Recent times have seen the development of virtual teams across many organizations, owing to massive geographic expansion plans and clustering of specific competencies. During workshops conducted across the country, I have had the opportunity of observing team members of different organizations spread out across vast geographies. They did not possibly fit the bill of the conventional definition of a virtual team – the image coming to mind that of different clusters of individuals working across offshore/onshore locations in a software development firm. But organizations, with operations spread across a country like India with its cultural diversities are as much a virtual team as the former case. We got a first hand experience of this, when we were speaking to team members in one particular location, whose manager happened to belong to a state which was as different from the team’s as could be, right from the language spoken to understanding of their roles! Such scenarios are becoming exceedingly common, and it becomes important to examine some of the things we can do better while managing these “virtual” teams as well, separated by distance and culture. Below are some of my thoughts on the subject
1. Sharing a common vision –
Chances are that, people who are separated by geographical distances struggle to identify with the team they are part of. The camaraderie and culture that develops by working in the same location are difficult to replace in a virtual team, but it is important that the team leader/manager spends time to communicate the team goals and what the team stands for to each of the members working in different locations. Clear communication on how their roles are adding value to the overall team/organizational performance goes a long way in improving the team members’ confidence in the leader and taking pride in the work that they do.
2. Communicate regularly –
This does not mean the regular weekly “conference calls” for business updates, those should be treated as what they are, i.e. business updates, nothing more! Communicating regularly with your team members on non-business related matters will also help improve rapport with the team members significantly. One of the things, which I have heard people mention frequently about the issues of working in distant locations is a feeling of isolation (many times without a proper office setup, this can be a dampener for teams). The leader plays an important part in addressing this through regular communication. Technology has vastly improved in the aspect of internet conferencing and video, so these could be used as well to ensure as close to an experience to working in the same location as possible.
3. Providing the right tools –
Especially in India where connectivity to internet itself might be an issue in Tier 2 locations, it is important to ensure that the basic resources needed for working productively are provided – this could be proper connectivity, training, access to necessary information etc. depending on the job profile. Sadly, this is somehow given very little importance by a lot of organizations, leading to lower employee morale and frequent “crib sessions” on “What is wrong with the current system!” during team reviews. This also includes respect for cultural diversity across locations – for e.g.:- if an employee wants to take an off on a day when the entire state is closed for a particular function (while it might be a normal day at office at corporate HQ), the team leader needs to trust the team member on his/her judgment, rather than question the individual.
4. Be their voice in the organization –
Many times, the team members feel that their exceptional work efforts receive less recognition than the average ones delivered by others in a more “visible” region like the corporate HQ. The team leader needs to ensure that they receive due recognition for special efforts and be their voice within the company; I have personally seen this to be more effective than even monetary incentives on some occasions. These team members are also a great source of first hand market information, which includes competition activity, short term tactics etc. which are sometimes missed by leadership teams who design the overall plans for the organization’s growth.
5. Building trust –
I believe this to be the most important aspect of managing any team, but I have kept this point for last since trust is impossible to build without doing the basic 4 steps mentioned above. Yet, those are necessary but not sufficient steps for building trust. Team members develop trust in their leader first and post that in the organization that they are part of, which partially accounts for the saying “People quit their managers, not organizations!” I have personally found two things to be very helpful in building trust 1. Make promises that you are sure you can keep – Not doing that will break down your relationship with your team members even before it takes off! And this needs to be practiced for small and big things – whether it is an important customer meeting that you promise to attend or the role change that you have spoken to your team member about. 2. Respecting the individual – I have seen this being missed by very senior management personnel as well – even the guy who files in data daily for the team is an individual with his own set of strengths and weaknesses and needs to be treated with the respect that he/she deserves. Needless to add, this also involves never belittling anyone’s contribution within the team – ask yourself this question when in doubt –“Would your team deliver quality results in every aspect without the effort this person puts in?” – You will find the answer to be no in most cases.
Do share your thoughts as well on the subject.