Read an Excerpt
Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams
A Briefcase Book
By Kimball Fisher, Mareen Fisher
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2011Kimball Fisher and Mareen Fisher
All rights reserved.
What Is a Virtual Team?
Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision and the ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.
Let's consider three common situations involving virtual team management. Meeting challenges like those described here are part of what we discuss in this book.
Case One: The Global Team Management Challenge
Not too long ago we worked with a manager at Cummins Engine, Inc. He was located in the U.K., but the small teams reporting to him were scattered across more than twenty countries. An especially bright and capable leader, the manager found that he would seldom see a more significant challenge than coordinating the work of people sharing a common office. Leading global teams, for example, sometimes seemed like tiptoeing through an unmarked minefield. People had diverse cultural backgrounds and often interpreted the same e-mail in different (and sometimes contradictory) ways. Offense was taken when none was intended. Confusion and duplication of effort occurred with alarming regularity. Finding time for meetings that didn't conflict with someone's sleep schedule or national holiday was almost impossible. He was also concerned about the communication challenges associated with running an operation that required almost immediate access to him 24/7. How could he lead a balanced work and personal life when he was constantly tethered to work by his smartphone and computer?
Case Two: Can a Group of Remote Employees Really Function Like a Team?
A manager from IBM went through a significant downsizing in his organization, leaving him with 65 direct reports spread across the continental United States. Turnover was high enough that even with a grueling travel schedule, he could never meet all his direct reports in person before they transferred away. Unfortunately, temporary travel restrictions for nonmanagers made it impossible to get his team together in one place at the same time. All their meetings had to be Web meetings or teleconferences. But how could he help the team members get to know each other well enough to trust each other? Would they ever reach the comfort level that would allow them to openly admit mistakes, offer constructive criticism, share their best ideas, or ask each other for assistance? How could he help them—especially those who worked alone from their homes—overcome their inevitable feelings of isolation?
A team that shares a common office could get to know each other by taking breaks or having lunch together. Informal interaction in the hallways, at the water cooler, or in the parking lot builds relationships and a sense of common team identity. Celebrating birthdays and childbirths, sharing pictures of children and weddings, informally telling work stories about organizational disasters and victories and any of the thousand other tiny social interactions that connect people and create a social lubricant that facilitates working together would likely never happen. Was it even possible to create a highly functioning team in this situation?
Case Three: Can a Team That Shares a Common Office Be Virtual?
A manager of a sales team at the high-tech distribution giant CDW told us that she struggled with the challenges of managing people who were never in the office. Her sales team was almost always in the field working with customers. She was a good manager and had a track record of positive accomplishments, but many of her leadership practices were based on the traditional management model that assumed regular face-to-face interactions. She knew how to pop over a cubicle and help someone she could see was struggling with an assignment, how to gather an obviously confused group together for an emergency meeting, how to correct a misconception she overheard in the lunchroom, how to take full advantage of those fortunate moments when you run into someone in the hallway you need to speak with, or how to watch people and tell from their expressions and body language whether they understood or agreed with her.
When she observed gossiping, whining, blaming, or other behaviors she knew would erode the effectiveness of the team, she intervened immediately. If she saw cliques forming, behaviors that indicated disunity or silo thinking, or indications of the early stages of conflict brewing, she resolved them. She knew how to rally the troops when the tone of their comments indicated that they were discouraged. To continue the military analogy, she liked being on the frontlines, helping the wounded, and personally leading charges far into enemy territory. "But," she asked in an interview, "how do you lead a team over the Internet?" It felt to her like calling in orders to the battlefield when she was located in a tent, blinded and deafened by separation from her army, a million miles away.
The Challenges of Working with Virtual Teams
We have hundreds of these stories about the challenges of working with what are widely known as "virtual teams." They come from operations as diverse as large multinational insurance companies to the staff office of the U.S. Senate, and from jobs that range from Microsoft executives to Swedish R&D scientists in a mining explosives company. Even though these are very different organizations—both private and public, blue collar and white collar, large corporations and small home-based businesses—they share a common problem: How do you manage people you seldom see in person—especially when that group of people is supposed to be a cohesive and productive work team?
Why Are Virtual Teams Becoming So Common?
The bad news is that these types of operations are difficult to manage and they are increasingly common. Since the industrial revolution started more than a century ago, organizations have had employees who didn't work in the same location as their manager. But in the last several years, the number of these operations has exploded. Why? True global marketplaces have required that even smaller organizations have people closer to their customers, vendors, and key stakeholders.
Skilled workers now live everywhere instead of in clumps surrounding key corporations or schools. Employees who were once willing to relocate to wherever the employer needed them now have to manage multiple careers and are reluctant to move their kids. Businesses don't want to pay for relocation expenses. Cost pressures have also forced large organizations to reduce expensive brick-and- mortar office buildings and place key components of their businesses in other countries. The nature of work itself has changed from mostly physical labor to mostly knowledge work, allowing people to work away from farms, factories, and mines. (For more about this, see our book The Distributed Mind, Amacom, 1998.)
Perhaps most importantly, technology that allows people to do knowledge work jobs from anywhere is cheap, effective, and plentiful. The ubiquity of the Internet, in particular, allows people to coordinate their work regardless of location. What was once rare—a virtual team including employees who are remote from their manager and each other—is now commonplace. And it is unlikely that any professional manager will go through his or her entire career without having to manage at least one. Surprisingly, this is also the good news. These types of operations are increasingly common. That means that even though there are challenges, lots of people have already faced these challenges successfully.
There was a time when
Excerpted from Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams by Kimball Fisher. Copyright © 2011 by Kimball Fisher and Mareen Fisher. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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