Feature: Team Building and Virtual Teams – a Contradiction in Terms?

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Teleworking and the growth of global teams means that co-workers may not be in the same time zone let alone the same city, which has an obvious impact on building a sense of teamwork and trust. Peter Thomson, Director of Future Work Foundation at Henley Management College looks at how to build a successful team despite its disparate geography.

In our increasingly globalised culture, virtual teams are growing in number and importance. These teams can be vastly different: one virtual team may be a select group of individuals in a multinational company while another may consist of a large number of telesales workers, working from home. Either way, the question of team building is essential. How do you make sure that members of a virtual team do not feel isolated? And how do you ensure that the team members work together in the best way possible?

Henley Management College has been working with a number of companies on this issue, and has seen several different solutions, from which it has been able to come up with some general rules. But first, the solutions.

The AA
The AA presented the results of their experience in virtual working at a recent meeting of the Henley Future Work Forum. With 2000 call handling staff spread across four offices in the north of England dealing with 30 million calls a year, the AA had an enormous bill for office space, and a real motivation to find new ways of managing their staff.

A few years ago they set up a pilot project in Yorkshire that they would have a percentage of their staff working from home. The AA immediately knew that not just any staff could work remotely; the staff chosen for the pilot had to be self-motivated, disciplined and confident, they had to be proficient in the use of IT and, importantly, they had to be able to work with minimal supervision.

The next most important aspect in the mix was the team manager. The team manager had the role of ensuring that the teleworker was not isolated. Every day the manager had to make telephone contact with each member of the team, and face-to-face communications also had to be regular – every week the manager would visit each member of the team in person. This presented risks – the team manager would be on ‘foreign territory’ when he visited the teleworker at home, and it is always more difficult to maintain a professional relationship and avoid potentially awkward situations in such an environment. Also, there had to be a balance maintained between those who remained working from an office, and those who worked from home – neither team members should feel isolated.

The AA found that with the introduction of teleworking they had improved attendance and increased productivity. And by carefully choosing the right people to work from home, and by putting a careful system of management in place designed to combat both isolation of the home worker and the potential drop in motivation of the remaining office workers, they found the project to be a success. They are now considering teleworking options at all their sites.

BOC
A multinational, however, has a different set of issues when team building a virtual team. How do you engender trust and comradeship in a geographically dispersed and diverse team?

Jenny Goodbody, an MBA graduate of Henley Management College, works for BOC, the industrial gases group, as part of a team of six people spread across six continents. Once a week, they meet through a teleconference that requires her in New Jersey to be awake at 6.30am while her colleague in Sydney, Australia has to stay in work mode until 8.30pm. BOC has to strike the balance between having at least two members of the team regularly tired in group communications, or having fewer teleconferences but risking staff being left feeling isolated.

This is a typical example of the kind of problems faced by virtual teams. But Goodbody’s own experience, and that of her MBA which studied nine different virtual teams, suggests that the most important time for team building is in the initial stages of the group – specifically through a face-to-face meeting. ‘Those teams that got together once could kick off that trust-building much more quickly,’ she says, ‘With the ones that didn’t meet face-to-face, it was slower.’

Goodbody found that the first stage – the formation of the team – is the most important in creating a successful team. Good team leaders are essential to creating the sense of trust essential to a strong team. As she explained: "They can try and get people to share some level of social information, for example about their country or their family."

Tips to help build teams
Through working with these companies, John Gill and Professor David Birchall of Henley Management College have come up with a series of tips to help build the kind of trust necessary to a successful team.

* Keep the team as small as is practical, according to the task, and keep the membership as stable as possible.
* Develop a code of best practice in behaviour and communication from the start both in terms of the practicalities (eg all emails must be responded to in 24 hours) and in terms of creating a supportive environment (eg where verbalisation of optimism and excitement is encouraged).
* Set clear tasks and roles for all members of the virtual team and make sure they are all aware of each other’s roles.
* Communicate regularly and openly, although remember that too frequent or ill-focused communication is a burden and can suggest a lack of trust.
* Choose your communication methods appropriately according to both the preferences of the group and what the meeting requires.
* Try to retain a strong link with a parent organisation, as being attached to a wider community is important to some team members and the possibility of the next career move is important to others.
* Finally, manage the team on the basis of their results achieved, not the process by which the results are obtained.

So when it comes to virtual teams, 90% of team building is in the set up. Get that right, and you have a great team. Get it wrong, and it is difficult to claw back a successful outcome and happy staff.

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