You are in Nashville and send an email to your team members in
London and Singapore at the end of your day. You jump out of bed at
2 a.m. to see if there is a reply. Dedication! Or, you are up at 4
a.m. to cover a lunch-hour conference call meeting in Europe.
You set a 6 a.m. Net Meeting. It starts 20 minutes late because
there are technical glitches when participants try to log on to
view the slides.
One student looked at me many years ago and said, "Kiss me. My
eye." He meant, "Excuse me. I'm shy." Speaking a foreign language
on the phone can be challenging.
Global, national, regional, and local businesses have embraced
virtual work, primarily as a cost-saving tool, reducing travel and
associated expenses. But new issues related to team leadership have
emerged: the temptation, or reality, of extending work hours early
into the morning or late into the night; linguistic issues and the
use of English as the world's lingua franca; the disconnect of
never having met fellow team members; and the challenge of
celebrating success in the virtual world.
Leadership Is Leadership Whether Virtual or
All teams represent people working on interdependent tasks that are
too large, too specialized, or too technical for one individual to
successfully accomplish. Any team may be multicultural, and both
virtual and face-to-face teams may be used for short-term projects
or long-term work. So, how do these two environments differ?
Technology and Communications
The virtual team is different in two major areas. Technology
enables communication: email; Net Meeting, a shared workplace for
knowledge management and document control; and conference calls.
While traditional teams may use these tools, technology is
absolutely essential for the virtual team to function given time
zone differences. Second, time zones and distance create delays
(real or perceived) in communication, decision making,
implementation and the creation of deliverables.
Thus, virtual team leaders face five unique questions requiring
How Do I Develop My Virtual Group Into a Team?
One of the main challenges in virtual team building is to provide
opportunities for members to get to know one another and build the
personal relationships that business relationships require. At the
beginning of each portion of the conference call meeting, you can
ask questions such as "Tell us about your proudest accomplishment,
in or out of work. Tell us about your real passions in life, what
really gets you excited. Tell us about a time someone promised
something and did not deliver. How did you feel? How did that
affect the team or project?"
How Do I Make Use of Technology?
Before the first project conference call, leaders can determine
each team member's knowledge of the available communication tools.
Does everyone know how to use Net Meeting? Shared workspaces? If
not, will you provide an orientation up front or just in time? Or,
is there an understanding that members will assume responsibility
for their own learning?
How Do I Deal With Time Differences and Distance?
Discuss sharing the pain. Vary the times so one person or group is
not always up late or early. And wrestle with your own work-life
balance. Ask yourself, "Do I really need to jump out of bed in the
middle of the night to check my email?" The remote nature of
virtual work requires self-discipline and strong time management
skills on the part of individual team members. Keep in mind that it
is important for the team leader to encourage the team to maintain
a balance between work and personal activities.
How Do I Handle Cultural Issues?
Accommodating cultural differences can be an issue in traditional
and virtual teams. However, the fact that members may work
remotely adds a new dimension to the process of understanding
different ways of working. Virtual team leaders can educate
themselves on the cultural norms of team members such as time
management, preferred work processes, and meeting expectations.
Colleagues can be very sensitive when it comes to their command of
English as their second language, as sensitive as an English
speaker who communicates in German as a second language. If there
is an communication gap, the listener can repeat back what they
understand to confirm or clarify. If pronunciation inhibits
understanding, the listener can ask the speaker to spell a word
they cannot understand.
How Do I Celebrate Team Success?
All leaders celebrate success, with a lunch, a small gift, or a
bonus and pay adjustments. Given the time and distance constraints,
mailing out gifts, readily available commercially on the Internet,
is one way to virtually celebrate success. Consider personally
signed snail mail letters noting individual accomplishments signed
by a senior leader. Or smaller regional or office lunches paid for
by the project or activity leadership. And why wait until the end
of the project? Recognize work along the way and celebrate the
completion of milestones.
With the help of technology, virtual work and virtual teams are no
different than traditional teams. They both require building
personal relationships, understanding cultural differences,
mastering new tools for personal learning, and the celebration of
success. And, finally, virtual work should drive us all to
reexamine our own work-life balance issues.