but very thriving business, Hubstaff, has a very different point of view. His first successful company had an office and people to manage. He described his staff as being “good people” that he wanted to work with. BUT—he found that people had a tendency to get side tracked or work on whatever they felt was important–but not always a top priority of the company. “Thus hundreds of hours could be wasted if clear direction was not always there,” David said. He and most other managers have found the stress of managing people to be exceedingly high. Giving clear direction and keeping the team on track is a constant process. It just does not happen because everyone is co-located and working the same hours. Additionally the line between direction and micro-managing is also very thin and can kill initiative and innovation. David’s story is insightful because he has been there and done that. He also decided that working in an office was not for him.

David went on to develop several successful virtual companies and along the way figured out some solutions that included helping virtual groups look like and act like an intact team. Yes, it is possible to keep track of everyone, their work progress and engagement and still not micromanage. You don’t have to be the impossible boss no one likes or the invisible boss that no one trusts.

Fortunately, the right tools for communication, accountability, project evaluation, and many other support functions have been developed in the last 5 years. David uses Lean Principle #12 extensively from The Toyota Way: Go, see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation. He takes the time to check in with everyone he manages to get an update, give support, direction, and thumbs up. He may not be able to physically go and see, but using the right tools help him to virtually keep in close contact with his different teams.

I have found many different companies that run successfully as totally virtual organizations. They are also founded and managed by the under 40 generation for the most part. Yes, they are small to mid sized companies, and most have no intention of becoming large. Many of the employees find working from a home office ideal for their circumstance or personality. Some of the employees are described as nomads, who want to experience adventure or the world and combine work with other experiences.

From my research I have found that it is the large multi-national companies that are experiencing virtual team headaches. They have added virtual teams to an organization which is concretely founded in tradition and multi-layers of management. The virtual teams are often added as a cost savings, or convenience measure and have a hard time fitting into a culture that is counter intuitive to the way virtual teams work. The communication, leadership issues, engagement, and project management issues need constant care and nurturing which is often foreign to the thinking patterns already established.

Another issue is that of promotion. In larger companies the person that is out of sight is also out of mind, not known as well, and often overlooked when promotions are given out. The small, totally virtual companies are often flat and there is nowhere to go. The rewards system is not based on promotions, but instead on more challenging work projects, commitment to ideas, and excellence.

Virtual teams are not for everyone. Some people find working with others in the same space invigorating, while other people need freedom and space to think and act on their own. We each learn differently, think differently, and create differently. Virtual teams are a perfect answer for those that need personal creative work-space. Virtual teams also give many people around the world a chance for a better income, to work and exchange ideas with others, and improve life for many–not just a few.

For some, virtual teams are truly a headache; but for many, they are an aspirin.

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