“We have 17,000 people dispersed in 2000 locations—none of which we own—in 43 states, serving 35,000 patients a day. And the question is, what are they all doing? Especially since each one could put me in jail each day. . . . We’ve found that after developing the technology to connect and communicate [to] dispersed personnel, the challenge is to develop the operating culture that allows for its utilization. Our culture is the only thing— except for our name—that connects all of these people in all of the units.”
-John H. Foster, Chairman, NovaCare
Virtual teams cross three types of boundaries:
- space, and
Understanding these variables helps determine the kinds of virtual teams you are leading and how to improve them.[i] For example, a team that has members working in the same place at different times (such as a technical support service team working from the same bank of telephones, but with a day, afternoon, and night shift crew) might be able to meet some of their communication needs by updating a large chart located in their office each shift. However, a team distributed across several sites needs a different communication strategy.
Let’s look at a modified version of these variables that includes something very important – culture.
Physicists tell us that space and time are actually part of the same continuum. This is easy to see if you imagine a widely dispersed team. If people are located in several geographies, then they will also be in different time zones as well. Thus, space-time is really one variable rather than two. Culture is also affected by space-time. The more distributed the team is in time and space the less likely they are to have a homogeneous culture.
We have seen operations within the same organization that had special challenges associated with multiple cultures while other virtual teams with participants from multiple companies were very homogeneous because the participants shared the same technical background. For this reason, we will use the variables of time, distance, and culture to create a diagnostic model to help you work more effectively as a distance manager.
The Dangers of Distance
Differences in time or culture can sabotage good teams. When a team must function seamlessly around the clock, how do you:
- Ensure that information from one shift gets to the other ones?
- Ensure continuity, fairness and appropriate standardization?
- Coordinate best practices?
- Solve organization-wide problems?
- Get real time input and buy-in from across an operation when important team members from other shifts or time zones are always home asleep?
What seems simple in a synchronous (same time) environment can become a nightmare in an asynchronous one. Some teams have been known to erupt into near violent disagreement over something as mundane as the timing of meetings. “Why does everything have to happen on day shift?” they ask. When operations with membership spanning multiple time zones teleconference, team members want to know who has to get up in the middle of the night or lose precious weekend time. “Must the Europeans, Asians and Africans always be the ones to accommodate their American partners?” they justifiably complain.
Ed Schein, a M.I.T. professor whose research focuses on organizational culture has identified a myriad of problems that can come from this elusive characteristic. If we adapt a definition of culture from Schein, anything that falls into the category of a “learned behavior about how to work together” is culture.[ii] This covers everything from organization to language and ethnic norms. Gaps in these areas can create a great deal of distance.
At Procter and Gamble, where we worked before becoming consultants, marketing had a very different type of culture from manufacturing. Inside of the manufacturing part of the company there were subcultures. Unionized operations were different than non-union plants. Maintenance organizations within a plant were distinct from operations. Night shift culture was different than day shift culture. Office workers were different than people on the floor. In some cases, there were distinct cultural differences on the same team.
Obviously, teams that cross countries often find subtle but important communication challenges caused by very distinct geographical cultures.
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, consider what some people have reported to us about working on global teams. South Americans on the project may see timelines as approximate while Germans may view them as precise, even though both sit through the same discussion in the same language at the same time. Asians may smile and nod their heads when asked if they agree to something that they know they cannot later support because the rudeness of overt disagreement is culturally intolerable. North Americans may run roughshod over respected but time consuming practices of other cultures. This short-term efficiency focus may backfire in the long term as it erodes trust and employee commitment. Sometimes the biggest chasm the distance manager faces is the cultural distance between team members.
Determining Types of Virtual Teams
The following questionnaire will help classify your team(s) into one of the six types of virtual organizations based on the following questions:
- Do team members work the same hours?
- Do team members work at the same place?
- Do team members share a common culture?
If you answered yes to all three questions, or yes to questions 1 and 2, but no to question 3, you are not a distance manager.
Assessing time and space differences is pretty straightforward. Team members either share a common space (co-location) or they don’t (distributed). They either work the same hours (synchronous) or they don’t (asynchronous). But determining whether they share a common culture (homogeneous) or not (heterogeneous) is more complicated. Ultimately you will need to make a judgment call to use the diagnostic model in this chapter. To help you make this decision consider these observations:
• A homogeneous culture has clearly established norms, or patterns of behavior, that help the people communicate, work together, solve problems, and make decisions. Like the autonomic nervous system of the body, norms help facilitate the day-to-day operation of the team without demanding a lot of attention from team members. Typically, a homogeneous culture has clearly understood roles and responsibilities for members, a shared sense of behavior standards, and methods for dealing with non-conformance. Although factors like ethnicity, gender, age, and religious backgrounds affect cultural homogeneity, our experience is that thinking styles may be the most crucial factor of all. Things like life experience, technical or educational background, work experiences, and personal preferences normally affect thinking styles.
• A heterogeneous organization (as we define it) is more individualistic in nature. There isn’t a common culture in which norms are shared. People decide what to do in each new situation as it arises, and one person’s perspective on roles, responsibilities and behavior may be quite different from that of other people in the organization.
Be Cautious in Assessing Culture
Don’t assume that a heterogeneous organization is necessarily bad, or that a homogeneous culture is necessarily good. Homogeneity doesn’t mean that everybody is alike.
It is true that heterogeneous organizations must work harder to accomplish things than effective homogeneous ones, but an ineffective homogeneous culture (with strong, but dysfunctional norms, for example) may never get out of the starting gates at all.
On the other hand, the most effective, homogeneous virtual team cultures we know of are composed of highly diverse people, in terms of thinking and life experience, who have figured out how to work together effectively. The common problem with homogeneous cultures that have little diversity in membership is that team members get stuck in what experts call “groupthink”—a terminal case of consistency that inhibits creativity and innovation.
What do virtual teams really look like? Let’s consider some common examples for each team typology. An example of a Type 1 team is a customer service team, manufacturing operation or warehousing team that has multiple shifts operating the same equipment. The only difference between a Type 1 team and a Type 4 team is the degree of homogeneity of the culture.
A Type 1 team, for example, might be a service team that answers customer calls about a software product 24 hours a day, in shifts, from the same phone banks. The Type 4 team could be the same operation but it would have a very homogeneous culture as opposed to the heterogeneous culture of the Type 1 team. Unlike the other teams, Type 1 and 4 teams can communicate by using simple technologies like blackboards and posted charts that are located in a single location and that can be updated by each shift as they leave. To provide some synchronous activities, many of these virtual teams can use shift overlap meetings for face-to-face interaction.
A Type 2 team might be a global project team, large organization, or international product development team. A Type 5 team would be the same, except that it would have a more homogeneous culture. Type 2 and 5 teams are the most difficult to manage because they cross both time and space. Therefore, the teams must become proficient in using asynchronous, distributed technologies like e-mail, electronic whiteboards, voice mail, and in making good use of limited synchronous time to work with each other using technologies such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing.
A Type 3 team might be a local sales or service team, or a regional consulting firm. A Type 6 team would be the same type of team with a more homogeneous culture. These teams have the benefit of synchronous schedules and can be hooked together electronically in real time through technology. Face to face interaction is more difficult, however, as the team members are normally working at different sites.
The first three types of teams (heterogeneous cultures) also require special treatment to create agreements on how to work together. Types 4, 5, and 6 can be maintained with fewer of these interventions if the culture is functional. However, if you have a dysfunctional homogeneous team, the change process often requires extreme measures to modify group norms that have come to be accepted over time.
For more specific information about how to make your particular type of team successful, read the appropriate forthcoming blogs.
Tips for Dealing with Cultural Differences
This is a difficult issue that requires some thoughtful investigation on your part. What specifically are the cultural issues? Are they rooted in organizational differences, country of origin differences, technical discipline differences, or something else? Treat the situation appropriately.
- Organizational culture differences, for example, normally require the development of new mutually agreed on operating guidelines for the team. These guidelines are agreements on how to work together that transcend the organizational backgrounds of the team members. They allow people to focus on the here and now instead of on the past.
- Country of origin differences also benefit from developing guidelines together as a team, but normally requires more. Sometimes language training is needed to help participants who don’t understand the predominant language. If serious culture differences come from the country of origin (or from issues associated with gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc.) then most teams find that they need to receive special training in cross- cultural sensitivity. In some cases, professional consultation or mediation may be required. This help is also important when it concerns issues that have legal consequences.
- Technical discipline differences may require technical trainings to bridge the chasm caused by dissimilarities in approaching problems or making decisions in addition to agreeing to operating guidelines for the team.
Getting the Most from Type 1 and Type 4 Teams
Type 1 and Type 4 teams have the advantage of sharing a common space. Use it. Create a physical place that provides a sense of identity and a means for collaboration. Carve out a place for a team room where people can cluster and talk. Sun Microsystems, for example, uses what they call “Sun rooms” as gathering and meeting places. These are small brightly illuminated rooms that normally have a whiteboard and comfortable chairs (or even a couch in most cases). They are a space that encourages people to share ideas with each other, solve problems, and collaborate.
Decorate the team space with identity enhancing graphics. For example, these teams often benefit from posters, charts and graphs located on the walls. Have team members post their goals, timelines or other key measures in places where they are visible to each shift. These types of community report cards can be updated each shift in order to obtain high quality data, but more importantly, they are a visible reminder that each shift is part of something that transcends their time period. Post your team charter and operating guidelines on the wall for the same reason. Some teams create a symbol they use to reinforce their shared identity with people who work at other times. The Apple Macintosh Design Team posted a pirate flag above their quarters to symbolize their skunk-work operation working on the fringe of the corporation. This flag helped people, regardless of working hours to feel part of something bigger than their shift.
The biggest challenge for the Type 1 or Type 4 team, of course, is communicating across the distance of time. Most operations find that they have to create shift overlap in the schedule to accommodate and encourage this communication. This is easier in operations using eight hour shifts than in organizations using twelve hour shifts, but it is always preferable to create the opportunity for face to face interchange whenever possible. During the overlap, most organizations have some sort of shift download meeting where the incoming team members find out what happened on the last shift. This time is always scarce and should be used efficiently for the activities that are best done face to face. If a team decision is to be made, some of the suggestions might be gathered first asynchronously on the team web site at the convenience of each team member. The meeting may then be reserved to discuss the pros and cons of each suggestion with all present. Suggestions for other asynchronous communications will be found throughout the book.
The other primary challenge for the Type 1 team that distinguishes it from the Type 4 team is dealing with multiple cultures. See the section on dealing with cultural differences for some tips and traps.
Making the Type 2 and Type 5 Teams Successful
The Type 2 and Type 5 team are the most difficult to lead because they have neither shared time nor shared space as an advantage. Creating an identity and some collaboration, therefore, requires a number of virtual teaming activities and solid use of communication technologies. Type 2 and Type 5 teams are especially vulnerable to a poor start-up. As we have already mentioned, an effective face-to-face start-up is important for any virtual organization. At a minimum this activity helps people get to know their colleagues, identifies their purpose and key measures, facilitates future collaboration, and clarifies roles and responsibilities
The start-up helps, but it isn’t enough. You’ll need a way of coordinating the day-to-day work virtually through a variety of conferencing technologies mentioned in more detail later in the book (see all of the chapters in part III: “The Distance Technology Handbook”). Establish a way to have regular teleconferences, and/or videoconferences, and/or Web conferences with the team members. These team meetings are necessary to check progress and coordinate. One-on-one virtual meetings between you and each employee may be necessary but they are insufficient as a coordinating and information sharing mechanism for Type 2 and Type 5 virtual teams. Team members need to communicate with each other regularly in real time as well. In some cases they may need video. In many cases voice communication or voice communication with shared access to computer files is sufficient. Coordinating the timing of this in a global team can be a headache because someone is almost always required to participate at a bad time for them (middle of their night, holidays, weekends, etc.) Do your best to minimize this problem by choosing times that are least disruptive.
All effective leaders also know that much of the work of a team gets done in informal settings. Co-located team members have a significant advantage. They can run into each other in the hallways, see others during breaks, or meet people at lunch or in the parking lot. This informal interaction helps not only with the socialization needs of team members (people will work and communicate more effectively with people they know than with strangers), but it also provides a serendipitous opportunity to coordinate and collaborate (“hey Jane, I just heard that you’re working on the X project, can I ask you a couple of questions?”). Create a virtual water cooler if you don’t have a physical one. For example, many teams have a chat room space on their intranet that allows more informal virtual interaction.
In many cases virtual interaction still isn’t enough. Effective distance managers strongly recommend that you do something that allows people to discuss things physically as well. The best method for this is a periodic face to face meeting. The frequency of these interactions depends on your situation. The leaders we interviewed ranged from never having a face to face to having one every other week. The most common frequency is a quarterly meeting that focuses on the things best done in person, including some social activities (dinner, golf, etc.) that facilitate informal interaction. Avoid concerts, movies, or other activities that won’t allow people to talk to each other.
Finally, find a way to create virtual team space for Type 2 and Type 5 teams. On some Hewlett-Packard projects, for example, the company actually sets up desks in the office where most team members are located for the offsite team members. This isn’t practical or cost effective in most situations, but where teaming is critical, the company finds that this makes the offsite employees feel more like full partners than periodic associates. At a minimum, set up a team Web site. This will help provide an identity and a shared virtual meeting space for team members. A certain amount of the site should be designed by the team members themselves to allow them to feel like it is really theirs. Many teams include their photos on the site to personalize the space. Remember that any technology used will require training. Assuming that people will figure out how to use the Web site (or e-mail or voice mail, etc.) is a mistake.
The other primary challenge for the Type 2 team that distinguishes it from the Type 5 team is dealing with multiple cultures. See the section on dealing with cultural differences above for some tips and traps.
Making the Type 3 and Type 6 Teams Successful
The advantage of the Type 3 and Type 6 teams is shared time. This allows you to set aside communication and coordination times for virtual interaction with minimal problems. Most of these teams find it useful to have regularly scheduled conference meetings in the same way that co-located teams have staff meetings. The most common frequency for these virtual conferences is weekly, although many of these types of teams find that a brief daily meeting is helpful to coordinate assignments.
Type 3 and Type 6 teams are also normally located in a sufficiently small geography that face to face meetings can be held with less expense than widely distributed teams. It is good practice to have these with sufficient frequency that team members can have most of the advantages of a co-located team. For this type of team a quarterly meeting should not be difficult and an increased frequency is recommended if team members can benefit from sharing ideas, coordinating with others, joint problem solving, or decision making activities. Remember to save the face to face meetings for things that aren’t easily accomplished through virtual interactions. With the possibility of more regular face to face meetings in these types of virtual teams than the other types, you might keep a running agenda for the meetings that anyone can contribute to (perhaps a space on your Web site titled “topics for upcoming face to face meetings”). This way, you can schedule more frequent meetings as soon as you have a sufficient agenda to justify one.
The primary difference between a Type 3 and Type 6 team is cultural differences. Type 3 teams benefit from the activities mentioned above in the section focused on dealing with cultural differences.
Considering the key virtual team variables of space, time, and culture, we can create a typology of teams that allows us to categorize them into six types. Each type has special challenges unique to them:
-Type 1 and Type 4 teams must find ways to create virtual time.
-Types 2 and 5 must create virtual time and space.
-Types 3 and 6 require virtual space.
-Types 1, 2, and 3 are also challenged with multiple cultures while
-Types 4, 5, and 6 have a cohesive culture—a benefit as long as the culture is functional.
If it is not, then leadership intervention is required.
This paper is adapted from The Distance Manager: A Hands-On Guide to Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams, by Kimball Fisher and Mareen Duncan Fisher, (McGraw-Hill, 2001)
[i] Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time, and Organizations with Technology, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997. Copyright © 1997 Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps. Reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
[ii] 2 Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (Second Edition), Jossey-Bass, January 1997. Copyright © 1997 Jossey-Bass, Inc. Reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.